Monday, June 14, 2010

Online Customer Service in a connected world

In the last few weeks, I attempted to reach out to various service providers—organizations whose services I had availed in the past via their websites. The objective was to seek help with unsubscribing from their mailing lists, as well as for assistance in resolving problems I faced with a few purchased goods, respectively. While I thoroughly enjoyed the services and products, when it came to problem resolution, the process fell through the gaps (with no resolution).

We know that every business selling services or merchandise has had online aspirations since the Internet and World Wide Web came into existence. These aspirations skyrocketed with the mobile market growing at a fast pace and phones becoming smarter. Today, every business irrespective of size, geography and market potential, has a Website providing information. In many cases, these Websites even provide transactional capability, as they experiment with mobile based engagement models.

Customers have lapped up these offerings, as they have offered convenience (apart from discounts) over conventional modes of buying in many cases, or facilitated anytime anywhere commerce. Information enabled customers are also making smart choices by comparing offerings from various retailers. The industry has grown faster than conventional retailing in developed markets, and in the developing world, growth via non-brick-and-mortar model is higher by multiples.

Now, here are a few examples of my experiences with these organizations:

Case 1: Tried to reach a portal offering match making services to unsubscribe after my nephew found his match. However, the email ID for unsubscribing from the newsletters was incorrect. With trial and error, found the right id, and guess what? The mailbox was full, so the message bounced back. Not giving up, I wrote to the Webmaster and feedback email ids. Three weeks later, I still continue to receive offers to get married!

Case 2: Bought a leading brand’s stereo Bluetooth speaker from a store. All was well for 2 years, until I wanted to install the device on another computer. Unable to find the driver, I found that the website was not helpful. Emails to customer service, the CEO, and Web-forms have gone unanswered for a month now.

Case 3: Used the services of a large domain registrar. The payment gateway failed four times, prompting me to reach out to customer services, which helped me with the process. On the payment gateway screen after providing my credit card details, I get an error! Customer service says in an online chat session that the transaction is successful, and disconnects. I am left wondering if that last the unsuccessful attempts were also charged. Email sent to them evinces no response.

What do you deduce from these incidents? Technology can enable processes, but people have to execute them. If staff does not recognize that a customer is to be served through the Website, email or chats as well as they are served in the offline world, the customer can choose to take the business elsewhere. I am reasonably certain that I would do business with these sites or their associate sites only if I had absolutely no other options. Do they care about the outcome? I don’t know. Can CIOs and IT do anything to improve such a situation?

For starters, CIOs could be the process’ co-owners in the virtual world. The CIO can use his network of friends to periodically test efficacy, provide feedback, or fine-tune the process to achieve desired outcomes. Technology enabled blackholes (such as the outlined cases) are a negative reflection on the organization’s brand value and customer perception. Every customer counts—more so in a connected world when social computing influences consumer behavior; the ripple effect needs to be addressed before it becomes a big wave rushing down.

So, do you know what are consumers tweeting or blogging about your company?

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