The Care and Keeping of Online Customers

New technologies let online retailers quickly answer customers' questions and make sales.

Pop quiz for retail Web site managers: When a customer goes to a site and has a question he can't get answered - "Does your coffeemaker come in white?" - what does that customer do?

Answer: He probably e-mails his question to the site, waits a few minutes and then goes to another site, where he finds what he's looking for and buys the coffeemaker. Case closed. Oh, and eventually an e-mail response from the first company shows up, the delay proving to the consumer that he made the right choice by shopping elsewhere.

Today's Web retailers are increasingly wise to the fickleness of online shoppers. Numerous studies report shopping-cart abandonment rates of 20% to 60% per transaction.

That's why retailers are investing in improved customer-care technologies such as voice over IP, dynamic and searchable lists of frequently asked questions (FAQ) and text chat to get customers the answers they need to buy goods right away.

Retailers are also paying to integrate previously disparate e-mail, phone and chat systems. Integration means shorter response times, which can lead to greater sales.

In the cruise industry, quick responses to potential cruise buyers mean everything. That's because booking a cruise is an impulse buy, says Mike Dauberman, senior vice president of business operations at the Renton, Wash., U.S. headquarters of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Inc., a subsidiary of Uniglobe Travel (International) Inc.

"If you can grab a customer while they're on their peak of interest in a cruise, they're considerably more likely to buy it," he says.

That's why Uniglobe tries to respond to every customer e-mail within 20 minutes and to have phone representatives standing by to answer calls. But in mid-1999, the company was growing quickly, and the 20-minute mark was hard to maintain. With Y2k approaching and Uniglobe's call center nearing the end of its five-year amortization, Dauberman says he wanted an all-in-one call center that would route not just incoming phone calls but also chat and e-mail to all of its agents' desks, one at a time. So now, if an agent doesn't have any phone calls in his queue, the software assigns him a text chat or an e-mail.

After looking at offerings from Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya Inc. (then part of Lucent Technologies Inc.) and Munich, Germany-based Siemens AG, Uniglobe selected the Lucent/Avaya system, primarily because it was actually shipping - Siemens' version was still in the lab. By October 1999, Uniglobe had a new call center from Avaya. Dauberman says Avaya had the phone system for 110 seats up and running in five days, and no maintenance was needed for the first 12 months. Uniglobe is about to upgrade the call center software and add 50 more seats. The software cost $50,000 to $60,000 and coordinates all phone, e-mail and chat traffic.

Avaya also made hardware recommendations, and "we went overboard," says Dauberman. "They said you could run this thing off a $400 Pentium, but we went and decided to get some fairly sophisticated Web servers." Uniglobe bought six Windows NT Servers to run the phone system. Add networking costs and cable, and the extra equipment cost $30,000 to $40,000, he says. Uniglobe had considered building its own call center software to handle e-mail, phone and chat traffic by contacting the individual suppliers for such capabilities. "It would have been considerably less expensive," says Dauberman - possibly as little as $15,000 - "but it would not have been integrated." And integration was the critical selling point, he says.

Overall, "we wanted to go a little more streamlined," Dauberman says. That meant no mainframes, just lots of wall-mounted smaller boxes that could be daisy-chained together. Although Uniglobe is amortizing the technology over four years, Dauberman says the company might get only three out of it, given the rapid pace of technological change.

Today, Uniglobe aims to staff its call center with people who know how to use Microsoft Outlook. "My call center staff isn't technical. If they can use e-mail, they can use [Avaya's call center]," he says.

Dauberman says the online customer care technology landscape isn't changing for his business.

"I was expecting huge, revolutionary changes to technology that made voice over IP a reality this year," says Dauberman, but, he adds, he hasn't seen it.

The Voice Over IP Option

But some companies are taking the plunge into voice over IP (a way to converse via an Internet connection, even while browsing Web pages). Visitors to the Web site of Allfirst Bank, a subsidiary of Allfirst Financial Inc. in Baltimore, can use their PCs to carry on phone conversations with the bank's salespeople. About 100KB of temporary JavaScript software, downloaded when the user hits a "live talk" link, creates a voice over IP session. But users need a computer equipped with a sound card, a microphone, speakers and a fast modem.

The goal is to make the customer's experience a bit more intimate. "We're trying to humanize what we do. You go back to the brand. Chat was a way of humanizing it, but voice is a heck of a way of humanizing it," says Bill Murray, senior vice president of e-commerce at Allfirst.

Murray says he was drawn to voice over IP because, unlike when they're shopping for CDs or books, people often want to talk over their options before signing up for new bank accounts.

A survey conducted by Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. indicates that live customer service can cut shopping-cart abandonment rates by 10% to 45% because company representatives can walk customers through problems or immediately answer questions.

Allfirst evaluated various voice over IP systems and chose software from eStara Inc. in Reston, Va., because of its overall simplicity, says Murray. On the consumer side, there's a very small download and no setup; sales representatives can adjust the microphone until they hear the customer. On the back end, eStara "goes into our [private branch exchange] system, just like any other call, so we didn't have to do anything in our call center to make it work," except put some links onto relevant pages, says Murray.

Customer Self-Service

Anyone who's ever worked in a retail store knows that most of the time and mental energy goes into answering customers' questions. But there's no sales clerk online. Where do customers go to get their various questions answered?

At Web sites and, both part of Inc. in Irvine, Calif., customers frequently have technical questions, as well as more mundane ones. Phobo kept answering those same questions via e-mail, even though the answers could often be found in an online FAQ. But customers weren't finding the FAQ or chose not to browse through the large, static FAQ page, says Vance Brown, chief customer officer at Phobo.

Phobo wanted a way to more quickly get customers to the information they were looking for, so last June the company started using software from AskIt Systems Inc. in New York. Now when customers click on a link on the site to e-mail Phobo or to look at a FAQ, a dialog box pops up and tells them to ask a question using natural language. AskIt processes the question and returns a list of similar, previously asked questions for which it has answers. If a customer sees a question that matches his, then the answer is a click away. If the customer doesn't see the answer, he can still e-mail Phobo.

"In retail, it's the customer's choice. You don't make decisions for them; you let them decide, and [AskIt] lets them decide which route to go," says Brown.

To date, AskIt has cut the daily average of e-mailed questions that Phobo receives from 200 to just 100. (Many of those are questions about specific orders.) Viewing a customer e-mail locks it, so two people won't respond to the same document. When Phobo employees answer a question, they can also mark it "public," which adds the question and answer to the AskIt repository.

Phobo opted to go whole hog and have AskIt host all of its e-mail. To get set up, Brown forwarded all of Phobo's FAQs to AskIt, which translated them and had things up and running in a few days. Phobo paid an installation charge and pays an ongoing monthly fee, both of which Brown declined to quantify. He says AskIt has been very responsive to feature requests. For instance, based on a Phobo request, AskIt implemented reporting tools to show how long it took to open customers' e-mail and the time it took to get a reply out, so Phobo could evaluate the software by using its own call center metrics.

Overall, says Brown, having more immediate and detailed answers for consumers increases the likelihood that they'll complete a purchase - which is, after all, the point of customer care technology.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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