Showing posts with label customer service. Show all posts
Showing posts with label customer service. Show all posts

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Press 3 for a Diamond Expert."

This is a fork, where my work-related blog for and my personal blog start to diverge, allowing me to explore other interests. All previous posts have been replicated in both places, and future posts may be replicated where pertinent.

It was very interesting to read an interview of Mark Stolzman, CFO of Blue Nile, Inc. the online diamond retailer.

Besides the financial aspects of the story (low or no inventory carrying costs, etc.), here are a couple of excerpts that I found interesting, especially finding it in the CFO magazine:

"Right now we have about a 4 percent share of the engagement[-ring] business in the United States, and we think we can double or triple that in the next five years. We want to expand our market share both domestically and internationally. We want to do that by offering education, quality, and selection. And we'll continue to expand our service to the customer both in terms of [technology] tools and in terms of access, whether it's by online chat, E-mail, or telephone."

"Despite the fact that most of the purchase process is done online, our customer-service group gets involved in a vast majority of our purchases, because customers still think, "OK, I'm making a significant purchase, and I want to make sure I've made the right decision." So they get comfort in accessing our diamond experts and knowing the purchase they're about to make is solid."

Mark Stolzman's words capture the power and the challenge of new media in building trust among remote users. Being able to sell a diamond ring without actually meeting the seller in person calls for a high level of trust to be established early on during the shopping experience. The convenience of using the telephone, besides email and chat online, seems to indicate that the trust-building requires some extra support through old technology.

Take a look at this unrelated news item titled "More Consumers Going Online to Shop". According to Nachi Lolla, research director, commerce at Nielsen Online, the majority of consumer concerns about online shopping have been lifted.

Even if retailers may not have mastered all the methods of trust-building over the web, many of the earlier hurdles seem to have been crossed or outweighed by the sheer convenience of getting things or getting things done over the web. The average user now submits shipping and payment information on the web without hesitation. Companies have started building brands on the web where the customer knows that effective means of redresssal are available with a simple email expressing dis-satisfaction about a purchase.

Even if all the tools are available for an online user to independently research and verify the authenticity of an online business, you will be surprised at how often a user says "Is there a phone number I can call?"

As the customer-service function strains to be prompt in its responsiveness, as it strains to overcome the absence of face-to-face or tactile experiences in online shopping through other communication tools, there is a need not only for using whichever instrument of communication works best within the customer's comfort zone, but also a need to have knowledgeable people at level-one customer support.

Just like the diamond experts that Mark Stolzman talks about. That comes at a price - I suppose at a price lower than inventory-carrying costs.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Helping the Help Lines

A support line for a live online event is an interesting animal. An event is live for short spells of time, and a related support issue is not only live but also ticking. A 'live online event' simply means that a large number of people show up online by logging into the system simultaneously through the event website and use a variety of instant interaction and instant information tools for a short duration. Live events often end in 24 or 36 hours. Customer support delivered a little late could be too late. We are only as good as the last support request that we have resolved - how we resolved it, and how quickly we resolved it.

Our users come to us with a sense of urgency, because time lost on a live event could be opportunity lost for making the right connections with online visitors and exhibitors. Further, since the virtual events that we create happen over the Internet, we have to rely on a set of online tools to sense a problem, or be notified of a problem, and a swift and efficient mechanism to acknowledge requests, to escalate issues as needed, respond, resolve and also take measures to prevent other users facing a similar issue in the remaining hours of the live event.

A typical online support process in my experience starts with an emailed auto-response, and then an email follow-up in a couple of days. If we take that as the norm of online support, it does not help in the area of live online events. During live events, we sometimes even have to turn off auto-responders on support channels because they could cause needless aggravation to users who are already pressed for time. When the clock on an event is ticking, the last thing that an end-user needs is an impersonal auto-response. The best response in such cases is one that carries a resolution with it, a quick explanation and an apology (not necessarily in that order). The responses are delivered either through a quick phone call, an email or a broadcast message if it affects all users. It is important for the online attendees to know that real humans are monitoring the live online event. For high-traffic online events we have also very successfully staffed a dedicated text-chat room for live support and addressed users in private or collectively.

We learned the hard way that it is most efficient to steer all support requests to text-based channels so that little or nothing would be lost in transmission or translation. Users love the flexibility that they have in being able to screen-capture errors and send it to our support lines, or copy and paste anything they see that they do not understand, and our support system can act on them and respond to them with precision. An IVR (integrated voice response) system that places live online help-seekers in a queue is a bad idea when the count-down has begun for the launch of an online event, or when the clock on a live online event is ticking away.

These dynamic factors amid a ticking clock are what make the world of online events so different. I admire the nerves of our technical team, because they have consistently delivered with only one thought to guide them - how to make the online event participant's life easy. I almost see their work to be in the realm of air traffic controllers. The only difference between an air traffic controller's work and our technical crew's work I suppose is that instead of real lives being involved, there are real livelihoods involved - real marketing folks take part in our online events. They are very stressful. [ A shout-out to our technical and support team would be most appropriate here! ] However, the real help to the help-line begins at the design stage. While it is inconceivable to visualize every potential problem, impossible to predict every instance of users getting confused with the user-interface even though we could have vouched that the event is made to be highly intuitive, the more time spent in thinking and planning the user-experience and navigation before-hand, the lesser the strain on the support lines.

As we ramp up to the live online event, and even in the heat of a live online event, we have to stay nimble about our approaches to a resolution, sometimes being willing to modify user-interfaces to contain the spread of a support problem even as the first complaints are being invetigated. Every problem anticipated and avoided amounts to precious time saved for an end-user. Every potential issue nipped in the bud means a friend made in the online visitor. It is about making life easier for the customers. Consequently, it also makes life easier for the support line.

The first infographic that we got designed for explaining our company's offering depicts our role in a control tower. When it was designed in 1999, little did I know that the metaphor is true and timeless. Check it out below.