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October 1999

Online Customer Contact: How Much Is Enough?


E-commerce site planners once imagined that online shoppers would be able to help themselves, that sales and customer service calling centers would one day be eliminated and that e-retailers could simply sit back and watch the money roll in. But the sobering reality of e-commerce is that whether you are a Web-savvy "dot com" company or a brick-and-mortar store developing an e-commerce site, you can't skirt the very real need for direct contact with your online customers.

This was never more evident than during last year’s Christmas shopping season when the media reported one e-commerce horror story after another. The good news was that online shopping appeared to have finally hit the mainstream. The bad news was that online shoppers spent far less than projected because customer service at most sites was so deplorable. Since then, companies have been scrambling to optimize the online shopping experience and turn Web site visitors into loyal, paying customers.

Whether you are Web-enabling your call center or upgrading the company’s online customer service capabilities, your Web site will need to be equipped to handle the expected influx of requests for assistance. The first step in this task is predicting as closely as possible the level of customer contact your Web site will require. This, in turn, will help you select the most appropriate channel for meeting that requirement.

Getting Started
The objective of this article is to provide you with a methodology for approximating the number of Web site visitors likely to need individualized, personal service on a regular basis. The process starts with an evaluation of your Web site against seven key attributes that have a direct impact on the need for customer contact. They can be categorized into factors that increase the likelihood of contact and those that decrease it.

Factors That Increase Contact
Purchase price
. Typically, the higher the purchase price, the higher the increase in consumer risk, which translates into a higher number of contacts required per transaction. If a customer is buying a $30 book over the Internet, there’s a relative certainty of the outcome of the process. But for a $5,000 stereo system, the buyer may want to interact with a live sales rep in real-time in order to feel comfortable.

Complexity of the item or service. Complexity can often confuse prospective buyers and thus heighten the risk of making a bad decision. Ordering a video is a sure thing, but buying a state-of-the-art VCR will require information about performance characteristics that may not be available via a self-help mechanism.

Availability of contact information. If the first thing you see on a company’s Web site is “Click Here To Talk Live,” you are likely to click on it for even minor inquiries. As a rule, the more opportunities provided for contact, the greater the number of contacts.

Time sensitivity of the transaction. Many Internet transactions are made on the spur of the moment, as in the typical online trading environment. In making a time-sensitive financial transaction, for example, customers will use any direct means available to place the order while the security’s price and prospects are most favorable. Conversely, shoppers at an online bookstore may not feel the same sense of immediacy in making a decision and will thus require less live assistance.

Factors That Decrease Contact
Sophistication of the Web site
. A sophisticated Web site is easy for customers to navigate and use. Information is easily accessible, enabling shoppers to make decisions with little or no live support. Try to be as objective as possible when evaluating your site for ease-of-use.

Frequency of purchase. The more often a buyer visits a particular Web site, the less need the individual has for interaction with support staff. Although repeat customers may occasionally require live interaction, they are generally more self-sufficient.

Customer experience. Customers who are familiar with online shopping will require less support than the novice e-shopper. Also, customers who are familiar with the subject matter of a site, or the site itself, will require less direct customer service.

As an example, consider two financial services companies that allow people to trade options. The first allows all customers to trade options after making only two trades, while the second allows only customers with extensive trading histories to trade options. The experience level of the first company’s customers will, on average, be lower than that of the second company. Therefore, the first company should expect more customer contacts than the second.

In short, as the price, complexity, contact availability and time sensitivity increase, the number of customer contacts will increase. As the sophistication of the Web site, frequency of purchase and familiarity of the customer increase, the number of customer contacts will decrease.

Evaluating Your Web Site
In calculating the level of contact your Web site is likely to require, remember that this is a qualitative exercise based on experience in the field and does not represent “hard” numbers. Although your actual contact may vary slightly, this exercise will help you make an educated guess as to what you can expect.

Begin by assigning a rating of very low, low, medium, high or very high to each of the attributes discussed above. The total number of contacts per order will depend on the rating, and the relationship of each attribute — either positive or negative — with the total number of contacts per order. For the purposes of this exercise, we have assigned a number to each of the ratings so you can apply the numbers to your Web site attributes accordingly:

  • Very low = 0
  • Low = 1
  • Medium = 2
  • High = 3
  • Very high = 4.

Considering the nature of your business, the makeup of your customer base and the status of your Web site, take each of the attributes and assign a number to it. Keep in mind that the first four attributes —price, complexity, contact availability and time sensitivity — will increase contact (expressed with a plus sign) and the last three — frequency, Web site sophistication and customer experience — will decrease it (expressed with a minus sign). In both cases, the minimum impact will be expressed as “very low with the ultimate impact expressed as “very high.” Your task is to evaluate each attribute and rate it based on the impact you think it would have on your customers’ need for live contact. Use Worksheet A to keep track of your calculations.

Chart A provides examples of how the process would unfold for four different online companies: Online Bookseller, Online Brokerage, Online Insurance and Online Clothing Retailer. This analysis may help you determine your requirements based on similarities between your company and those listed in the chart.

Doing The Math
Once you have plotted Worksheet A with ratings of your Web site attributes, it is easy to calculate the number of contacts your company’s e-commerce site may require.

First, add the numbers in the column and write your answer in the Overall Score box. As with the figures in Chart A, these numbers can range from minus two to plus six or above. Use the formulas below to score your Web site’s “Expected experience” for customer contact:

  • -2, -1, 0 = one contact per three transactions
  • 1 or 2 = one contact per two transactions
  • 3 or 4 = one contact to one transaction
  • 5 or 6 = two or three contacts to one transaction
  • 6 or above = four or more contacts per one transaction.

As a practice exercise, let’s say you are implementing online customer contact for Online Brokerage Company (See Chart A). Following is an explanation of how each Web site attribute received its rating. The first four attributes are rated with a plus because they tend to increase the need for contact, while the last three are scored with a minus because they decrease the need.

Plus Traits

  • Price. The total value of an Online Brokerage transaction could be many thousands of dollars, so the price trait receives a very high (+4) rating because customers are likely to need a great deal of assurance in making decisions.
  • Complexity. Online Brokerage’s products are not extremely complex and many, but not all, customers will already know about a stock before they visit the site. In this case, complexity gets a medium (+2) rating because there are many intricacies involved in buying securities.
  • Contact availability. Assume for this example that Online Broker-age provides some, but not many, opportunities for a customer to directly contact a customer service agent online. In this case, the site gets a low (+1) rating for contact availability.
  • Time sensitivity. Online Broker-age’s customers are under pressure to buy and sell at the best price and at the most opportune moment, so the site gets a rating of very high (+4) for time sensitivity.Minus Traits
  • Frequency. Many of Online Brokerage’s customers may visit the site several times daily and require little or no contact when they do, so the frequency attribute for the site will be rated very high (-4).
  • Web site sophistication. The brokerage gets a high (-3) rating for Web site sophistication because it has invested heavily in making its facility easy-to-use and navigate, thus requiring less need for customer contact.
  • Customer experience. Most of Online Brokerage’s customers are experienced in online shopping in general and online trading in particular, so the site gets a very high (-4) rating for the customer experience attribute.

Online Brokerage rates an overall score of 0 (zero), meaning that it can expect one customer contact per three orders.

Making Your Own Projections
You now have a way to project the impact online customer service will have on your organization and can plan accordingly. While this is a subjective exercise, it will allow you to plan your Internet customer service operations more realistically. Understanding the impact your Web site could have on your customers’ shopping experience will enable you to anticipate their needs and prepare your call center and support organizations.

Kirk Hendrickson is a business practice director for FaceTime Communications, Inc. In this role, he works with companies to define and implement customer service programs to support their e-commerce efforts.

Chart A


Relationship with no. of contacts Online Bookseller Online Brokerage Online Insurance Online Clothing Retailer
Price + Upward Impact low 1 very high 4 high 3 medium 2
Complexity + Upward Impact low 1 medium 2 high 3 medium 2
Contact Availability +Upward Impact low 1 low 1 medium 2 high 3
Time Sensitivity + Upward Impact low 1 very high 4 medium 2 medium 2
Frequency - Downward Impact medium 2 very high 4 low 1 medium 2
Web Site sophistication - Downward Impact high 3 high 3 high 3 high 3
Customer experience - Downward Impact low -1 very high -4 low -1 low -1
Overall Score   -2 0 6 3
Expected experience   1 contact per 4 orders 1 contact per 3 orders 3 contacts per 1 order 1 contact per 1 order

Eight Secrets For Successful E-Service


The Web is an ideal medium for delivering customer service. It’s where people go to find answers fast. It provides the basic technology needed to help customers locate the particular piece of information they need. And it’s open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Unfortunately, most companies fail to effectively exploit the Web’s full potential as a customer service tool. Most fail because they never develop a practical process for capturing the information customers want and quickly getting it up onto their sites.

There is a cost for such failure. Companies that don’t develop effective e-service wind up spending far more on customer support than their competitors — as much as 20 times more per incident. Companies with poor e-service lose customers, since Web users get frustrated quickly and head elsewhere. Without a healthy e-service strategy, companies can find their call centers swamped when they introduce a new product or when their customers experience problems with an old one. E-service is also a proven means of boosting Web site traffic, which increases online branding and promotional opportunities and — for sites that run paid advertising — substantially boosts ad revenues.

Effective e-service, despite the perceived obstacles, is actually an easily achievable goal once the right principles, practices and tools have been identified. Numerous successful companies such as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Turner Broadcasting and Mindspring have demonstrated effective e-service strategies. It simply requires identifying and implementing the right principles, practices and tools.

Following are eight secrets for implementing a successful e-service strategy.

  1. Give customers what they want, when they want it.
    It's not enough to ascertain what types of information users are asking for. That information must also be provided quickly. The Web is an immediate medium. Delays in delivering customer-driven content can be deadly. An e-service solution must therefore capture customer requests and use that information to automatically enhance site content for future visitors.
  2. Make responsive content and response mechanisms easy to find and easy to use.
    It’s remarkable how many Web site designers allow customers to wind up in places where they can’t easily find a way to ask for more information or send an e-mail request. On many sites, the “Contact Us” button simply launches a pre-addressed e-mail screen — with no information about how soon they can expect a reply or where else to look for information. Many sites don't even provide a phone number if a customer really needs to talk to a human being right away. If customers cannot find the company’s phone number, what are the chances that they will be able to find an even more obscure piece of information? Hidden content is the same as no content at all. Of course, this is true of all types of content, but it's especially critical for response-related pages. So e-service must be easy for customers to use.
  3. Follow the “80/20” rule.
    While it’s great to make sure that Web site content is as comprehensive as possible, the fact remains that on average, 80 percent of all questions can be addressed with 20 percent of the answers. In other words, a relatively small amount of content can take care of a tremendous amount of business if it’s the right content. So companies that delay putting up sites because they’re trying to make sure they can anticipate every possible customer question online are making a mistake. It’s much smarter to get the most important information up first, and then add to it over time as dictated by customer needs.
  4. Get “pushy.”
    You don’t have to rely on customers coming to your site to get them the information they need. By offering a variety of e-mail notification options, you can turn a customer’s e-mail into an extension of your Web site. A good way to do this is to ask visitors if they would like to be notified if there is any change in a specified content area, such as a product catalog or a press release archive. Such notify-on-change “push” mechanisms allow you to leverage your Web site and build an ongoing electronic relationship with your customers.
  5. Respond fast.
    In a recent study, Jupiter Communi-cations, a computer industry research firm, noted that many companies make the mistake of being too slow in their response to online information requests. Once a customer or prospect has been disappointed by how slowly their question has been answered, they are unlikely to try again. They may even become disillusioned about the company as a whole. So, if you’re going to offer even a bare-bones e-mail contact mechanism, make sure it results in a fast reply — preferably as early as possible on the following working day, if not sooner.
  6. Make sure your Web site “listens.”
    Every successful salesperson knows the most important part of his or her job is listening — both for explicit and implicit messages. Web sites should do the same. Explicit messages are clear requests for specific information. Implicit messages are patterns of queries or usage that imply a lack of or a difficulty in finding some type of content. An effective Web presence requires mechanisms and practices that ensure an attentive ear to both types of online customer requirements.
  7. Track religiously.
    Because a large percentage of site visitors have the same narrow set of questions, it’s critically important to track requests for information as they come in. Consistent tracking of such requests allows those in charge of site content to determine where to direct their efforts — allowing for much more efficient use of human and infrastructure resources. Effective e-service applications perform this tracking automatically and dynamically rank information based on historical usefulness to customers.
  8. Automate, automate, automate.
    Many of the tasks required to create a truly responsive site — such as assimilating and analyzing user queries, developing appropriate content and posting it in a well-organized manner, handling ad hoc and “push” e-mail communications, etc. — can be extremely labor-intensive. As site traffic increases, these tasks can pile up. In fact, many sites are victims of their own success, as the volume of communications exceeds the resources dedicated to supporting that communication. So it’s critical to deploy effective automation tools that can scale to meet rising demands. Such tools significantly increase the return on staff and infrastructure resources invested in the Web. Good e-service applications automate site maintenance tasks and eliminate time-consuming knowledge collection and engineering functions — functions that, when neglected over time, result in out-of-date content and dissatisfied customers.

These simple principles can make the difference between online success and online failure. As so many companies have demonstrated in the past year, online customer service success not only has an impact on how a company is perceived by its customers, but also on how it is perceived by investors, partners and other key stakeholders.

Greg Gianforte is founder and president of Right Now Technologies and the developer of Right Now Web, an online customer service system. Right Now Technologies develops and markets solutions that enable Internet-connected organizations to automate customer service and technical support operations.

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