Customer Service Meets the Web

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - For business-to-business and business-to-consumer Web sites, online customers are becoming not only more plentiful, but also more demanding. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity. With the competition only a click away, the pressure is on every e-business to distinguish itself with better customer service. You can't take days to respond to e-mail inquiries and expect customers to keep coming back. At the same time, the Internet can help companies reduce service and support costs, because it provides ways to help customers help themselves and enables customer service representatives to serve more customers in less time than they ever could over the phone.

How so? For e-businesses aiming to improve service and cut costs, gains can be made by taking advantage of Internet technologies -- using threaded discussions to provide customer support online and providing online chat capability for those times when immediate, personalized service is necessary. For closing extra big sales or serving extra special customers, you could even implement co-browsing or voice communications capabilities. But for any large-scale e-commerce site, the cornerstone of online customer service will be an e-mail management system.

As business moves to the Web, customers expect e-mail messages to be taken as seriously as phone calls, and an e-mail management system can help ensure that incoming messages don't fall through the cracks. By combining e-mail management with more personalized forms of customer service, you can keep customers happy before, during, and after the sale, and nurture relationships that pave the way to repeat sales in the future. Here's a look at the options.

Keep up with e-mail

E-mail management systems such as Mustang Message Center from Mustang.com, Talisma Enterprise from Talisma, eGain Mail from eGain Communications Corp., and Kana Response from Kana Communications can help enterprises manage the flood of e-mail pouring in from Web forms and e-mail aliases (sales@company.com, info@company.com, support@company.com, etc.) on the company Web site. Starting at about $10,000 per server, these solutions apply rules to the billing inquiries, sales orders, shipment tracking, and other requests you receive via e-mail in order to generate automatic responses or prioritize them and route them to the appropriate service representatives. (For vendor contact information, please see the online version of this article at www.infoworld.com/printlinks.)By sending brochures, price sheets, and other canned documents automatically in response to straightforward requests, e-mail management systems relieve the load on service representatives. They also ensure that special customers or critical issues get special attention and that all messages receive a timely response. Messages that require human attention are typically assigned case numbers, pooled according to priority, and tracked to prevent issues from being ignored or delayed.

For handling messages manually, e-mail management systems allow customer service representatives to quickly and easily cobble together responses from a variety of sources: a customer database that includes the history of e-mail exchanges with each customer; a knowledge base of support documents and canned responses; and any number of enterprise resources. Most of these solutions ship with tools that allow you to integrate them with traditional CRM (customer relationship management) systems, ERP (enterprise resource and planning) systems, call centers, and other back-end data sources.

Serve them on the Web

Even if you have an e-mail management system that can handle thousands of messages a day, you want to do what you can to reduce the flow. By posting answers to FAQs and providing the information and resources customers need to make purchasing decisions on your Web site, you smooth the way to purchases and allow customer service representatives to focus on more important matters.

Posting online documentation and answers to FAQs takes little effort and provides great benefits, but of course it doesn't cover all the bases. In many cases, and particularly in the area of post-sales support, the answers to customers' queries require some level of interactivity. The easiest way to provide a basic level of interactivity on your Web site is via message threading. There are various products that you can use to do this, such as BuzzCompany.com's BuzzPower, O'Reilly Software's WebBoard, KOZ.com's ichat Message Board, Infopop's Ultimate Bulletin Board, or Web Crossing's Web Crossing, and implementing them is relatively inexpensive. In addition to the software, which costs from hundreds of dollars to about $1,800 per server, you'll need to pay for a dedicated server, Web graphics and layout, and some custom programming to tailor it to your company's needs. Your company's human customer support involvement is minimal, although this depends on whether or not you want to moderate the various discussions for derogatory comments or profanity.

The second way to provide a personal touch is by hosting a Java-based chat room. Some products that can be used to offer this feature include Volano's VolanoChat, KOZ.com's ichat Rooms, and Microsoft Chat, which run $495 or more per server. However, chat services require more development resources than discussion threading, and an individual within your company's customer support group would have to monitor the chat room and be able to provide the necessary technical support that a customer might need. Because staffing someone 24 hours, seven days a week isn't necessarily feasible, the ability to easily start and stop access to the chat room is needed.

One for all, and all for one

A number of vendors integrate Web collaboration and other capabilities with their e-mail management systems, allowing chat sessions with customers to be recorded in their profiles along with e-mail exchanges. For example, the e-mail management solutions from Delano Technology, eGain Communications, Kana Communications, and Talisma are at the heart of these companies' full-scale suites of Internet-based CRM applications that include chat, co-browsing, and even voice via the Internet. You can integrate these services one by one by purchasing separate modules, and you can provide them selectively -- on a per customer, per transaction, or per service-level basis -- so as not to overburden service representatives.

Finally, many of these Internet-based CRM solutions, including those from eGain, Kana, and Talisma, are available as hosted services, so you can deploy them without investing in infrastructure.

Customer support is one important piece of the e-commerce puzzle that Internet ventures often overlook, and that creates a tremendous opportunity for e-businesses that take it seriously. Whether you spring for a full-scale customer service solution or weave e-mail management, chat, and other Internet technologies into your existing e-commerce infrastructure, the Internet can help you provide cost-effective service to large numbers of customers and still deliver the personalized service required for long-term success.

Jim Snyder (jsnyder@viewmark.com) is a program manager in charge of e-commerce development at Viewmark, a Denver-based multimedia development company. Doug Dineley (doug_dineley@infoworld.com) is an associate editor at InfoWorld.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Online customer service

Business Case: Implementing e-mail management, chat, and other Internet technologies can help your company enhance relationships with customers, cinch sales, reduce the load on the company call center, and lower service and support costs.

Technology Case: By combining automation and personalized interaction, Internet technologies allow customer service representatives to quickly and effectively serve more customers than traditional customer service call centers.

Pros:

+ E-mail management, threaded discussions, chat, co-browsing, and other capabilities can be added to your e-commerce site incrementally.

+ ASPs(application service providers) offer a range of customer service applications without an investment in hardware, implementation, and support.

Cons:

- Full-scale Internet-based CRM solutions can be expensive.

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