Sorry, Wrong Number

E-merchants hoping to use CRM technologies to improve that vitally important customer touch point, the contact center, beware: In their current state, many contact center functions may serve only to drive online customers away. And who among us cannot sympathize with these disgruntled customers.

You want to make an online purchase but you have a few quick questions about the product you've just loaded into your shopping cart. You click on the prominently displayed "Sales Help" button, but all you find is text. That's right. Text in the form of endless FAQs, dense product descriptions and invitations to e-mail your questions directly to the company, which will provide answers "within 48 hours." More often than not, there's not a phone number to be found and even if there is and you call it, you wait on hold until dusk.

The theory driving this maddening text-based approach to customer service--and for that matter, all aspects of CRM--is that self-help makes customers happy and saves e-merchants the cost and hassle of hiring support staff. The reality is that when customers have questions, all they want is quick answers delivered clearly and concisely by a human voice. Anything short of that means abandoned shopping carts and lost sales.

Such is the dilemma facing all e-merchants. The goal of CRM is not just improved customer relationships; it is also the automation of business processes and the consequent reduction in staff and in overhead. Many e-merchants short-sightedly cling to the ideal of an automated contact center that requires no staff. Meanwhile, their customers abandon them in droves.

The contact industry struggles with this dilemma as well. At the recent Key3Media Support Services Conference in Orlando, Fla., industry experts discussed the shortcomings of text-based contact solutions as vendors of every size and description hawked these very solutions on the exhibit floor. So how can e-merchants develop viable relationships with customers without utilizing customer service reps? Simply put, they can't. To date, the most effective means of delivering superior customer service online is through a mix of staffing and automation.

In e-business, live response is everything. Customers already suspicious of doing business with a computer screen demand nothing less than the personalized touch of another human being. Slowly but surely, the CRM industry is recognizing this fact and new technologies reflect that awareness. Live e-mail response is fast becoming the standard for online support, particularly for companies, such as computer manufacturers, that feature highly specialized products sold through online configuration.

Call center solutions that interface with CRM marketing tools offer another opportunity for fast, highly personalized service. Finally, the exciting voice-over-IP technology lets online customer speak through their computers to service reps. Perhaps in the future customers will feel comfortable enough with e-commerce to embrace text-based service solutions. But until then, don't kid yourself. Even with its associated costs, live response is the only online service option that delivers success.

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