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E-Sales E-Service Feature Article
October 2001

Plugging Into Success Through Online Customer Service


Don't be fooled by the recent wave of dot-com doom. The advantages and possibilities of e-business continue to attract companies to the Web in ever-increasing numbers. A 2001 poll by Forrester Research, Inc. showed that 59 percent of more than 700 senior business executives indicated they are maintaining or heightening their Internet efforts, despite the slowing economy. Learning from the bitter lessons learned by many of the pioneering Internet pure-plays, traditional brick-and-mortar firms are launching online initiatives as an additional touch point for customers and partners.

Early model Web commerce focused on customer self-education and self-service. Businesses went after the operating efficiencies afforded by the Web with gusto, dreaming of cost reduction and sales volume increases. Companies poured millions of dollars into Internet sales only to find that Web conversion rates generally hovered at less than three percent. The lesson learned? Forcing self-service can cost your business sales, especially when using the Web for marketing purposes only.

Successful Web marketers today know that personalized sales and service can make the difference between an Internet visitor and a real buying customer. The goal now is to find that optimal point that saves operating dollars without sacrificing new revenue opportunities. In their offline worlds, these companies have developed solid processes for greeting customers, educating and serving them and closing the sale. The challenge is to bridge the yawning gap between online marketing efforts and offline sales support.

Online Customer Service: Myriad Choices
Determining the right type and level of online customer service is a critical decision. Too much intervention destroys Web economy; too little lets valuable customers fall between the cracks. Three factors should drive a company's level of service:

  • Complexity of product buying process, 
  • Disparity of product sales channels, and 
  • Gross margins earned on products sold.

Let's take them one at a time.

It's a well-known fact -- no one buys a house online. Many people shop for new homes on the Web, gathering competitive information and creating a short list, but in the end it's the tried-and-true offline selling that closes the deal. The more complex the buying decision, the higher the need for in-depth sales and service support.

There are complicated products that require buyer/seller interaction to help the buyer make an informed purchasing decision. An example of this would be technology items or electronics. There are also complex buying situations in which several decision makers are involved in purchasing a product or service. Both of these scenarios require more customer intervention and service to consummate the sale.

The disparity of the product sales channel also drives the need for a greater investment in online customer care. Web sites that merely list toll-free numbers for sales personnel or offer maps to brick-and-mortar locations are slow to deliver sales leads to the appropriate personnel, often resulting in customers turning to the competition for answers to their questions.

Large organizations that have franchisees around the country, or even around the globe, are a perfect example. These organizations must distribute online prospect leads to the right location based on geography as well as other factors. Often, these franchise organizations count on online prospects to locate the franchisee in their area themselves or call the toll-free number and endure any number of IVR choices until they reach their desired destination. While this achieves the customer contact goal, it serves as a disconnect from marketing. All of the marketing data about a particular prospect that must be included in the sales interview are lost and must be repeated. This means duplicate work for the company, a poor experience for the customer and a lack of valuable feedback to marketing.

Sales margins play an important role in online customer support decision making as well. Obviously, it is not possible to offer intense sales support on sales of low-margin items. Fortunately, items with small margins are typically simpler items that lend themselves to the self-service sales approach. On the other hand, broad margins easily fund sales support efforts.

The tough business decision is determining levels of sales and customer support for products with margins somewhere in the middle. Lower margins can't fund the resources to staff a full-time sales and service staff, yet support is often required to successfully close the sale. With the evolution of technology, however, often the cost of the final step in transforming an online sales lead into a buying customer is incrementally very small compared to the investment that has been made to attract the lead.

Selecting The Right Technology
Online sellers grapple with choosing from a seemingly endless array of online technology tools that have emerged to give sales support and service to online visitors. From text chat to call buttons, voice over IP (VoIP) to toll-free numbers, each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses for companies and their customers.

One popular choice is text chat. Customers open a dialog box and type their conversation with a sales representative who is often conducting several "conversations" at once. The interface is immediate, but awkward. The clues contained in the human voice are lost and most customers are not going to type as complete a conversation as they would speak. Additionally, the effectiveness of this method requires a staff ready and waiting at computers to field requests. These factors suggest that this technology is best suited for centralized selling and simple sales situations in which customers have only one or two quick questions.

Further along the technology curve are voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) solutions. This method is essentially a phone call carried out over the Internet. Again, immediate contact occurs, but the quality of the connection may be poor -- there can be echoes, voices can be muffled and the conversation can stutter along as some voice packets are dropped. Realistically, this technology is not ready for mass use. While VoIP can be used for large call centers calling out to traditional telephones, it will be a while before the majority of calls are VoIP.

Today, perhaps the most effective way of connecting online sales leads with offline sales and service revolves around a tried-and-true technology -- the telephone. With just a call button, Web site visitors who need sales assistance click on an icon. They are asked for their name and phone number, and a phone call is connected between the customer and the company.

Beyond basic Web interaction applications is a new breed of service that enhances and enriches the process. Advanced call buttons give online companies the ability to interact one-to-one with their online customers as well as manage and track that process. Every call request from a prospect is logged and reported to the client, whether or not an actual call was connected.

The mobility of advanced call buttons is powerful for many small companies and independent sales reps. They can't afford a staff to wait and field sales requests, and they certainly can't afford to stay in the office and sit by their phone or computer. With this tool, customer phone calls can be connected to their mobile phones. Even when they're in the field, they can talk with sales prospects who appreciate the immediate service.

So, if the telephone is so great, why not just list a toll-free phone number for prospects to call? That's an option, but consider all that's lost. First, the prospect may never decide to call. When a call does come in, you have no idea if it was motivated by a Web site visit, an e-mail or some other offer. If no one at the company can take the call, you have no record of who was calling or why he or she called. Additionally, your company may not have the ability to efficiently try to reach the appropriate sales personnel at multiple numbers. With enhanced call buttons, you know what calls are being generated by your marketing efforts, even which Web pages and offers are the most productive. All call requests are logged and reported for easy follow-up at your convenience.

Automating The Sales Process
Business' practice of sales process engineering has been growing right along with the CRM industry. This makes sense when you consider that most sales process engineering is performed to determine which tasks in marketing, sales and service should be automated. Even though the focus appears to be on automating processes, the real goal of sales process engineering is to improve the efficiencies of a business' front-office processes.

One of the key questions sales process engineers face is, "How can I improve the efficiency of acquiring a new customer?" Opportunities become apparent when one studies the steps that comprise a company's sales processes. Although these vary from company to company, one of the most common ways to achieve greater efficiency is to move sub-processes forward in the overall marketing and sales processes.

An example of this in the retail sector is the advent of the online shopping cart. Under the old process, customers would "dog-ear" catalog pages and refer back to them while completing a purchase with the company's telesales representative. Online shopping moved this process forward. Today, customers tag all relevant purchasing information and hold that information in the online shopping cart for later checkout. Certainly Web-based tools have enabled retail to gain new efficiencies, but the question remains: how do you move up the selling process for a complex product that still requires human interaction to close the deal?

Web interaction applications are leading the charge in enabling online communications. Today, these applications are designed for communications with online shoppers via text chat or instant messaging (IM). But advanced Web interaction applications like call buttons are software-based switches, capable of routing communications based on complex business rules.

In marketing and sales, these business rules take into account information tracked and gathered about the prospect or customer. This information includes his or her company size, product needs, physical location and time and day contact is initiated. Without smart Web interaction applications, Web sites and e-mail newsletters are disjointed from the marketing and sales processes.

Likewise, the data collected in marketing systems are lost when the customer calls into the business via a toll-free number. Unsupported customer contact systems also force the customer to work harder to gain the information required. Much as the toll-free number was a competitive sales advantage 30 years ago, the call button soft switch is an advantage today.

Activating The Web Interaction Application
Call button Web interaction applications move the customer contact step forward in the overall sales and marketing process, ensuring that prospects are engaged while their interest is piqued and before they can contact the competition. With the click of a Web icon, prospects are immediately connected with the right sales or service personnel.

One example of the value to be found with a Web callback button would be a franchise operation selling advertising and signage to businesses and consumers from hundreds of locations nationwide. Before the company adopted call buttons, visitors to the Web site had to find their local franchise, jot down the phone number and make the call. Sometimes, multiple locations would come up in a given area, and customers had to decide which was the best to call. This company also had no way of knowing how much or which traffic to stores was being driven from the Web site.

Since activating a call button Web interaction application solution, the company is able to route the caller immediately to the appropriate store location based on rules developed by the company itself. Callers can now click on a Web site icon and enter their name and callback number. The application connects the call to the appropriate store and alerts store sales personnel that a prospective customer is on the phone. This immediate alert allows the company to have a conversation with the prospective customer at the point of that customer's highest interest.

With the announcement that plays at the beginning of the call button store notification, store personnel know when a call has come from the Web site. Store personnel also know which pages the customer has visited and from which page the call action was requested. Full reporting at a corporate level reflects how much traffic is being driven from the site and which pages of the Web site generate the most calls.

For this company, the Web interaction application can help them meet their sales and marketing goals. It might not even need to have a call center. Rather, the company might prefer to drive calls directly to the franchises and track the volume and responsiveness of calls to those franchises. Enhanced call button's advanced routing feature can help answer this challenge.

Michael Markette is president and CEO of Callbutton, LLC.

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