Service, please!

The general state of customer service in America can be summed up in one word: poor. And, in many cases, customer service provided by Web-based businesses is even worse. Customer E-mails frequently go unanswered for days—if they are answered at all. When they are answered, the responses frequently don't make any sense or don't address a customer's problem. Organizations are currently pushing hard to implement solutions to help them better manage customer relationships. But before a firm worries about managing new customer relationships, it should repair the ones it already has.

Perhaps the most memorable, and recent, example of poor online customer service was the 1999 Christmas season. This was a bad time for many e-tailers, but toy e-tailers were particularly hard hit, with many missing a hard delivery date of Christmas Eve. The upcoming Christmas season is therefore critical to many online businesses, and it means more than just sales volume. Customer service will play a critical role this year, as more consumers attempt to buy from e-businesses. If consumers are disappointed again—many found it difficult to get help online—e-businesses will be in for some major rough weather in 2001.

Internet service providers also have their fair share of unacceptable customer service. I have experienced waits as long as two hours using the US West (now Qwest) DSL support line. And half the time, the Level 1 and Level 2 support groups disagree on how to handle the problem. In one recent incident, I noticed that my DSL router kept dropping. When I called the Level 1 help line to see if there was a general outage in the Minneapolis area, the support rep said that she was not aware of any outages. She then transferred me to a Level 2 rep who told me that there was an area-wide outage. While coordinating Qwest's resources is obviously not in my job description, I decided to call the Level 1 rep back to tell her about the problem (even though she should have known about it). After informing the original representative about the outage, she told me I was wrong. I finally demanded she call the Level 2 support group rep back and check for herself. After a short wait on hold, she came back on the phone and apologized to me.

This is obviously unacceptable customer service. But companies that supply Internet and e-commerce services will only be hit with more and more online demands, which translates into a need for increased and reliable customer service.

Organizations wishing to retain customers must provide service that is every bit as good as that found in the real world. This is quite a challenge, and there are three primary reasons why it is so difficult:

  1. Staffing shortages for both technical and non-technical customer service representatives;
  2. Insufficient technology to handle the volume of calls, E-mails and chat sessions; and
  3. Bad corporate culture.

The low unemployment rate has made hiring skilled service representatives a difficult task. Experienced, older workers are in demand, and they can pick the jobs they want. Some organizations are using high-school and college students to staff customer service lines—an inherently dangerous practice. Many students take these jobs to earn extra money for school or expenses, but they are not highly motivated nor do they care about the customer. The general labor shortage also means higher turnover, which has more inexperienced customer service reps on the support lines. All of these factors make it difficult for organizations to provide high-quality customer service.

There is also a lack of technology that can help organizations quickly and efficiently respond to customer queries. Very few expert systems can generate responses that are specific to a customer's needs, and FAQ sections answer only about 10% of customer queries. One technology that is helping firms to provide more personalized service is Interactive CRM (ICRM). ICRM software uses chat-like features to allow customer service reps to interact directly with customers, just as if they were standing in a line at a brick-and-mortar retail shop. But dealing with 5,000 chat sessions requires the same amount of manpower you would need answering 5,000 E-mails—if not more. Also gaining popularity is self-service CRM software, which lets customers dig through an organization's database and find answers as though they were the customer service rep. However, this technology is not refined enough for the average site visitor to use.

While staffing and technology are important, perhaps the single most influential factor in how a company serves its customers is the organization's culture. Many firms give lip service to the idea that they are customer-centric. Yet when a customer tries to accomplish a task, they are usually transferred to three or four people who may or may not be able to resolve the problem. In the online world transfers aren't possible; customers usually have to send E-mails to several parties to get an answer to a simple question.

Many online businesses don't even concentrate on customer retention; they concentrate only on customer acquisition. However, it costs almost twice as much to acquire a customer as it does to retain one, so retention strategies are likely to result in higher margins and better sales. Other online businesses grow so fast that they can't keep pace with customer demands. Growing pains are a problem for most businesses, but because of the hyper-competition in the online world, Internet companies must plan far ahead to avoid disappointing customers as the organization grows.

How to become customer-centric
For an organization to truly become customer-focused, the organization's culture must change in several ways. First, customer service reps must be screened tightly to filter out those workers who are simply there for the money. Second, customer service reps must be incented to perform for the customer. This can include raises and promotions, recognition awards and other motivational benefits a firm might choose. Customer service managers must also provide training and guidance to new employees to ensure that the new hire internalizes the company's customer focus. In addition, the rest of the organization must be incented to provide support to the customer service organization. This support can take the form of information and/or resources that allow the customer service organization to perform at peak efficiency.

Finally, sophisticated CRM technology must be used to watch customer behavior online and to monitor metrics such as shopping cart abandon rates. Customers should also be provided with a short, simple customer satisfaction form they can fill out online to provide feedback to the organization.

About the Author

Charles H. Trepper is CEO of The Trepper Group, a Minneapolis-based consultancy.