Keeping Customers Online

Service And Support Remain Key To E-commerce Success

As vendors take their business to the Internet, they're either using the same customerservice practices that worked well in traditional retail spaces, but are insufficient fore-commerce, or they are neglecting to provide customer service at all. The bottom line:E-commerce vendors that don't have quality customer support services won't succeed.

The growing popularity of online shopping, combined with price wars among technologymanufacturers, has pushed traditional retailers to get online. However, unlike sellingproducts in retail stores or through catalogs, vendors face stiffer competition onlinebecause an unsatisfied customer can easily click to the competition's Web site and make apurchase.

Online vendors also face a new breed of consumers sold on the idea that the Internetwill improve their daily lives. This raises their expectations for high quality customersupport. "Customer service is the next major thrust over the Internet," saysSteve Robins, senior analyst for the Yankee Group's Internet Computing Strategies. Formany online hardware and software vendors, post-sale customer support is the missingcomponent needed to attract new customers and maintain customer loyalty.

Research firm Frost and Sullivan predicts that Web-enabled customer support will growby more than 110% by 2004. Recent International Data Corporation (IDC) research revealsthat online vendors that don't offer good customer support run the risk of losingcustomers to online competitors. The bottom line is e-commerce vendors that don't havequality customer support services won't succeed.

Online And Off The Hook

Of the online vendors that do provide customer support services, many offer support via800 telephone numbers posted on their Web site or printed on their packaging. Phone-basedservice has its place in the world of customer support, but is less effective andefficient for products sold online. Vendors selling their products over the Internetrequire services that meet their customers' demands for instantaneous customer support andtechnical resolution from their Web site.

For the average wired consumer, calling an 800-number with a question meansdisconnecting from their Internet service first. This not only frustrates customers, italso diminishes customer satisfaction and hurts the vendor's chance of building customerloyalty. Worst of all, up to 40% of customers put in this position end up not evencompleting the sale, choosing instead to find another vendor site that can answer theirquestion.

Offering a good deal on hardware or software is only the beginning of building acustomer relationship. It's critical for online vendors to implement a qualityInternet-based customer support solution because their customers expect immediate supportand technical help from their Web site. By effectively servicing customers after the sale­ when problems are most likely to arise ­ online vendors can more efficiently buildcustomer relationships and establish customer loyalty.

Instincts often drive people to do very rational things. For example, online shopperswho need help using a product naturally go back to the Web site where they bought itexpecting to find solutions to their problems. If they can't get technical assistance,customers become dissatisfied and disloyal to the vendor.

This means vendors need to incorporate Web-based customer support services into theironline sales channels and business processes to enable customers to quickly and easilyresolve their technical questions. Services such as self-help, for example, first enableusers to try to resolve their technical problem themselves then contact a support agentfor more complex issues.

Effective online support should include a combination of services such as:

Self-help: Enables customers to type key descriptive technical andsupport terms into a submission template at a vendor's Web site and tap into theprovider's knowledge base. This provides customers with fast, accurate and easy technicalresolution.

E-mail: Enables users to contact a support agent from the vendor's Website by inserting technical terms that best describe their problem into an onlinesubmission template. The provider's knowledge base uses auto-suggest functionality toanalyze incoming queries and associate them with likely resolutions to give respondingtechnicians a head start and ensure a speedy resolution.

Online chat: Enables users to participate in one-to-one or one-to-manychat sessions with support representatives via the Web. With access to a vast database ofresolutions, support agents can provide users with answers in seconds, while resolvingmultiple queries at the same time. This dramatically reduces resolution rates. With a chatclick-through, customers looking for instant support or service can get it.

All of these services help e-commerce vendors cut staffing and phone-based resolutioncosts, while maintaining customer loyalty in a retail space where competition is secondsaway. Unlike phone-based support, customers can resolve their own technical issues beforecontacting a support agent, eliminating the need to disconnect from the Web in search ofan answer.

In-House Or Out-House

Most online customer support options enable vendors to choose from several supportofferings or implement an entire suite of integrated services. However, before selectingwhich online support services to use, vendors must first decide whether to developcustomer support services in-house or outsource them.

In-house Web-based customer support can cost millions of dollars to build and maintainand can take as long as a year to get off the ground.

Vendors developing their own customer support programs must also consider criticalfactors such as:

  • Ensuring they have the latest technology to build query tracking, knowledge-capture and Web access support systems;
  • Hiring knowledgeable customer support agents;
  • Offering ongoing training and educational programs;
  • Creating value-added services to enhance customer satisfaction and increase their bottom line.

Customer support outsourcers, on the other hand, provide the same high-quality onlinecustomer care at a lower price and for far less effort than it takes to build and maintainan internal support program. Customer support outsourcers can handle systems maintenanceand upgrades, for example, including Web-specific applications and enterprise-wideknowledge bases. This eliminates the costs associated with allocating highly paidinformation technology staff to develop, operate and maintain multiple systems.

Customer support outsourcers can also offer vendors high-quality knowledge managementsystems. Because they support an array of products, and service millions of queries on avariety of topics, outsource providers have the knowledge, experience and equipment todevelop enterprise-wide knowledge bases and implement an effective knowledge managementprogram. Providers use knowledge management systems to transform the know-how of supportagents, customer and product information captured by powerful databases into highlyrefined data to help vendors better understand their customers and meet their individualneeds.

Outsourcing customer support also ensures that vendors always have highly skilledsupport staff -- a critical element of a successful customer support program. Typically,vendors are experienced at hiring high-tech sales and management personnel but know littleabout establishing an online customer support staff. Outsource providers that specializein providing high tech customer support understand how to hire support professionals withthe right technical skills. These providers also develop ongoing educational programs tomaintain highly skilled personnel and meet the needs of a changing market.

No matter which services a vendor decides to offer, each should be backed by anenterprise-wide knowledge base that captures critical customer and product information aswell as the knowledge that support agents gain from resolving millions of queries.

Online services that are fully integrated with a sophisticated knowledge managementsystem also enable users to first try and resolve their technical problems themselves,then contact a support technician through a Web submission template using e-mail or viatelephone. By providing high quality online support services, vendors can quickly, easilyand cost effectively meet the support demands of their customers to ensure customersatisfaction and loyalty without breaking the bank.

-- Carlton van Putten is vice president of marketing at StreamInternational, a customer support outsourcing firm.