Get Personal, Even When Not Face to Face

By Paul Spiegelman

One of the surest ways to turn me into a repeat buyer is to provide excellent customer service before, during and after the sale. If I am treated well by a sales representative, receptionist or business associate, my desire to continue a relationship with that company escalates significantly.

What happens; however, when transactions take place online? How can businesses develop long-lasting, trusting relationships with people when connected not by face-to-face smiles, but by wires and satellites stretching around the globe? Perhaps not surprisingly, exceptional customer service is still the answer.

The Internet is a tool of unprecedented magnitude. It has the ability to be at consumers’ fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once online, users can get advice about healthcare, trade stocks, buy furniture or perform a myriad of other tasks. Conceivably, business can be done and money can be made while we’re sleeping.

One of its drawbacks is its impersonalization as users browse the Web anonymously from the privacy of their own home and (other than chat rooms) engage in a series of one-way email messaging. Despite its conveniences, the Internet cannot meet all needs all the time. Consumers may be seeking information that is not available in a website. They may have questions that are too pressing to wait for an email response during “regular business hours.” Or they may simply need the reassurances that only another live person can impart. What happens then? Enter “interaction:” a marriage of the accessibility of the Internet and the value of human interaction.

Humans are social beings, as well as creatures of habit…and in the case of customer service, that still means being able to speak with another human being. According to USA Today’s survey of 1,000 Internet users, 68 percent want contact with a live customer service representative, while 35 percent of those polled prefer chatting with sales reps online. The Wall Street Journal also recently reported that “what will separate the e-commerce successes from the failures will be relationships…one of the elements inherent in building these relationships is the ability to talk to a human.”

“Interaction” is a way to take advantage of the many benefits of modern technology without losing touch with what has been learned from years of business experience and examples. If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the wizardry of technology and ignore the needs of our consumers, we put ourselves at a disadvantage. We must continue to evaluate customer service from the customers’ point of view taking into account that not everyone has the same comfort level with the Internet. Every online transaction canceled because a frustrated consumer cannot reach a live person is a missed opportunity. Too many missed opportunities translate into thousands, or even millions, in lost revenues.

According to Datamonitor, Web shoppers abandoned $1.6 billion in e-commerce transactions in 1998 due to lack of integrated customer service. And yet, less than 1 percent of e-commerce sites offer live customer service. Don’t let your company remain one of the 99 percent who continue to disappoint customers because of the overwhelming lack of customer service. An emerging trend to achieve optimum customer service is to integrate the Internet with a call center. Since it may be cost-prohibitive for many companies to offer an around-the-clock call center for their customers, one option many businesses are finding appealing is turning to service bureaus that specialize in live customer interaction. These bureaus offer as many solutions to companies’ needs as there are individual situations–from live operators available 24 hours a day to immediate email response to online users’ questions or concerns. As technology becomes increasingly prevalent in our culture, it is imperative that we not forget the value of relationships.

These are the bonds that turn one-time visitors into repeat customers. Ultimately, customers will remember how a company treated them, not where they interacted with it. An Internet presence provides consumers with constant access to your business that our fast paced culture demands. Live customer interaction provides those same consumers with the relationship they require. Those who figure out how to marry the two will build customer loyalty, establish relationships that allow for the cross selling of products, elevate its business above that of the competition and give themselves an almost unfair competitive advantage. Make your company one of these!

Paul Spiegelman is president of The Beryl Companies which, since 1984, has provided outsourced call center and website development services to more than 500 businesses nationwide. For more information call 800-833-2000 and ask for the marketing department. This article is a reprint with permission of CC News.

[From Connection Magazine – September 2000]

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