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E-Tail Customer Service: Finally Working?

By Lou Hirsh E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Sep 10, 2002 5:05 PM PT

E-tailers have come to the costly understanding that providing a general e-mail address on a Web site is no way to handle customer queries, especially when many of those queries are never answered.

E-Tail Customer Service: Finally Working?

In fact, countless online sales have been lost because a company did not respond in a timely manner to customer concerns that arose in the middle of the transaction process.

"If you've gone to all the trouble to bring people to the point where they want to buy something from you, why would you just let them slip away by treating them like that?" Gartner analyst Adam Sarner asked.

Still Too Slow

Sarner told the E-Commerce Times that companies are turning to high-tech e-mail management tools and shifting strategies in a bid to curb instances of neglect, though most businesses are still far too slow to answer e-mail -- if they respond at all. At many sites, Sarner said, response times of two days or more remain the norm.

According to Giga Information Group vice president Steve Telleen, retailers as a group are slightly better than other types of companies when it comes to turning around e-mail, though there is still ample room for improvement.

A recent Giga study of 50 companies, most of them involved in retail, found that while two hours was the most frequently seen response time to Web site e-mail sent in the second quarter of 2002, average response time was closer to 12 hours.

Telleen noted that staffing patterns often determine response times. For example, e-tailers often hire extra personnel to handle holiday sales in the fourth quarter, then retain those employees for much of the first quarter of the next calendar year to handle returns and exchanges.

Clothiers are Fastest

Generally, Telleen added, the businesses that are best at responding to e-mail -- such as Lands' End, Old Navy and Eddie Bauer -- have experience in catalog and clothing sales. "Lands' End, for example, has a policy of responding to e-mails in one hour or less," he said.

In addition, the most responsive e-tailers are making savvy use of a combination of technology and strategically placed personnel to answer customers' questions as soon as possible.

Giga research associate David Alger told the E-Commerce Times that e-mail management software allows many companies to turn around responses quickly, sometimes by scanning e-mail for keywords and responding via templates that convey answers to frequently asked questions. In cases in which no similar responses can be found, the system determines when to escalate the query to a human.

Specialized Responses

Telleen and Alger both said retailers would do well to emulate the strategies of National Semiconductor and Intel, which use automated e-mail programs to route queries to the appropriate engineers, and which provide fast, personalized responses, even on highly technical queries.

In the retail arena, the analysts said, this tactic is most effective when customer experiences are generally uniform, and less effective when customers have more specialized needs.

In addition to technology, some e-tailers are using common-sense strategies that may be as uncomplicated as devoting more personnel to answering e-mail.

Low-Tech Answers

Many companies also are looking beyond e-mail to make internal improvements and stem the tide of concerns about certain issues.

Gartner's Sarner noted that TiVo, for example, has a link on its site to a third-party forum where users of the personal video recorder can post gripes and compliments. He said that this method, also used by companies like Sony, allows users to offer comments freely in a community environment that is not manipulated by sellers.

Companies, in turn, can use feedback from such forums to make needed changes and head off problems that are generating e-mail volume. In so doing, Sarner said, businesses also can benefit from valuable feedback that otherwise would need to be obtained through costly market research.

Some e-tailers, such as Amazon, have even found ways to conduct useful customer surveys as part of the transaction process.

"Amazon has been good about asking the type of questions that could make the next purchase easier -- how was the service, what could have been done better, et cetera," Sarner said. "The good online retailers take the initiative to get the customer feedback at the point of sale, when the buyer is most ready to interact with the company."

Follow-Through Counts

Sarner added that Amazon also makes a habit of keeping consumers informed during all phases of the transaction process -- from credit card confirmation to tracking shipments -- so that customers know what to expect at different points without having to send e-mail queries.

Experts noted that many recently touted service technologies, such as chat and instant messaging, remain too expensive and cumbersome for most companies to deploy effectively on a mass scale. But other solutions to the non-responsive e-mail problem are decidedly non-technical and less expensive.

For example, according to Giga's Telleen many e-tailers achieve better results simply by splitting the customer contact address into several addresses based on the type of concern being raised. This helps route e-mail to the correct department and increases the chance that a knowledgeable person will see it and respond within a reasonable time frame.

Other companies use a Web form to let users spell out their concerns, though Telleen said that those who do so must provide customers with a way to e-mail themselves a copy of the query; otherwise, senders will have no permanent record of the correspondence.

However companies decide to respond, all the analysts agree that follow-through is key to ensuring that the customer returns to the Web site for future purchases.

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