| Navigation bar disconnected -- please see text links at bottom of the page |I-Commerce

Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

August 23, 1999

Web technology is no substitute for customer service

Few commerce topics I've written about have provoked stronger reactions than customer service. The reason is obvious: No one gets much of it anymore, and that's infuriating.

When was the last time you walked into a store and got treated like an individual, with concern shown for your particular interests and needs? Unless you have a fat pocketbook and regularly shop at high-end establishments, it was probably a long time ago.

But if customer service is poor in the real world, it's worse online.

Even on sites that are well-designed and usable, it's still hard to get real customer service when you need it. If you send e-mail, do you get a quick and helpful reply? Is it easy to find a phone number to call? If you call the help line, do the customer service representatives answering the phone have any clue how you spent the last hour on their own Web site?

On the vast majority of Web sites, the answer is probably "no."

Personalization technologies such as those sold by BroadVision (www.broadvision.com) and NetPerceptions (www.netperceptions.com) pose as solutions to the customer service problem.

Don't be fooled. These systems tailor Web pages and product offers to your users' individual interests. This is a worthwhile improvement and may even increase your online sales, because it saves customers time and encourages repeat visits. But it's not going to take the place of good service.

Your customers aren't dummies: They know when they're talking to a machine.

But there are some technologies that can help, provided that your company has a real commitment to customer service.

LivePerson (www.liveperson.com) has an intuitively simple service that lets your customers communicate with you via a text chat window. You simply put a button on a Web page -- or better yet, on every page on your site -- that says, "Click here for a live person." Customers click on the button and a new browser window opens in which they can chat with an actual customer service representative.

LivePerson's advantage is its simplicity: It's a service, so there's no technology overhead for your company. Also, it doesn't require customers to install or use any software other than a standard browser -- they don't even need Java.

NewChannel (www.newchannel.com) offers a more sophisticated and more complicated service. This tool also lets your service personnel chat with potential customers through text windows. But NewChannel also lets you set up sophisticated filters and business rules so that solicitations to chat appear only on certain pages at certain times.

For example, if a customer is spending a lot of time clicking around your site, he or she may be lost or confused -- so NewChannel can be configured to automatically add a "click to chat" button to the next Web page the customer views.

These business rules also let you target the most promising customers -- such as repeat visitors, existing customers, or customers that have just added a product or two to their shopping carts.

Of course, neither of these solutions will amount to much if your company doesn't commit the resources needed to staff the virtual call centers. That's why, in the case of customer service, technology is the least of your worries.

Is there a future for customer service online? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney is the content development manager for InfoWorld Electric. He has been writing about the Internet since 1993.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

The `e's have it: learning to spell the new economy
August 16, 1999

Webvan delivers logistics lesson to online vendors
August 9, 1999

Password shuffle is inconvenient, causes security problems
August 2, 1999

Internetworking points at necessity of data `garages'
July 26, 1999

Every column since August, 1997

Please direct your comments to InfoWorld Electric.

Copyright © 1999 InfoWorld Media Group Inc.

IBM is the proud sponsor of the I-Commerce section on InfoWorld Electric.

| SiteMap | Search | PageOne | Reader/Ad Services |
| Enterprise Careers | Opinions | Test Center | Features |
| Forums | Interviews | InfoWorld Print | InfoQuote |