Maximizing Online Customer Care With
BY MICHAEL PEARCE
No doubt about it: the Web provides an efficient and effective way to
market products and services to an affluent, educated, and growing
marketplace. This year, an estimated 46 million Americans will do at least
some of their shopping online.
In this new, wide open, rapidly-evolving world of e-commerce, your
long-term success depends on making long-term customers. One key to
developing the kind of loyalty that keeps buyers coming back is providing
superior customer care when they have a question or problem.
Traditionally, this kind of care has been provided through telephone call
centers. Today, you can use e-mail to offer a much higher level of
customer care -- at a much lower cost.
Why is customer care so important? Sure, an online customer will likely
be satisfied when the merchandise arrives on time and as promised. But a
satisfied customer is a long way from a loyal, repeat customer -- one who
will share his or her positive experiences with others. In an online
environment, the customer doesn't have an opportunity to truly know you or
form a strong opinion about you until he or she has a question. And it is
your answer that determines that opinion. Handled effectively, this is the
point where you can build loyalty that goes beyond
There are three attributes of a great answer: speed, accuracy, and
In theory, the fastest way to get an answer should be by telephone. Dial
the number. Ask the question. Get the answer. Reality isn't that clean.
Reality is busy signals, limited hours of service, time zone differences,
transfers to other departments, and endless minutes spent listening to On
Hold's Greatest Hits.
Recently, I went online to book an airline ticket. I chose a route
based on the flight schedule posted on the airline's Web site. But when I
tried to actually purchase the ticket, the site would not accept my
itinerary, even though it appeared OK on the schedule. When I called the
airline for help, a recording told me my estimated time on hold would be
eleven minutes. It was easier to click over to another airline.
This story illustrates the great paradox of telephone versus e-mail
customer care. While an e-mail response generally has a longer waiting period
between question and answer, it wastes far less of the customer's valuable
time, because the customer is able to put that time to use doing other
things. It's the difference between doing your wash at a Laundromat and
having your own washing machine at home. The actual process takes about
the same time both places. But at home you toss in the clothes, push the
buttons, and move on to other things. At the Laundromat, you sit. And
With e-mail customer care, the customer asks the question and gets on
with other business. They get your answer at their convenience. The total
time spent is much less than it would be making a phone call and waiting
The only thing worse than no answer is the wrong answer. If the goal of
customer care is to build customer trust and loyalty, it is imperative
that customers are provided not just with a quick answer, but with an
accurate answer. No answer leaves the customer where he started. The wrong
answer makes things worse.
Accuracy is perhaps the greatest strength of e-mail based customer
care. Here's why: The information comes from a database. Your customer
service agent doesn't have to know everything about every one of your
products or services. He or she doesn't have to rely on training or
memory, and never has to guess. The database information is consistently
accurate and complete, and can be instantly updated for access by all
agents. A written response also leaves less chance the customer will
misunderstand something, or miss a vital piece of information. And it
reduces repeat calls to get answers to the same question because the
customer is able to print or store the e-mail for future reference.
The agent is also better able to get help when they need it. Without the time pressure of a live
call, the agent has ample time to get help, or escalate special or
difficult queries to a higher response tier. This ability to structure
your escalation is transparent to the customer, who doesn't see the route
his e-mail took prior to receiving a response. He's not repeatedly put on
hold, told to call another number, or handed off to other departments or
anonymous voice mail.
E-mail allows companies to keep their more expert second tier help
in-house. The people who tackle the most difficult questions are kept
closest to the action, where they have the best and most current
information. And the triage provided by the first tier agents makes sure
that these more experienced (and more expensive) employees are kept focused on
the questions which truly need their expertise.
Speed and accuracy are the bare minimums to achieving customer care
satisfaction. But mere satisfaction isn't enough, not if you want to keep
that customer beyond your competitor's next sale. Customers sending questions to your care center
don't just want an answer -- they want a solution. And they want it with a human touch. That requires more than a good FAQ
list or correct cookie-cutter answers from the database. It requires
educated, motivated customer care agents who are able to discern what the
customer really needs, and provide an appropriate, personalized response.
Last month I went looking for a bicycle for a 6-year-old. I sent an
e-mail to a big toy retailer, asking about 20-inch children's bicycles for
less than fifty dollars. The next day I received a generic reply that
included a link to their catalog. It took me to a list of 20-inch bikes,
none of them under (or even close to) fifty bucks. That response was
totally inappropriate. A personalized answer would have told me the store
did not carry any bikes that met my criteria, and offered to show me those
closest to my price range. Or it would have pointed out bikes that were more expensive, but which
came with options I might otherwise have to purchase separately, such as
training wheels or a helmet.
Requests for price information often result in answers that are
correct, but not complete. Many companies respond with only the bare bones
price. A more appropriate answer would also include such things as a range
of prices for different models, and information about taxes and shipping
E-MAIL IS THE ANSWER
Because of its speed, accuracy, and personalization, e-mail can be the
perfect solution to maximizing customer care in an online world. In fact,
experts think it won't be long before e-mail is the primary customer care
delivery channel. Once they've tried e-mail, most people prefer it to
E-mail can also be used in conjunction with a telephone call center.
One of my employees recently called a big computer retailer with a problem
he was having with his new PC. The phone center operator immediately
recognized the problem. But instead of trying to walk the customer through
the solution over the phone, the agent simply asked for his e-mail address.
Within seconds, the customer had step-by-step written instructions on what
to do, and the operator was free to go on to the next call. My employee
now has documentation he can use if the problem crops up again -- without
making another technical support phone call. You could even take this one
step further with a greeting on your call center's lines offering
customers the option of e-mail help before they've talked to a live
What about cost? Operating a call center is expensive. An estimate by the Software
Support Professional Association puts the average call cost at $53.
Surprisingly, you can offer your customers the superior level of service
provided by e-mail customer care at a fraction of that -- about $3 per
inquiry. The reason? The same World Wide Web that gives you a global
customer base also provides access to a ready source of educated,
motivated, effective customer care agents. The Internet makes geography
irrelevant. Customer care centers can now be located anywhere a
supply of educated, English-speaking workers is available.
An international customer care partner can provide benefits beyond cost
savings, such as greater flexibility to handle seasonal demand fluctuations
and ultimate flexibility in how you want to structure your
customer care response. For example, your international partner could handle all of your
first tier requests. O, you could assign it to handle the overflow of peak
periods, or pick up your traffic during nights and weekends. During new
product launches you could send most of your traffic to the international
partner, while your most experienced inside staff handles the early
questions relating to the new product. The possibilities are endless.
The bottom line is that an international customer care partner allows
you to make the most effective and efficient use of your resources, while
providing the absolute highest level of human touch to
customers on your Web site. That translates to customers who come back
again and again, spending more and more as their loyalty and trust grow.
And at the end of the day, isn't that why you're in business?
Michael Pearce is VP Worldwide Sales, vCustomer
Corporation. vCustomer is a global services company with offices
located in the United States and India. The company is a provider
of customer care solutions, including e-mail response and live Web chat.