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September 1999

Marc.GIF (9866 bytes) When It Comes To Web- Based Customer Service,
A Number Is Worth A Thousand Pictures


With the continuing explosion of the Web and the irrepressible growth of e-commerce, traditional "brick and mortar" companies are being challenged by a multitude of new, online companies that early on realized the business-transforming power of the Internet. Late to the game, but by no means shut out, many "B&Ms” are making a mad dash to establish a Web-based presence and play catch-up in the new economy.

According to IDC, e-commerce will grow from $50 billion in 1998 to $1.3 trillion in 2003. IDC also forecasts the number of Web buyers to grow from 31 million in 1998 to 183 million in 2003. IntelliQuest Information Group conducted a study and discovered that three to five times more people intend to shop or buy in the next 12 months than are currently doing so. For call centers, this means that customer interactions that were previously all phone-based are quickly becoming Internet-based. Giga Information Group thinks that by next year, 40 percent of all call center traffic will be initiated by means other than the phone, such as e-mail, voice over IP, text chat and Web collaboration. GartnerGroup’s forecast is a little more conservative, at 25 percent.

In the early days of the e-commerce revolution, a pioneering online shopper was generally more forgiving of minimal or nonexistent customer service. Today, however, Web-based storefronts no longer have that advantage — online shoppers now demand the same levels of service and responsiveness they are accustomed to receiving over the phone. As online stores start to spend millions of dollars in portal deals, sponsorships and banner ads, the onus is on them not to lose that incredibly valuable 1 percent of surfers who “click through” an ad to less-than-ideal customer service.

This lack of attention to the new reality of online customer service permeates the entire e-commerce landscape. Take a gander at some of the following examples:

  • A 1998 survey by Jupiter Communica-tions of 125 major Web sites found that 42 percent of the sites either never responded to customer inquiries, took more than five days to reply or did not offer e-mail responses to reported problems.
  • A survey by ComputerWorld showed that 39 percent of companies did not respond within 24 hours and 13 percent never responded.
  • A questionnaire sent out by The Industry Standard revealed that of the top ten e-commerce sites, five took more than eight hours to respond and only two responded in less than one hour.

Thankfully, there is a growing number of new companies bent on offering new software-based solutions to call centers willing and ready to embrace the new realities of doing business online. Companies such as Acuity, Brightware, Inc., CosmoCom, Mustang Software and PakNetX Corporation are stepping up to the plate with a new generation of Web-based customer interaction solutions that allow call centers to better handle and serve their customers online.

The solutions fall into four categories: self-service solutions, e-mail management, real-time interaction and integrated solutions. Self-service-oriented products center around providing a knowledge database and FAQ postings on Web sites that allow surfers to search for answers to questions and problems. When a FAQ isn’t enough, e-mail management products allow customers to send e-mail messages that are either answered automatically or routed to a call center agent for a personalized response. Real-time interaction-based solutions span the spectrum of Web callback buttons, text-chat, whiteboarding and VoIP applications. Integrated solutions employ the above solutions simultaneously.

According to FAC/Equities, the advantages of such customer interaction solutions include:

  • Increasing the closure rate of Web transactions, resulting in higher revenues,
  • Raising customer satisfaction levels and broadening customer relationships,
  • Providing cross-selling and up-selling opportunities,
  • Taking advantage of impulsive buying, and
  • Personalizing the e-commerce experience.

The author can be contacted at mrobins@tmcnet.com.

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