Customer Care in the Online Channels: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Reprinted by permission of Beagle Research Group, LLC

The customer-driven marketplace has dictated that customer care be offered through multiple channels to provide customers with service choices. While self-service technologies in the online channels have improved dramatically to resolve many simple inquiries in a cost effective manner, the next line of support—email and web-based support—is often failing. Recent research shows that successful first-time resolution is low, far too many inquiries receive no response and the cost can be much higher than expected.

Technological firepower has come forth, largely through web services architectures, to integrate dimensions of customer relationships, such as purchasing history, inquiries and preferences in individual profiles. Assimilating the information in an actionable fashion results in synergy for some organizations, but other organizations seem oblivious to customer care in the online channels. As the bar is raised by the performance of proficient organizations, the gap widens.



The black hole

The following studies demonstrate this, over and over:

  • In August 2004, customer service and contact center software vendor eGain and BenchmarkPortal, headed by John Anton, Ph.D., of Purdue University, reported results of research involving email inquiries sent to 300 North American companies. Forty-one percent of the companies did not respond at all. Only 39 percent responded within 24 hours, and a mere 15 percent replied rapidly with an acknowledgment. With auto-responder technology being relatively inexpensive and simple, this latter figure is perplexing.

  • In June 2004, the Customer Respect Group reported in its annual Online Customer Respect Study of the 100 largest U.S. enterprises that responsiveness to queries through web sites was lacking. Responses to queries, when they occurred, were usually via email. Twelve percent did not respond to any online inquiries. Only 60 percent responded to emails in less than a day, and 9 percent took more than four days to reply. Only 31 percent used auto-responder technology.

    Still, this is a tremendous improvement, compared to the results of the 2003 Online Customer Respect Study. In the report from 2003, 31 percent did not respond. However, the portion of companies taking four days or more to respond in 2003 was 8 percent, less than the 2004 results, at nine percent. Auto-responder technology use was 25 percent in 2003.

  • In its May 2004 Service and Supports Metrics Report, supportindustry.com reported progress in many areas compared to its 2003 report. The use of auto-responder technology had increased from 38.3 percent in 2003 to 60 percent in 2004. There was an increase of 15 percent over 2003 in the percentage of respondents handling some customer requests via email to 95 percent.

    Almost 20 percent of the respondents reported answering email requests in less than two minutes. However, 33.8 percent required four or more emails to resolve an issue. Only a little more than a third of the respondents reported the cost per email at $10 or less, as indicated in Figure 1.


In 2004, there is a marked shift in the use of the email channel from 2003, according to the survey results from supportindustry.com, as many companies chose to migrate customer service inquires to the channel with success. Only 3.3 percent did not receive email support requests in 2004, compared to 4.7 percent in 2003. In 2004, 30.8 percent of the respondents reported that 30 percent or more of their support requests were handled via email vs. 23.5 percent in 2003. Conversely, 33.8 percent of the respondents handled 1 percent to 10 percent of their email support requests by email in 2003, compared to 22.1 percent in 2004. Combined, these figures indicate an increased offering by organizations, as well as adoption rate by customers as illustrated in Figure 2.

A call to action

The results cited above indicate that companies have made strides in migrating customers to email channels, though a sizable number have not done so to a great extent, as more than half still report email support requests representing 20 percent or less of the requests.

One relatively inexpensive and quickly implemented solution to improving customer response is utilizing auto-responder technology. Essentially, as soon as an email arrives, a reply is generated acknowledging receipt. In this way, the customer is not ignored and agitated. The responses can often be simply updated to include an estimated time for the full reply to allow for fluctuations in the workload.



Another problem with email inquiries involves the way the queries are handled. Many firms have a system set up where the reps pull the messages from individual or a common inbox. Reps may choose what queries they wish to address, resulting in more complex urgent requests being avoided. This process fails to exploit the natural workflow of the contact center.


A far more efficient system involves pushing the queries through to agents as they become available. Applications to accomplish this are also relatively inexpensive and proven. Additionally, more advanced queuing and routing systems are available, often on a subscription basis, to more intelligently relay the inquiry to the person best able to resolve the issue.

Lastly, another common mistake is forcing the rep to “play both ways” as both phone and email support agent. One page of double-spaced, 12-point type is equivalent to 90 seconds of speech. Bear in mind that the phone rep often has highly polished live interpersonal skills for high-touch/high-tech resolution of consumer concerns. To expect this person to additionally be able to blaze through a reply at the speed of a paralegal is not only unreasonable, but also it can lead to employee dissatisfaction.

Additionally, not everyone communicates well in writing. Someone who has the skills of a wordsmith may not have a personality conducive to live phone interactions. While training can definitely lead to improvements, if the agent lacks the talent and/or interest in doing both, what gains will be realized? Because the written word is not flavored by an accent—as is the case in spoken language—an offshore solution can be considered with a reduced risk.

Of course, regardless of the channel, the agent should have as much customer information available on the desktop as possible, including previous contacts and transactions. This will help ensure continuity if escalation results and others are brought into the process. If done right, the reward is not only a happier customer but also an increased opportunity for up-sell.



© 2004-’05 Beagle Research Group, LLC

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