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Maximizing Online Customer Care With E-mail


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 mere satisfaction.

There are three attributes of a great answer: speed, accuracy, and personalization.

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 wait.

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 on hold.

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 charges.

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 phone calls.

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 operator.

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.

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