February 2000 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Online Customer Service Gets Personal

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The Right Start Inc. has created a dynamic symbiotic relationship between its web site and physical storefronts, providing exceptional customer service for every potential sale.

Dot.com stores fumbled in December, and sideline quarterbacks are pointing to poor fulfillment processes, logistics management inefficiencies, and inadequate information technology. Stressing the importance of these elements is preaching to the choir with Inbound Logistics readers. But before we become overconfident about the saving graces of logistics and technology, a word of caution: customer service has become the forgotten link in supply chain execution.

We keep reinventing the wheel to teach ourselves the same lesson: machines cannot replace human beings. Machines and technology elevate menial tasks to new levels of sophistication. Production moves faster. Errors are reduced. Life becomes easier. But machinery, even the almighty Internet, needs a personal touch.

In the flurry to create dot.com success stories with easy-to-navigate sites and fulfillment processes that deliver same-day shipping and order-to-receipt visibility, one crucial element was overlooked: personalized customer service. People have a fundamental need to relate to other people—particularly when they are making decisions.

A true click-and-mortar retailer, The Right Start Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., has created a dynamic symbiotic relationship between its web site (www.RightStart.com) and its physical storefronts, driving customer traffic between virtual and real shopping while providing exceptional customer service for every potential sale.

Jerry R. Welch, chairman and CEO of The Right Start, approaches web site customer service with a 24-7 commitment. "Shopping online should be no different from shopping in a store," he says. "Whenever the store is open, someone should be available to answer questions and provide customer service."

The Right Start Inc. has created a dynamic symbiotic relationship between its web site and physical storefronts. The company drives customer traffic between virtual and real shopping while providing exceptional customer service for every potential sale.

In addition to free shipping and handling, free gift wrap, and same-day shipping on orders placed by 2 p.m., RightStart.com provides live online customer service chats to address any questions or concerns. The decision to implement live chats was driven by a statistic on e-commerce that indicated "two-thirds of online shoppers abandon a purchase at the point of checkout," Welch says.

While free shipping and handling pacifies shoppers who change their minds due to sticker shock, Welch determined that many people choose not to consummate a purchase simply because of unanswered questions.

"We expected the online chats to address technical questions about the e-commerce transaction," explains Welch. "It has been very surprising that 90 percent of the questions are actually about the products."

Can We Chat?

While B2B and B2C web sites alike will applaud the sophisticated initiatives of RightStart.com, the concept of developing, implementing, and staffing live customer chats is more daunting than most businesses care to attempt.

Not to worry. netCustomer.com (www.netcustomer.com), headquartered in Fremont, Calif., provides a plethora of solutions designed to support e-commerce sites with 24-7, Internet-based customer service. In addition to providing live customer service chats on a web site (netCustomer Live), netCustomer.com offers e-mail management to respond to customer e-mails in a timely manner, a fax service that handles customer faxes, and a "CallMe" feature that allows customers to indicate a time and phone number for a customer service representative (CSR) to call them.

Recently, netCustomer.com partnered with Logistix, Fremont, Calif., a global supply chain management company that offers e-commerce and turnkey operations for high-tech companies, to provide a full spectrum of integrated customer service and fulfillment solutions. netCustomer services integrate with Logistix systems to serve their joint customers.

netCustomer.com was launched in early 1999, and already the client roster includes large corporations such as Sony and Qualcomm, as well as a number of dot.com businesses and Logistix customers.

"We stepped in to handle customer inquiries related to some of Sony's marketing campaigns," says Jeff Johnson, netCustomer.com's director of client services. "The company had a backlog of 800 customer e-mails, and we responded to them all in the first weekend.

"Often companies provide an automated response that doesn't answer the customer's question. We have a web-based database and intelligent human beings who provide specific information related to each customer e-mail," Johnson says.

netCustomer.com has conducted thousands of live sessions on behalf of many leading companies. "netCustomer Live has begun to evolve into a selling tool as well as a customer service convenience, because it provides an ideal opportunity to guide customers through a web site and introduce them to other products," Johnson notes. "With the increasing number of companies selling over the Internet, netCustomer.com services generate a goldmine of cross-sell and up-sell opportunities."

Both netCustomer.com and RightStart.com are proving the concept of turning queries into expanded sales. "The more you engage a customer, the more you sell," affirms Welch.

Johnson and Welch stress that one of the biggest benefits of personalized customer service is the insight a company gains into its customer base. Their experiences have shown that customers are more open to sharing opinions in a virtual conversation than in a public encounter.

Approaching online customer service as a unique opportunity to build and nurture customer relationships, Johnson underlines the "value to a company of retaining a customer for a lifetime." He predicts companies that traditionally viewed customer service as a cost center will soon recognize the enormous revenue opportunities, which currently go unnoticed.

netCustomer.com hosts the technology infrastructure, which seamlessly links with any web site, and provides live agents called netCSRs (netCustomer Service Representatives), skilled professionals with college degrees who are Internet savvy, articulate, and trained in the corporate culture of the companies they represent. Product and company-specific information is maintained on B2B web sites that are dedicated to each company so netCSRs have company details at their fingertips.

Charges are transaction-based so that even the smallest dot.com companies can offer premium 24/7 service without incurring huge costs.

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