Read any company’s website and you’ll see statements claiming how “fanatical” or “passionate” it is about customer service. Yet barely a week goes by without another survey showing how customer satisfaction is at an all-time low. How does one reconcile these two facts? Perhaps it is simply that companies are failing to understand expectations for customer service in the internet world.
To provide high-quality web-based service that will minimise the number of calls and emails to the contact centre, you need to focus on personalisation. The concept of personalisation goes beyond its use as a presale “you bought that so you might want this” cross-selling tool. Google and Yahoo! offer increasingly personalised home pages for users; the BBC and The New York Times are delivering personalised news feeds; Amazon continues to use customer purchase histories to skilfully recommend relevant products.
Perhaps the biggest driver of changing consumer attitudes about sharing personal data has been social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. The information these sites hold about people is a marketer’s dream. But as they become more commercialised, social networks have to take care how they use this information.
The Facebook Beacon fiasco is a perfect example of this. Although since revised, the system initially allowed activity on partner sites to be tracked and reported back to your Facebook profile, Facebook but didn’t tell users it was doing this, and it gave them no way of opting out. As one commentator noted at the time, it was “a privacy disaster waiting to happen”. Indeed, a Facebook user in the US is threatening legal action after the details of her Blockbuster rentals were posted on her Facebook profile.
It is exactly this sort of abuse of trust that perpetuates customer concerns about personalisation. But trust is a fickle thing--how many of those people concerned about giving an online retailer their profile details have no problem at all holding a supermarket loyalty card or airline frequent-flyer card? They may still have concerns about sharing their information with these companies, but these concerns are outweighed by the prospect of money-off vouchers and free flights. No one likes to admit it, but trust can be bought. Every man has his price.
Two steps toward successful personalisation
So the first step in a successful personalisation strategy is not to ask, “What information would I like to collect?” Instead you should ask, “Why will my customers want to trust me with their details?” Put simply, customers will ask, “What’s in it for me?” For postsales customer service, the answer is fairly simple: By providing a retailer or a manufacturer with details of the products they have bought, the retailer or manufacturer can provide the customers with relevant support and service information for those products.
The second step in a successful personalisation strategy is to intelligently use the information you have. Everybody gets irritated when made to repeat information that he has already provided. The classic example comes from the world of phone-based customer service. The automated response system of a certain mobile phone service provider used to ask the caller to type in his phone number. Then, when the caller was put through to the call centre agent, what was the first question the agent asked? “What’s your phone number?” This annoys customers before they’ve even said a word.
The equivalent in the internet world is the “do not reply” email. Many websites send order confirmation emails from an address along the lines of email@example.com. But why shouldn’t I reply? Surely if I have a query about an order, the easiest thing for me to do is to reply to the order confirmation. What’s more, it will have all the information that the customer service agent will need to process the enquiry – my name, email address, order number, date of purchase and a list of items purchased. Instead, the customer is often sent to the website to log in, find the relevant order and hope that the type of enquiry he want to make fits one of the predefined templates the site knows how to handle.
Maybe this sort of approach makes it easier for the customer service department to handle enquiries, but at what expense to customer ease of use?
Personalised customer service is not a question of constantly upselling other products. It is merely intelligently using the information you already have about a customer to provide context to the questions he asks or actions he performs.
12 key questions
High-quality customer service in an internet-enabled world means more than simply using the web to answer the same questions that used to be asked via phone. The internet has raised consumer expectations about the quality and speed of service.
Is your customer service department up to the task? Answer these 12 questions:
Does your website
1) allow customers to register quickly and easily after completing a purchase?
2) send order confirmation emails from a “real” email address?
3) allow customers to log in and check the status of open orders?
4) allow customers to view their order history?
5) allow customers to initiate product returns online?
6) provide a knowledge base of frequently asked customer service questions?
7) provide input forms for asking questions not covered by the FAQ?
8) provide email and telephone contact information for customers who want to engage with a “real” person?
9) provide product support information and documentation for purchased items
10 provide localised servicing information for purchased items?
11) offer the customer the option of receiving email alerts about any product updates or service information?
12) offer relevant accessories for purchased items?
The more questions you answered “no”, the more work you need to do before you can claim to offer high-quality, personalised service.
Richard Hughes is director of ecommerce solutions provider BroadVision.
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