The 10 BEST Customer Service Developments

Jun 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Customer service dates back centuries, no doubt to when a medieval villager first returned spoiled milk to a cow herder and received a cheerful exchange of fresh milk. As we approach the end of this century, it’s worth noting that courtesy and an interest in customer welfare remain the most crucial aspects of customer service, but recent developments in technology and method have changed how catalogers provide service.

Some of these developments have improved catalog operations efficiency. But smart catalogers realize that, rather than newfangled ways to shave costs, any such technological advances are investments in service: An efficiently run catalog is more likely to focus on the qualitative aspects of service than is a poorly operated catalog that’s scrambling to survive, and by focusing on service, a catalog is more likely to satisfy and retain customers. Many of the most meaningful developments in customer service operations are part of the business underpinnings that customers never see directly, despite reaping the benefits of faster, more efficient, and more effective service.

THE TOP 10 1. 800-numbers. The introduction of toll-free calling decades ago made it possible for customers to shop at no expense. An 800-number also “legitimizes” a business by suggesting a reliable, upstanding company that wants callers to feel comfortable shopping with it and thinks it’s worth paying for the call. Starting a catalog operation without an 800-number is unwise, unless you are a niche company targeting a small, loyal market segment that wants your product so much that customers are willing to pay for the call. Even then, however, you should think more than twice about a toll order line.

What’s more, many consumers perceive it to be poor service if a company publishes an 800-number for placing orders but provides only a toll line for customer service. It doesn’t mean customers won’t make the call, but they’re apt to resent having to pay the charges and can be infuriated by waiting on hold; they’re then more likely to be harsh with your reps and less satisfied with the outcome of any customer service resolution.

2. Automatic call distribution systems (ACDs). ACDs have made the job of the customer service rep more equitable and more tolerable. Prior to ACDs, reps had to punch the blinking light on a call director (a large phone with as many as 24 call buttons), or they sat in a “hunt” group, in which the person at the front of the line got every phone call that came in unless she was on a call, in which case the second call bounced to, or “hunted” for, the second person on the line, and so on. With an ACD-an electronic switch that “answers” the phone and automatically routes calls to the next available rep-the lazier reps could no longer hang back on picking up the phone lines, and the more conscientious reps were less likely to feel resentful, overwhelmed, and burned out from sitting at the front of the line or trying to catch every blinking light.

ACDs also gave management reliable new tools for tracking call traffic patterns and rep productivity so that it became possible to make much better scheduling and staffing decisions. The net effect of ACDs is to be able to staff enough reps when customers are most likely to need them.

3. Interactive voice response (IVR). This technology, also known as automated voice messaging, is often reviled by consumers and businesspeople alike. Yet it offers considerable opportunity for increased operational efficiencies and enhanced customer care. IVR makes it possible for customers to use a single telephone number to reach an entire organization and then self-direct to the work group they need by following instructions given in the initial welcoming message. The challenge of IVR is to configure the menus and script the messages clearly and simply enough so that it’s easy for customers to use accurately.

Also, IVR allows catalogers to design informative and entertaining messages to be played for callers on hold or in a queue. Moreover, automated messaging can be used to give customers immediate information about waiting time; when they’re informed of the average hold time, they can make pragmatic decisions about continuing to hold or calling back.

In a more interactive context, just as some customers prefer using an ATM to dealing with a bank teller, some companies use IVR to give customers the chance to help themselves. Callers can key in an order number or a customer number to hear a recorded message about the status of their order in the same way that investors can call for an automated yield. IVR gives customers the freedom to call as often as they like to check their order status without embarrassment or rep impatience. In addition, if customers take advantage of this service, fewer reps may be needed overall, and even partial self-direction means reps can handle more calls more quickly.

4. Automated data processing software. Ongoing advances in catalog management software have created numerous ways to aggregate and display information that’s extremely valuable for serving repeat customers. Perhaps the most important development in catalog software has been the capability to provide inventory information in real time.

The availability of current inventory status eliminates a significant number of costly pre- and post-order problem calls; no longer must customers call repeatedly before placing orders to find out when desired items will arrive, nor do they have to keep calling to check if the merchandise has arrived at the distribution center and when it will be shipped out. With accurate, real-time stock status on their screens, reps can salvage orders that would otherwise be lost, by letting customers know exactly when the item will be available or by offering appropriate substitutions. Real-time inventory also enables mailers to capture shadow, or phantom, demand-the orders lost to backorders.

5. Computer telephony integration (CTI). This technology enables reps to respond more quickly to customer needs. Reps sound smarter and more prepared because the customers’ records travel with their inbound calls from the main computer system and database to the individual rep, as well as from rep to rep if necessary. As soon as the customer’s identity is established (through automatic number identification, as part of a response to IVR prompts, or by rep keying), all the relevant elements of the customer’s sales and service history are available to any rep who works with the customer.

Immediate access to historical information, including comments on previous interactions, makes service resolution easier and creates sales opportunities for repeat customers. Strategic information such as known preferences, appropriate offers, and even which options to avoid can be delivered for rep use via screen “pops.” CTI supports a shorter rep learning curve and permits more testing and more sophisticated sales and service approaches.

6. Next-day delivery. Whether the order is a last-minute gift for an in-law, clothes for an impromptu trip, or hardware and software upgrades, express delivery means instant gratification and is another chance for catalogs to stand up to retail. Assuming that stock levels are in good shape, internal handling methods don’t delay getting the merchandise out the door, and the express shipping isn’t outrageously priced, the ability to ship overnight is a distinct competitive advantage and a customer pleaser.

The promise of having something delivered the very next day lends itself to both impulse and desperation shopping; in either case, if you take good care of the customer, she’s likely to remember it and buy from you again. In addition, having the merchandise arrive the next day reduces the possibility of buyer’s remorse, which is more likely to occur the longer the time lag between order placement and receipt.

8. Prepaid returns. Prepaid return labels and “call tags” (for prepaid pickup of returned items) eliminate the need for consumers to stand in line at the post office or a United Parcel Service pickup location. Whether the cataloger picks up the expense or deducts it from the total amount credited to the customer’s credit card or the total amount of the refund, the prepayment saves customer wear and tear in two ways: first, from the lingering annoyance of an unsatisfactory purchase, and second, from the potential scheduling hassles of getting to the post office or shipper during business hours. Any such time-bound requirement violates the round-the-clock, “whenever you want it” premise of most catalog companies.

Including a prepaid return label with the original shipment (or mailing one promptly when a customer calls about returning or exchanging an item) goes a long way to increase customer confidence. This convenience reduces a common consumer concern about remote ordering: that the item won’t be as wonderful in real life as it is described or depicted. Knowing that the company will make it easy to send something back makes it much more likely that the customer will order potentially riskier items, particularly in the fashion arena. It’s true that making it easier for customers to return merchandise may increase returns, but if it simultaneously increases lifetime value, it’s a sound tradeoff.

9. Tracers. Orders that don’t arrive when expected are a big problem. It’s natural for customers to want to know what happened to a missing order, and just as it’s natural for them to be steamed if they can’t find out. The most frequent customer service inquiry-known as Wizmo, for “Where is my order?”-can be answered when the cataloger can contact any major delivery service to find out where the package is or at what point it went astray in the delivery process. The tracer also reduces multiple follow-up calls from customers who might otherwise check every day to inquire about the fate of their order package.

Call monitoring. Carefully structured, consistent call monitoring programs can enhance customer service in three ways: by ensuring that every rep knows and adheres to company requirements for the style and content of communicating with customers; by establishing quality standards throughout the call center; and by determining if the operation is using the most effective techniques possible for interacting with customers. Call monitoring can also be one of the best available sources of customer feedback and market intelligence, particularly because customer comments about their preferences and reactions are unsolicited.

10. Online ordering. This is perhaps the most startling development in customer service, since online ordering enables shoppers to place orders and request service without any obvious human intervention.

Not only is it more economical for a cataloger to process an online order, but it’s also the height of self-service-the customer looks up what she wants, selects what she wants, and provides her information. What’s more, it’s a completely consistent experience because the style of individual reps never comes into it. Of course, this very impersonal quality means that some customers may never be comfortable transacting in this mode.

On the other hand, the cost efficiency enables catalogers to implement certain aspects of service online that are too expensive-or downright impossible-to introduce into a traditional mail order environment. E-mailed order confirmations and e-mailed confirmations of shipment, for instance, can add comfort and security to the customer’s buying process.

The online environment also gives customers who need it the opportunity to perform research or to run through an order before having to speak with a live representative. The fact that the customers can also access inventory status in real time or get information about their own transactions will similarly help them make better decisions about what they would like to order.

Finally, having multiple communication channels emphasizes the company’s willingness to deal with the customer in any way that is comfortable. And while it’s too early to predict where the online environment will eventually take catalogs, online marketers are already incorporating the best operational practices for shopping, ordering, and fulfillment that have been honed by catalogers through the years.

Naturally, access to service reps for the human touch is still crucial. We’ll always need people to help with problems, provide advice, and add a little sweetness to commercial transactions. But whether you need a quart of milk or more RAM, for many catalog shoppers, the Internet will be the place to go.