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November 2000

Rich Tehrani


The Web Customer Service Grinch That Stole Christmas
Only 3.5 Percent Of All Sites Surveyed Have Acceptable E-Mail Service


The customer service Grinch may be an invention of my imagination, but there are more than a few elements of reality in the idea. Online shopping this holiday season is already showing the potential to seem more like a horror movie than a fairy tale. According to a comprehensive e-commerce study from C.E. Unterberg, Towbin, we are on the cusp of another holiday season of unacceptable e-sales and e-service experiences. Last year, some of the missteps of e-tailers could have been chalked up to inexperience and the fact that e-commerce was still a relatively new frontier. These problems included, but were not limited to, ignoring customer e-mail, missing shipping deadlines, having no visible returns policy and a host of other problems. There should be no more excuses this year.

What amazes me is what is at stake. There will be over 11 million households shopping online this year for the very first time. Added to the number of households that already shop online, this equates to over 28 million households in total. According to Forrester Research, these households will spend an estimated $657 billion dollars online this year. By 2004, the amount will increase to $6.8 trillion!

Perhaps the market is so large that many Web retailers believe they need not even try to implement good service on their Web sites. This is a grave mistake. Datamonitor estimates that $6.1 billion dollars in lost sales may be attributed to poor customer service on retail Web sites. In practical terms, the average retailer could have increased revenue by 35 percent had they provided better online customer service.

I suggest that anyone who is interested in learning more about this informative study acquire a copy to read in-depth. In the interest of space, I cannot explore the study results here as thoroughly as I would like (the editors are fond of their page real estate and I couldn't cajole them into additional pages this month!). I will, however, highlight some of the key points of the CEUT study:

  • Though 184 out of the 200 online retailers offered e-mail capabilities, only 20 offered text chat, two had voice over IP capabilities and two offered text chat and Web callback.
  • All of these "e-mail friendly" sites were sent a "generic" question.
  • The sites' e-mail response time ranged from one minute to more than five days, and 41 sites never responded at all!
  • The top 100 most popular sites actually had worse CRM performance than the other, less-well-known sites.
  • There has been a negligible difference in these CRM levels since last year's survey.
  • Only 7 out of 200 e-tailers responded in five minutes or less, a response time I would call an acceptable level of service.

Armed with this survey, I decided to solicit my own editors and other fellow TMC team members to help me come up with a list of the top 15 practices that are vital in providing a great e-commerce experience for your customers this holiday season:

1. Always provide a method of contacting customer service on your Web site, whether it is via e-mail, toll-free number, Web chat, Web callback or call-through -- and respond promptly.

2. Make sure you synchronize your offers (e.g., avoid having one price on a promotional flyer and a different one on your Web site) and avoid conflicting messages so that regardless of how your customer contacts you, he or she will get the same information.

3. Make customer information available across all forms of customer interaction media. The most obvious case being a phone call transferred from one department to another, but this also applies to dual-media inquiries. For example, if the customer sends an e-mail and then follows up with a phone call, the agent must have access to the customer's initial e-mail.

4. If you provide self-service, give users the option of contacting a live person (all self-service solutions, no matter how omnipotent, have flaws or blind spots.)

5. Try to be cheerful. It is the holiday season, and customers are as hard-pressed for time as you and your agents. Sometimes, a kind word is enough to close a sale.

6. Make sure your front- and back-end systems are well integrated. There's no point in taking orders if you can't process them.

7. Ensure your warehousing is in order and you can fill orders as promised. Some e-tailers' errors in this department last year prompted Federal Trade Commission investigations.

8. Have a simple returns policy in place and make sure this information is posted visibly on your site.

9. Monitor your contact center's staffing levels. Always have live help available to answer shopper's questions.

10. If you send an auto-response e-mail promising a more personalized response later, make sure you keep that promise.

11. Have state-of-the-art data security in place. Nothing would be worse than hearing on CNN about your customers' credit card numbers being stolen from your Web site.

12. Make sure to have measures in place to check for fraudulent credit card charges.

13. Show a table of shipping and handling charges BEFORE the billing info is entered onto an order screen. Most mail-order catalogs provide this information on their order forms. This should cut down on "abandoned" shopping carts.

14. Keep your shoppers' information confidential. Don't sell customer data to list makers who supply the spamming and cold call industries that are currently on the receiving end of bad press and consumer wrath.

15. Give your e-customers personalized service, but don't presume you know their preferences from just a few orders or visits. For example, if a customer makes a one-off purchase of a few children's books for a young niece or nephew, certain well-known Web retailers then flood that shopper with offers of more children's books or books about child care.

According to the study cited above, this holiday season will be another e-commerce disaster. With dotcom stock prices in the toilet, imagine how much less of an investment will be made into Web-based CRM this year than last. Many dotcom companies are scrambling for financing that just doesn't exist and will have to scrape by with the funding they were able to secure to date. Perhaps many e-tailers will finally wake up and start investing in the infrastructure needed to beef up their Web-based CRM. It seems that many sites will be forced to upgrade out of necessity; and perhaps this is why IDC estimates that sales of online customer interaction solutions will grow 116 percent annually, reaching $2 billion by 2004. This is a truly staggering growth rate.

Next month, this publication will relaunch as Customer Inter@ction Solutions and will continue to provide readers with the information they require to consistently maintain excellent CRM across all levels of customer interaction.

So, with a little luck, those of us who live and shop in the 21st century's virtual Whoville need never again experience the Web customer service Grinch stealing Christmas again.


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher

[ Return To The November 2000 Table Of Contents ]

Communications Solutions EXPO
The Show Designed For The Most Serious Attendees Who Want To Build A Superior E-Commerce/Customer Interaction Business

Communications Solutions EXPO is the event to attend if you are serious about implementing or integrating the products and services that can revolutionize the way your business interacts with your customers.

An expo can be so much more than just a venue that presents you with product options for your enterprise. When executed effectively, an expo can help guide you by answering the important questions you need to ask before implementing new strategies. TMC has gone the extra mile with this event, focusing on providing you with unique attractions found nowhere else. You'll find serious technology demonstration areas such as Communications ASP World, CRM World, Wireless World and The Internet Phone Center.

Beyond presenting you with objective demonstrations not found at other shows and a conference program designed by TMC Labs engineers and our esteemed editors, Communications Solutions EXPO offers the most varied exhibitors of any competing expo in the market. If you take the trouble to leave your office to attend an expo, you are entitled to see a wide variety of exhibitors who will enable you to effectively build your business.

I feel confident making such a claim because TMC is in the unique position of publishing four magazines in the communications space, including this one. Communications Solutions, INTERNET TELEPHONY and Communications ASP are sister publications that also cover the leading edge of communications technology. As a writer for each of these magazines, and one who is intimately involved in the editorial direction of each, I do my best to keep you abreast of all the latest communications technologies you need to be aware of, allowing you to focus on the more important issue of running your business.

Our print coverage of a variety of industries in the communications industry, something unique to TMC, has a carry-over effect in our expos, allowing us to draw in communications ASP exhibitors as well as those that produce IP telephony products and services. We are aware of the leading companies in every new market we serve and are able to handpick the types of exhibitors we bring to our events. There are simply no other shows that have the backing of this range of publications, which provides the TMC difference. We pride ourselves on ensuring that our expos cannot be duplicated, as we are consistently innovating to ensure our ultimate goal...your satisfaction.

This is especially important when you consider that IP telephony technology is allowing contact centers to reduce costs by linking distributed centers around the globe inexpensively over the Internet or Intranets. IP teleph-ony technology is also responsible for allowing interaction centers to grow through the use of remote agents located anywhere in the world. These technologies fuse voice and data networks, allowing the construction of distributed contact centers that are as flexible as you need them to be. The components to build exotic configurations are beyond the hocus-pocus stage...these are actual working technologies that are being deployed in interaction centers with increasing frequency as we all struggle to embrace new e-commerce opportunities while growing faster than the human resources available to us in our local areas.

Communications ASP technology provides the invaluable service of eliminating the need to manage hardware in your organization, allowing you to concentrate on your core competency. Imagine being able to have the latest customer contact technology and lease only the functions you require. This presents the ultimate "pay as you go" or "pay as you grow" formula.

Companies relying on communications ASPs to outsource their customer interaction solutions tell me they are very happy to now be less dependent on hard-to-find and expensive technical people and, as a bonus, the ASP houses all equipment and worries about redundancy and disaster recovery issues for them. Communications ASPs are the ultimate solution for those who would rather build their business than build a customer interaction "glass house" loaded with equipment that will quickly grow obsolete.

Why does TMC consistently feel the need to innovate and lead the market in helping you grow your business? Because it is in our blood...my blood. Nothing makes me happier than knowing I am an integral part of helping businesses, your business, provide the ultimate customer satisfaction in their contact center and on the Web. This is my passion, my religion and cause. I want to help make history!

If you have read the above column, you know that the future belongs to companies that provide great service. There is a tremendous opportunity available to us all!

Please re-read the above list of the top 15 things you must do to ensure a great e-commerce experience for your customers this holiday season. Many of these objectives are philosophical and others can be handled by judicious use of technology. The technology you need, whether product or service, will be on display at Communications Solutions EXPO. That is why over 13,000 colleagues attended last year's event and we expect an even greater showing this year. The exhibit hall is a big reason to attend a show and the conferences and networking opportunities will expand your horizons even further.

Regardless of your favorite method of improving your customer interactions, you will find the solutions you are looking for at Communications Solutions EXPO Fall 2000.

I suggest you take a look at the bustling exhibitor list, expected to be over 300 strong, located at www.csexpo.com and immediately sign up for exhibit hall attendance, for free, which will save you the $100 onsite registration fee. The show is located at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, and the date, December 5-7, is rapidly approaching. The exhibit hall connects to the Venetian, which is the official show hotel and, in my opinion, is the best hotel in the entire city.

I truly look forward to seeing you at Communications Solutions EXPO in Las Vegas. Let's help improve our customers' experiences, whether on the Web or in our interaction centers, and together we will make history!

[ Return To The November 2000 Table Of Contents ]

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