Online with the Operator

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It's February 14, and you've just remembered that it's Valentine's Day. There's no time for florist shops (they're probably packed with other desperate shoppers anyway), so you jump online to www. Then you pause. Red roses? Boxed or in a vase? One dozen or two? Just as your head starts to pound, you notice a button on the Web site. Click on it, and you're connected to a customer service rep at the call center who can help sniff out your options. A chat page opens on your screen, allowing a real-time dialog with the agent. The service rep even "pushes" pages to your browser so you can see different floral arrangements and how much they cost. In minutes, you have placed your order online, with a little hand-holding.

Online shoppers may prefer to skip the mall, but they still like to hear those four soothing words, "May I help you?" now and then. In a Yankelovich study, 63 percent of respondents said they did not finish a transaction online because they couldn't find the information they needed. It's not easy for consumers to get assistance when they ask for it, either. Jupiter Communications found in a recent survey that 42 percent of 125 top-ranked e-commerce sites took longer than five days to answer customer e-mail queries, never responded at all, or simply weren't accessible by e-mail. As e-commerce explodes to an estimated $41 billion in sales by 2002, analysts say the quality of online customer service may determine whether a consumer shops at your site or surfs to another.

"Everything you offer in the physical world has to be replicated in the virtual world," says Steve Robins, analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. That, he says, includes real-time interaction with call-center agents. So far, several e-commerce players, including 1-800-Flowers,, food retailer Stew Leonard's, and cataloger Delia's, are testing or already offer live interaction with service reps. Some feature real-time chat sessions, others voice-over-Web capabilities. In the future, a "call cam" may even let consumers see an agent on their computer screen. Says Glenn Reyer, vice president of marketing at eShare Technologies, a company that makes Web-based interaction software: "People don't want to talk to machines. At some point, human interaction is necessary."

Of course, some online customer support already exists, albeit in a self-serve sort of way. Surfers can troll through a site's FAQs, send off questions by e-mail (and twiddle their thumbs until a reply appears, if ever) or disconnect from the Web to call the business' toll-free number. All of these options require motivation and time from consumers who can increasingly go elsewhere to shop online. "To some extent, the online customer is cheated," says Donna Iucolano, vice president of interactive services at 1-800-Flowers in Westbury, New York. "They have to struggle to find the information they need and then figure it out for themselves. We wanted to offer the same level of service online that people would find in our stores."

So far, the floral retailer appears off to a good start. Since it implemented eShare's NetAgent software last October, preliminary surveys of customer service agents indicate that Web-based interactions ring up sales. That has important implications for the megaflorist, which generates 12 percent of annual sales, or more than $40 million, through its Internet site. eShare's technology, which costs about $50,000, has also reduced the load of customer e-mail queries by about 20 percent, Iucolano says. Roughly 100 of the company's customer associates are cross-trained to manage phone-, e-mail- and, now, Web-generated queries. (On a busy flower day such as Mother's Day, 1-800-Flowers may have as many as 2,000 agents at its call center.) Using NetAgent, multi-tasking service reps can help four customers simultaneously in six minutes. Before the company added the technology, those same reps handled four customers sequentially in about 12 minutes.

Flowers aside, cybershoppers seem to prefer live customer service for more complex transactions. In a Jupiter study, 47 percent of online users wanted some form of live support to purchase airline tickets, 39 percent to apply for loans. Converting browsers to buyers is a key reason many e-commerce sites add human interaction to their service strategy, says Jupiter analyst Fiona Swerdlow. "Live service can really help first- or second-time visitors over any hurdles they might have," she adds. Indeed, decided to offer live support when market research showed that many of its customers were first-time online buyers, often unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of cybershopping, says CIO Don Fosen.

Financial services firms have been early adopters of Web-based interaction products. E*Trade Canada, an online brokerage company, debuted LiveContact, a software package from Toronto-based Balisoft, at its call center last spring. LiveContact features chat as well as voice-over-Web technology that lets service agents communicate through customers' computer speakers. Consumers reply by simply speaking into a microphone. When a customer initiates an online call with E*Trade, he enters his account number so the agent can retrieve his records from the database. Instantly the call-center rep knows who the client is, which products he's used, and which services he might be interested in.

"We can walk through the services with them, like an interactive session," says E*Trade Canada vice president Bruce Seago, who adds that E*Trade in the United States is considering LiveContact, as well.

Unlike incoming calls on toll-free numbers, Web-based inquiries let service reps know much more about the customer before even talking to them. Take an agent at a catalog company: When a potential customer calls the 800 number, the rep has no idea what the person has looked at in the catalog. If the same customer requested service online, the agent could analyze her click-stream data and see which products she checked out-and for how long. Maybe the customer spent several minutes gazing at a page of leather loafers, but doesn't include a pair in her order. The sales associate at the call center, aware of the customer's browsing patterns, could offer a discount to clinch the shoe sale. "This technology allows call center agents to extend relationships and impact revenue," says Donna Fluss, research director at The Gartner Group in Stamford, Connecticut.

Real results only occur, though, when the system works properly on the customer's end of the line. If a chat session with a sales associate chugs along slowly, for example, a consumer might blame the company even though the problem may be on his end, like a slow-speed modem. Compare that to the consequences of a dead phone line, says Iucolano from 1-800-Flowers. A customer without a dial tone can hardly point the finger at the business she's trying to call.

The technology also places more demands on the call center. "The mantra of call-center managers is to do more with less," says analyst Fluss. She describes a process called the "universal queue" that would combine the handling of e-mail, interactive chat, and phone calls into one at the call center. Sounds nice, but not easy, she admits, for companies dealing with established infrastructures. "Management issues are much more intractable than technological issues," she says. Despite the potential drawbacks, Yankee analyst Robins predicts sales of Web-based interaction products (which include everything from e-mail to live-help features) to balloon to $600 million by 2001, up from $30 million last year.

The trick for e-commerce sites is finding that delicate balance between live and automated customer service. Customers don't need to talk to someone all the time, particularly if they're just trying to track their orders. Automation alleviates costs-and a loadful of clicks on the "live operator" button on the Web site. "But if I spend 20 minutes on a site and still can't find the answer to my question, I'm not coming back," says analyst Fluss. "You've devalued my time." In those situations, a friendly "Can I help you?" might be just what's needed.

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