November 30


Customer Service Meets the Internet

by: Bill Ringle

“Speak into the clown’s head and place your order, please,” the teenager boomed through the loudspeaker as I placed my order for fast food. Silly me, I had started with, “Hello,” before getting drowned out by the fry manager.

Isn’t this great? You’ve had this experience, or a similar one, haven’t you? I compare dressed-up voice ordering systems delivering on the promise of high-tech customer service to TV’s in the classroom delivering on the promise of a high-tech education.

Computer technology should not take the blame for bad decisions or designs, either. When programs such as customer service are created and managers believe that a machine can deliver the same level of response and satisfaction as a well-trained person, everyone is being set up for a disappointment.

More and more often, computers are being used to help us communicate, to make connections with one another. Avoid the trap of thinking that the technology can perform equally well, or even better, than a person on the same range of situations. It’s simply not the case.

Given that the Internet is drawing a good deal of our attention and holds the potential of transforming the ways that we work, learn, and play on many levels, taking a perspective on the principles for success when customer service meets the Internet become very interesting.

Principle #1

A well-intentioned worker performs poorly when the systems she works in limits her effectiveness. You hate it if the chicken sandwich slides out of its container when you’re taking it out of the paper bag at a stoplight.

You’ll be mad at the people in the fast food stop, even if the person who prepared your sandwich was never trained at that station and was put there because someone who knew what they were doing had to go on break. It doesn’t matter at that point. Similarly, you’ll hate it when you get cryptic error messages using a web site in the middle of placing a sweater order.

Avoid surprises through superior planning. If your business decides to launch an e-commerce portion of its site (and a large majority of US-based companies with revenues over $1 million will by 2002), recognize that your sales and support staff will be constrained by the features of the system. You’ll visit the build vs. buy decision and likely choose to implement an existing solution if one is on the market, for time and cost factors. Be sure to invest in the training and provide periodic refresher training for the people who will be supporting the system. Test and test thoroughly before deploying that system, because it’s much easier to make a good decision than to switch out a bad system.

Principle #2

Think of the process from end to end. Many organizations make the mistake of isolating the web functions to just the IS department. However, today, it’s usually more than one person or one department responsible for a process. Integrate the web customer service functions throughout your organization, so that the responsibilities are distributed and strong communications and accountability elements are put into place.

It’s a big job for large organizations, but vital to both your thriving and surviving. The software behemoth Microsoft, well-known for being late to the table with post-sales support, has finally responded to complaints by announcing a three-year, five-stage plan for improving its customer service and support.

Their plan includes all the right elements: staff increases; intensive, ongoing training and education programs; mentoring; integration of information systems across company functions; and most importantly, alignment of resources with the needs of particular customer segments.

Principle #3

Your customers expect you to get better over time. On the Internet, that means days and weeks, rather than months and years. In the late Spring of 1999, both the online trading company eTrade and the self-proclaimed center of Internet auctions, eBay, had technical difficulties that caused their sites to be non-functional for a brief period of time ranging from a couple hours to a couple of days. This is unlike a person at an investment counter becoming ill during the workday, and having to route that representative’s clients to other representatives.

No, on the Internet, you have potentially thousands of different transaction requests queued up every minute. Jeff Bezos, president of expressed it best when he said, “If you have an unhappy customer on the Internet, he doesn’t go and tell 6 friends, he tells 6,000 friends.” Customer service problems with your Internet site have potentially disastrous effects people will tolerate growing pains, but if repeated, they will quickly find a new provider who offers a comparable product or service.


Principle #4

The hardest problems to solve are those you are unaware of. A new client recently asked StarComm to work with them to improve customer satisfaction using the Internet. They stated their initial concerns over their servers not being powerful enough to handle all that they were planning to add in the coming 90 days. We found out that they were planning to invest in a very expensive, high-end, high-security web transaction system.

We started asking fundamental questions to find out how the features of this new system matched up against what their customers were asking for. We learned that alignment was minimal, and their customers could best be served by extending the functionality of their existing server. The information their customers needed turned out to not require the high-security of the new system. Someday, the new system may be appropriate, but StarComm worked with the client to add the new functionality, communicate the client’s responsiveness to their customers, and saved the client company 2 months time and about $20,000.

Principle #5

You’ve got to launch and learn. Customer service is a feedback loop. You offer a product or service, your customers try it out and tell you how they wish it were different. You pay attention and make adjustments as appropriate. It sounds so simple, but then you read in USA today that in spite of the numerous benefits to e-commerce, about 2/3 of the transactions are abandoned at the check-out counter.

The survey by NetEffect, the newspaper reported, indicated that a primary cause of the incomplete transactions was, “because top e-commerce sites have made few provisions for real-time, on-line customer service and support.” The mantra “launch and learn” means that you pay attention to what your customers want (which sometimes involves listening between the words, or extrapolating a solution that they don’t know how to ask for precisely). Next, you build and offer it, then pay attention to whether they use it the way you expected them to use it. If not, you need to make further adjustments.

Principle #6

Your customer support is unique to your organization. The “perfect” model of customer support didn’t exist before the Internet. Why? Well, it’s mythical, actually. In addition to important differences with products and customer bases, the corporate culture differs from one company to another. The best-run organizations in the world share common principles, such as responsiveness, experimentation with new forms and systems, integration across departments and functions, and so on.

Companies of all sizes and in all industries have learned fundamental tactics, such as replying to queries within 1 business day, using forms to capture information instead of “mailto” links, requesting feedback on product information sheets, and so on. However, one company’s program cannot be taken like an air conditioning system and “installed” at another company.

Principle #7

You can’t train people to care. Caring about a customer is an expression of an internal value more than reading a script. Organizations can do a great many things to foster an environment where people are given the authority to act to satisfy customers (“empowerment” in the best sense of the word. Excellence in any job function doesn’t happen by accident, and customer service is no exception.

Even with Internet technologies in place, you can tell when they were written for the sake of administrative ease or customer convenience. And do not make the mistake of underestimating the importance of this principle. A lot of customers share the sentiment of a colleague of mine who wrote about a software package from Fog City software: “I can’t imagine a program that I am more happy with and would recommend more highly to a colleague. The design is a part of it, but the service has *kept* me a customer.”

As a final word of advice, understand that you don’t have a monopoly on your client or customer. Whether you run the internal computer support desk, or are responsible for the sales team’s performance of a mutual fund, you have to employ customer service skills and programs to meet your responsibilities. The very tool that can help you carry this out is also the greatest challenge to keeping your customers loyal. Your customers have other choices. The Internet allows them to locate and engage the services of others far faster and easier than you can say “”

In the end, customer service is all about giving your customers the Opportunity to express their desires, then doingeverything reasonable to make those desires happen. It’s not just a warm fuzzy. It’s not just about technology.

Good customer service makes good business sense. If you delight your customers, gain repeat business, and reinforce your company’s image through excellent customer service, you will succeed in differentiating your company from the rest of the pack in a very important way.

Ignore these principles for using the Internet in customer service, and your customers may feel like they’re yelling into the clown’s head in vain.




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