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Who's Minding the Online Shop?
New technologies have been developed to enable real interactivity between e-commerce sites and their customers.
Posted Apr 17, 2000
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Picture this: on the opening day of your new multi-million dollar retail store, you unlock the doors and order the entire staff to leave. You say, "Let's just peer in through the windows and see what happens. Don't worry, shoppers don't really need to talk to anybody. They can help themselves, right?

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? However, many retailers take this approach when establishing online storefronts. While customer service is increasingly recognized as a critical success factor for the digital business, few online retailers deliver. Companies spend millions of dollars on advertising and marketing campaigns to build and drive qualified site traffic, but many of them still fail in the home stretch at the point of the customer's critical decision--to buy or not to buy? While self-service is an important element of the Internet's value, it is not enough. All those clicks and page views mean that there's a lot of traffic at the store. Potential customers are browsing the shelves and might be one quick answer away from buying products or services. But is someone minding the store?

While the recent holiday season marked an important watershed for online shoppers and retailers alike, many businesses found they were unable to meet customer needs. The world woke up to the realization that e-commerce is here to stay, and in order to survive, companies recognized they had to take a new approach.

In 1998, online sales topped $9 billion. Industry experts expect explosive growth this year and predictions for the year 2003 start in the $3 trillion range. However, the standard for the Internet has changed. Competition on the Internet has intensified, and digital businesses can no longer afford to ignore delivery of customer service or sales support in the online environment.

Why provide service online?

Fundamentally, consumers' expectations have changed. The e-commerce revolution was built on ubiquitous access to information and the convenience and ability to buy goods from the comfort of our homes or offices.

Consumers' biggest complaints about online shopping are the inability to find information and the lack of customer service. If sites don't offer sufficient information at the point of purchase, they are unable to convert enough visitors to buyers. Statistics show that, on average, this conversion ratio is just two percent. With some effort, that figure could increase--Forrester Research found that 63 percent of Web-site visitors would make an online purchase if they had more information.

The complexity of Internet shopping has heightened the need to deliver superior service. Competition has intensified, brand loyalty is nonexistent and e-retailers must embrace proactive management of the customer relationship.

Several recent studies identify the symptoms of poor online customer service:

*A frequently quoted Forrester Research report reveals that almost two-thirds of all Internet shopping carts are abandoned before the transaction is complete.

*In December of 1998, a Jupiter Communications' study showed that more than 42 percent of "highly rated" Web sites took longer than five days to respond to inbound e-mail inquiries, never replied or did not bother to list e-mail contact information.

*A month following the Jupiter study, California-based Brightware, a provider of e-mail processing applications, conducted an e-mail response survey of the Fortune 100 companies. While a few companies responded within hours, most results were far worse. It was impossible to submit an e-mail to 36 percent of the companies, and 10 percent did not respond to the e-mail within one month.

Fortunately, a number of technologies have been developed to enable real interactivity between e-commerce sites and their customers. Not only do they provide a tool for communication, but they also provide valuable information about online consumers. Some of these tools are listed below and should be given careful consideration when developing an online sales and marketing program.

Turning Internet Chats Into Big Business

Commonly known as chat , instant messaging allows an online visitor to click a button and proactively request customer assistance. This allows a customer service representative (CSR) to answer key questions in real time via private, instant text messaging.

Once engaged with a consumer, the CSR is armed with multiple tools to deliver an efficient high-tech interaction. For example, a CSR can actually provide prescripted answers to the most commonly asked questions, deliver URLs, navigate collaboratively and work in real time with visitors to complete online forms.

Another application of this service allows the online CSR to initiate an interaction. Imagine selling camera equipment over the Web. Suppose you could "greet" all those consumers who browse the high-end aisle: "Hi, welcome to Cameras 'R' Us. My name is John, and I'm here live to help you if you have any questions." This is analogous to the way a sales associate might welcome a customer walking into a physical retail store at the local mall, making the customer feel at ease and providing an opportunity to ask questions before completing a sale. This technology could be set to initiate contact after a pre-determined dollar value was reached in an online shopping cart, thus limiting the number of canceled transactions.

E-mail is also a fundamental tool for customer service. While e-mail isn't necessarily conducive to instant response, many companies have failed miserably with even the most basic implementations.

New systems allow robust management of high volumes of e-mail. The technology enables everything from an automated acknowledgment of inbound e-mails to automatic replies generated by keyword searches and a link to a knowledge base of responses. The software also allows for advanced routing and queuing of e-mails, an essential capability in high-volume situations.

Back to the Basics--With a Twist 

Voice communication is still the simplest form of interaction, but the Internet has tweaked the application. Companies can now allow their site visitors to place a Web call into a customer service center using VoIP (voice-over IP telephony). While the installed base of users is still small, this technology is becoming more widely accepted. Its major advantages include its low cost compared to a traditional telephone call, as well as the ability to conduct a data and voice call over the same phone line.

Web callback is another viable option to encourage communication with visitors. With the click of an icon, the consumer is prompted for a name and telephone number. Within seconds, the phone rings as the system automatically connects a CSR with the consumer over a standard telephone line. This application works best when two phone lines are available but also allows the CSR to talk a visitor through a site.

While the benefits of increasing total transactions, average value of transactions, and consumer confidence are obvious, there is an added hidden advantage for businesses. The live monitoring and the detailed records of these transactions provide valuable information that help companies improve and build their online businesses.

Successful Implementation

The solutions for any one of the above applications can range from $2,000 to more than $400,000. Therefore, it is essential that each application's features and benefits are carefully evaluated. Outsourcing these services to a qualified firm is also an option and may be a low-risk solution while these technologies continue to evolve and consumer expectations shift. Outsourcers can provide the experience necessary to handle customer interactions, leaving the company to focus on internal core processes.

In implementing a customer service solution, much more is gained than increased sales, customer retention and brand loyalty. There's gold in them hills. Today, many sites measure success and profile visitors based on clicks, visits, transactions and dollars spent. Now, companies are starting to mine the qualitative data that is created when interactions take place.

Think back to the Cameras 'R' Us scenario: You're shopping online for a new camera. After browsing the site, you find what you need and click the button for the checkout line. However, you've got one last question about the camera lens' warranty.

In the past, you had to dump your shopping cart, log off the Internet and attempt to reach someone via an 800 telephone number (and hope the line is staffed at 1:30 in the morning). If your question is answered, you might (or might not) log back on, spend another 15 minutes selecting your items and again proceed to the checkout screen. With today's technology, a click of a button can connect you to a live customer service representative without requiring you to log off the system. That last-minute question is answered instantly, and you're able to complete the transaction. You're happy, the retailer is happy and you'll probably come back when it's time to buy Uncle John that video camera.


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