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February 1999


E-Mail: Crucial To The Customer Support Mix

BY GUNJAN SINHA, eGAIN COMMUNICATIONS

The Internet is everywhere. It is featured on the nightly news, Web sites are advertised in mainstream publications and now, nearly one-fourth of the nation's households are online.1 Every day, more people are shopping and communicating online. As a result, many customers are shifting their preferred method of communication from phone to e-mail. Call centers can reap great benefits if they are prepared to take advantage of this trend. There are four critical issues to consider in ensuring that call centers are prepared to take advantage of the benefits the Internet can offer to customer service:

  • The shift from phone to e-mail communication,
  • The benefits of e-mail/Web-based customer support,
  • The challenges facing call centers during this transition,
  • An effective way to proactively promote your Web/e-mail traffic.

Customers Love E-Mail
We know there is a communication trend toward using e-mail and away from using the phone, but how dramatic is this shift? A recent survey showed that one-third of those queried were more likely to use e-mail than place a local call.2 Forrester Research predicts that e-mail volume will increase six-fold to 12 million e-mail messages per month in 2001. Furthermore, industry studies predict exponential growth in online shopping, which will mean a spike in e-mail usage over the next few years. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Internet commerce will likely surpass $300 billion by 2002. As these figures suggest, businesses can expect online customer support to increase dramatically.

The forces behind this e-mail trend are simple. People find e-mail to be an effective way to communicate. Before the advent of e-mail for electronic commerce, people were using e-mail for personal conversations and group discussions. Now customers also use e-mail to communicate with vendors who are promoting electronic commerce.

The second factor is the proliferation of PCs. A computer that used to cost a few thousand dollars now costs a few hundred. This reduction in cost has enabled more people to own PCs and more schools and businesses to provide PCs. Each day, more people have access to computers.

As a final point, the explosion of the World Wide Web has driven more people to use e-mail. With the virtual collapse of physical and time barriers, the Web motivates people to communicate via e-mail and businesses to operate online like never before. All of these phenomenal forces will continue to fuel the e-mail trend.

Significant Savings For Call Centers
This trend means good news for call centers because supporting customers via e-mail is dramatically less expensive than phone support. Industry analyst firms and associations have attempted to quantify the savings:

E-mail Phone Source
$0.25 $5.01 GartnerGroup
pennies $5.00 Meta Group
$3.00 $53.00 Software Support Professional Association

The cost difference between e-mail and phone support is enormous. However, financial benefits vary depending on the complexity of customer inquiries. The simpler the questions, the more the answer can be automated by a smart e-mail response management system. GartnerGroup estimates that a company implementing an e-mail response management system can break even after six months, assuming they receive 50 plus e-mail messages per day. It is clear that migrating support from phone to e-mail will result in considerable savings.

Companies can also minimize support costs by encouraging customers to be self-reliant by giving them access to informational databases or "self-help." Customers looking for information about shipments and account status can easily find the information themselves by logging on to a company's Web site. By encouraging customers to use self-help, CSRs will have more time to focus on issues that require human interaction or focus on customers who prefer to talk or e-mail. As a result, call centers can support more customers per agent, increasing the productivity rate and preventing headcount increases. Self-help also offers customers more than one way to solve their problems, which increases their satisfaction (particularly if the phone lines are busy).

Besides phone, e-mail and self-help, call centers can offer alternative ways for customers to interact with agents. These secondary methods might not necessarily reduce costs, but can increase customer satisfaction. These methods will be used less frequently than phone, e-mail and self-help, but they are very helpful in certain situations. Call centers might consider offering interactive voice response (IVR), live chat and video streaming. IVR technology allows a customer to push a button on the screen and speak with an agent. Live chat is live e-mail communication. Video streaming is the ability to view a video clip on the Web. Again, the driver for these secondary communication techniques is customer satisfaction, not cost savings.

E-Mail Offers Benefits For Companies And Customers
Although cost savings is the primary reason for many businesses to support e-mail and self-help customer support, it is not the only reason. As an asynchronous method of communication, e-mail has many inherent advantages over synchronous communications (e.g., phone). These advantages include:

  • The writer can create a message at any time without bothering the receiver,
  • The writer can change and refine the message before it is sent,
  • A history of the conversation can be included with each exchange,
  • Many people can receive the same message simultaneously,
  • Documents can be inserted into a message,
  • The receiver can get information such as phone numbers without guessing,
  • The message can be forwarded exactly as it was written.

The advantages of e-mail may be summed up in one word: convenience. Once people use e-mail, they generally prefer it over other types of communication for conducting business. As more businesses operate online, call centers can expect customers to migrate toward using e-mail and away from using the telephone.

Moving Customer Support Toward E-Mail
For call centers to reap the benefits of this communication shift, companies need to address a few technological and organizational challenges. This includes asking questions such as:

  • Can the customer e-mail system easily integrate with existing call center systems and with other systems that hold customer data such as shipping, billing and registration? An e-mail response management system is only one component of the organization, so it must be blended with other systems to give agents a "360-degree" view of the customer. Ease of integration is critical and must be carefully considered. Generally, Web-based customer service solutions are much easier to integrate than client/server-based solutions. Consider a solution that is designed from the beginning to be an integration platform.
  • Can the solution quickly scale to accommodate exponential growth in customer inquiries? As stated earlier, analysts predict e-mail volume to increase six-fold by 2001. Look at the architecture of the solution to determine its scalability. Consider a solution that is enterprise-designed to manage large volumes of customer inquiries.
  • Can agents, managers and administrators access the system from anywhere at any time? Today, it is a necessity to allow employees the flexibility to work remotely. Remote access also allows outsourced agents to access the system from outside the company. A system that is difficult to access remotely will limit an organization's productivity level. Consider a solution with easy remote access, such as one that can be accessed via the Internet.

Besides technological issues, organizational issues must be addressed. The following points address the dual support of phone and e-mail and the required job skills.

  • How does an organization manage a call center that receives both e-mail and phone calls? This is a major concern for many organizations. Most companies have agents dedicated to either verbal or written response, but not both. One agent handles all verbal communications via phone and another agent handles e-mail responses. Support departments that have attempted to have an agent handle both verbal and written communication support have found it unsuccessful because each communication method requires different skills.
  • What skills are required to provide e-mail customer support? Agents who have been providing phone support need additional training in spelling, grammar and technology terminology to provide e-mail support. An e-mail response management system can substantially help agents reduce these errors by providing a knowledge base of canned answers. In addition, the system can automatically perform spell checks and provide a glossary of commonly used technology terms. Support center managers must ensure that agents are properly trained to provide e-mail support.

Promote Your Web/E-Mail Traffic
Since studies show that support centers stand to benefit from the shift from phone to Web-based communication, why not fuel this trend to further benefit? Below are five suggestions on how a company can intentionally accelerate the migration of customer support from phone to Web-based. These suggestions also help build a Web site that will attract customers and generate repeat business.

  1. Build your Web site "outside in": Focus on the needs of your target customers. Avoid the "inside out" trap of building Web sites merely to showcase your company. Offer Web services that are valuable to customers. For example, as a mortgage company, make sure your Web site provides loan origination services as opposed to glorifying your company and the management.
  2. Build "sticky" relationships: Provide compelling services that bring online customers back again and again. An example might be a simple mortgage calculator.
  3. Hold on to existing customers: Communicate regularly with customers to show you care and have their best interests in mind. A weekly e-mail mortgage newsletter is an example.
  4. Respond promptly to customers: Respond, track and manage all customer inquiries. A quick, accurate and personalized e-mail response will encourage your customer to continue to use e-mail instead of telephoning. A good example is to auto-acknowledge customer inquiry and then follow up with a thorough answer within 24 hours.
  5. Empower customers: Enable customers to communicate and draw other customers to your site. Viral marketing can be very powerful. Encourage customers to communicate their good experiences to other customers. Web services like free e-mail, home pages, online clubs and other community-drawing mechanisms really help existing customers generate more traffic.

Conclusion
Customers are shifting their preferred method of communication toward e-mail, and call centers can reap great benefits if they are prepared to take advantage of it. Every day, more people are shopping and communicating online. Some companies have tried to address this problem by using traditional e-mail packages such as Microsoft Outlook, but as the number of agents involved has grown, they are turning to full-function solutions. Companies that ignore this trend and fail to take Web-based customer support seriously will drive customers directly to competitors' Web sites.

1Giga Group Information Services
2Phone survey sponsored by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine

Gunjan Sinha is president and co-founder of eGain Communications, developer of online customer service solutions. Mr. Sinha also co-founded Parsec Technologies, the largest call center company in India, and WhoWhere? Inc., the 12th most visited site on the Internet.







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