CUSTOMER SERVICE: INSTANT INFO IS NOT ENOUGH

Future electronic support will blend digital and human help

BUSINESS AT NET SPEED Click for June 22, 1998 issue




Since electronic commerce became all the rage two years ago, most of the buzz has been about selling products online. But for long-distance phone carrier MCI Communications Corp. (MCIC), the focus was elsewhere: on delivering customer service over the Internet. Now, MCI customers with PCs can monitor their accounts and pay their bills without so much as licking a stamp. By early fall, they'll be able to click an icon to get a service representative to talk with as they continue surfing the Web--assuming they're a good customer, that is. Since MCI's sophisticated system identifies the caller in seconds, big spenders get help within three rings, while penny-pinching carrier-swappers must wait until after priority customers get the first-class treatment.

Such digital hand-holding is still rare, but companies are catching on quickly to the advantages of cyber support. Today, businesses operating at least partially on the Net handle 13% of their customer inquiries electronically, according to Forrester Research Inc. (FORR). Already, a third of all online businesses are building sophisticated systems that will automate everything from order-taking to customer complaints, ActivMedia says.. ''Customers are just begging for electronic support,'' says Michael J. Betzer, MCI's vice-president for information technology.

The reach of the far-flung Internet into homes and businesses should have benefits for buyers and sellers alike. For buyers, it means no more schlepping down to the mall to deal with cranky clerks. At the same time, companies stand to gain huge cost savings of 30% or more, even while improving service.

Consider Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), the San Francisco-based bank. Its 450,000 consumers with electronic accounts have instant access to online information such as account balances and interest rates. As a result, these customers place calls to the bank just 1.4 times a month--40% less than other customers. Wells Fargo now figures it can expand electronic accounts to 2 million in the next three years while keeping support costs flat.

Still, most of today's online help systems fall short of the red-carpet treatment. Sure, they supply some tailored responses--such as account balances--but most just offer boatloads of information and expect customers to find their own answers. In a world where customers can jump to a rival with the click of a mouse, that ''self-help'' approach may not be enough. ''People are time-starved and want to get answers in a way that's convenient,'' says Forrester analyst Maria LaTour Kadison. ''Businesses that don't respond to that will lose.''

CLICK HELP. Already, a new vision of electronic support is taking shape--an approach that blends digital and human help. For starters, auto-reply E-mail systems will answer simple queries. Online mortgage broker American Finance & Investments Inc. answers 65% of such questions--such as: ''What are your current rates?''--in seconds. AT&T (T), Nike Inc. (NKE), and others are using a technology that determines the proper response to more complex problems by ''interviewing'' the customers through a series of pop-up online forms.

For inquiries that are beyond any computer's expertise, so-called tele-Web technologies are the answer. These software programs let stumped customers get help from a real person as they surf. 1-800-Flowers Inc. and others allow consumers to click on an icon and start an interactive chat with a service rep.

Laggards that wait much longer to ramp up their online support do so at their peril. Already, American Express Co. (AXP) has grabbed a dozen big clients largely because of its planned online services, including features such as city maps to help customers choose a hotel. Says Jeff Bezos, CEO of online bookseller Amazon.com (AMZN): ''You have to treat every customer as if they can tell thousands of people about the service. Because they can--and they are.'' Fortunately, more may soon be saying how good the service is--not how awful.

By Peter Burrows in San Mateo, Calif.



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