Cyberservice Hello, is anybody out there?

Jul 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

Most Internet catalogers, like print catalogers, know the value of superior customer service. They also know the barriers to service that are inherent in this still-maturing electronic environment. For instance, up to now, communication with Internet customers has been conducted primarily through the phone or via e-mail. That means customers with one phone line have to disconnect from the Web to make a service-related phone call, or they might be forced to wait hours or days to get answers to e-mail queries.

But now, some catalogers are taking online customer service to the next level. They are building systems that can provide “real-time” answers to customers’ inquiries, using chat room and bulletin board technology.

In April, computer products cataloger PC Connection launched Service Desk, a “real-time” Website customer and technical support program, which includes the Knowledge Base and Case Manager systems. Knowledge Base allows users to post questions, prompting an automatic search of matching solutions. Using the database that PC Connections’ technical staff has compiled and continually updates, customers can often solve their problems without having to speak to a customer service representative (CSR). “It allows our customers to take control and solve their own problems,” says Tom Abert, the cataloger’s business development and marketing manager.

If a customer has a problem that requires more information and service than the database can provide, however, PC Connection’s Case Manager system sets up a private bulletin board that allows customers to describe the problem in greater detail. Users then specify how they would like to be contacted-via e-mail, phone, or online-and state how urgent the problem is, such as “mission critical” or “not so critical.”

Response times to bulletin board postings vary depending on the nature and priority of the problem and the number of staff dedicated to the service. Abert declines to say how many technical staffers are assigned to Service Desk, but he does say the company has “dedicated additional resources to the program.” He adds that the company has “a high percentage of problems solved in one contact.”

To launch Service Desk, PC Connection had to install specific software that integrates into the rest of the company’s computer system, such as its order-taking and existing technical support programs. Abert would not disclose how much the system cost (the company was a beta site for Manchester, NH-based SilkNet Software and worked out a special arrangement). He does note, though, that Service Desk “helps us control the costs inherent in managing technical support,” and cites savings in telephone calls, faxes and follow-ups.

Ultimately, PC Connection’s Service Desk will allow its technicians to literally take control of the customer’s computer screen while he is online. Say a customer has a problem and contacts the support team. Instead of the customer trying to explain the problem, either in writing or on the phone, a tech rep would provide the solution to the customer by “talking” to the customer’s browser. “The rep sees what the customer sees onscreen, identifies the problem, and then shows the customer how to solve it right then and there,” Abert says.

Chatting up service In a similar “live” communication between customers and service reps, SoundStone Entertainment, an online-only music cataloger aimed at baby boomers, launched its LiveHelp! program in late April to let customers “speak” to a CSR through chat room technology. “Our philosophy is that there should always be a human being attached to every order and customer,” says Kokeb Kassa, director of sales and marketing at the Somerville, MA-based company.

Using a customized version of New York-based Sitebridge’s CustomerNow software, SoundStone customers can ask questions about orders or seek help in finding a particular product in a private chat room that is monitored by four SoundStone CSRs, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The ability to talk to customers in real time allows SoundStone not only to discuss existing orders but also to upsell and cross-sell products.

Because nearly half of the customers using LiveHelp! are asking for recommendations on music selections, SoundStone “pushes pages” at customers, Kassa says. “If the answer to a question is on another page of our Website, we can direct the customer to that page. By doing this, we can sell additional products and satisfy customers at the same time.”

LiveHelp! archives customer profile information, CSR performance data, and a complete transcript of a communication. The software works across all browsers and hardware platforms so that customers don’t need to download or install additional software. For $30,000, catalogers get Sitebridge’s software license, server, and installation for five CSRs. Access for additional CSRs costs $1,200 each. The price also includes a few days of training and onsite consulting.

Although data regarding response to SoundStone’s service was not yet available, the company expects LiveHelp! to increase its conversion rates considerably. “LiveHelp! really goes a long way in completing an online sale,” Kassa claims.