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Death of the call center? -- Migration to Web-based customer care has begun

In a market where every storefront is limited by the size of the customer's monitor, and where price-shopping robots minimize any difference in cost, how customers are treated before, during and after the sale becomes the greatest competitive strength. As competition explodes among "dot com" companies, the distinguishing factor is increasingly customer service.

Unfortunately, both established retailers and start-up Internet companies are having to learn new customer care rules. For some, it's a matter of retraining and retooling an existing call center staff, for others, it's building a customer support infrastructure from scratch.

For those unwilling to build the systems themselves, opportunities exist to outsource. Experienced outsourcing companies can guide organizations that are busy managing their own success. Those companies can build and maintain relationship management e-business applications. Systems include electronic direct marketing, retention and stimulation, pre- and post-sale customer service and satisfaction surveys.

One such start-up firm advising e-commerce companies is E-assist , which offers guidance in building a CRM knowledgebase and can recommend technologies for communicating with customers via e-mail, chat and Voice over Internet Protocol.

"For many Internet start-ups, customer service is an afterthought," said Dan Plashkes, E-assist CEO. "Operations management is not a skill set that these guys bring to the table."

Plashkes recognizes that Web customer service is still in its adolescence. "The current way people are served on the Web is different from the way customers want to be served," he said. "But customer service correlates to profitability."

However, even with a myriad of solutions ranging from e-mail management to chat collaboration tools or traditional call center management systems, service is often lacking. The result is a loss of customers who can shop competitors with waiting just a click away. Thus, greater than 65% of all "shopping carts" are abandoned prior to check out.

Plashkes points out that the best response to e-mail is still at least four hours, and integrated solutions are hard to implement.

"The software world is very complex and confusing," Plashkes said. "There are at least 15 e-mail programs and 30 different CRM systems."

As the volume of retail shopping shifts from catalogs to the Internet, the nature of customer support will change as well.

"We're going to see a tremendous migration from a call center to a Web center," Plashkes predicted. "The call center is going away; the economics don't make sense. I'm looking at the obliteration of call centers over time."

Economics support Plashkes' contention. A Web-based customer service system can be cheaper and less resource-intensive than running a traditional call center. For Internet companies, e-customer service is often more effective for the electronic customer who may not want to leave the Internet to get a question answered.

"At $20 to $50 per call, the call center is not the way you should handle customers on the Web," Plashkes said.

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