One of the biggest advantages enjoyed by human salespeople is that they can see a look of confusion on a shopper's face -- and, in theory, offer to help. Your PC, in contrast, just sits there no matter how frustrated you get while shopping online. Companies lose sales when online shoppers can't get their questions answered.
Some companies increase their sales by using tools that offer to connect online shoppers with humans, either on the phone or in a text chat. The addition of humans into the equation, however, forces them to consider one of the great unsolved questions of customer service: Is it a cost center? A strategic advantage? Or maybe both? Humans tend to close more sales, but maybe not enough to justify the added costs.
Companies like startup UpSellit want to help businesses have it both ways with software that fools customers into thinking there's a human being in cyberspace responding to their needs. As Fortune reports, a virtual live chat assistant provides added incentives such as shipping discounts for shoppers who click away from shopping carts without completing a purchase.
The software was created by a guy who thought it was a hoot to fool his friends on IM. He tested it on "thousands of unwitting would-be Internet pickup artists over AOL instant messenger" before bringing it to market two years ago. It's now used by 100 companies on 250 Web sites, according to Fortune. The assistants can even be equipped with "voices" to convey the appropriate corporate image -- playful for a dating site and professional for an online office supply store.
Will customers care whether a human or a piece of software provides assistance? In theory, it shouldn't matter as long as problems are solved to a customer's satisfaction. But the article mentions shoppers who try to "out" the software by asking questions like "Who wrote Huck Finn?" In the case cited in the story, the customer halts the transaction after the virtual assistant can't come up with the right answer.
Truth is, both companies and their customers would probably be happier if they could just meet in the middle with their expectations for customer service.
If companies hired humans to deal with all customer service issues -- no matter how small -- they'd have to jack up the prices of their goods and services so much that nobody in their right mind would buy them. Knowing this, I will navigate through a few automated options to see if my problem can be solved without human intervention, and help myself when I am able.
But I expect companies to keep up their end of the deal by making self-service options intuitive enough that a person of average intelligence can figure them out, and by providing a reasonably easy way for a person to ask for human assistance if they need it.
Companies that are trying to keep their costs to a minimum may not be willing to do this. But perhaps they need to rethink their priorities. As Allen Bonde of eVergance told me in an interview:
Savings is always going to be a part of the equation. When you consider how much you can save by diverting calls to online options, for instance, it's obviously going to be a key component of making your business case. But you want to make sure you don't fixate on it as your end goal. If you can get an electronic dialogue going with your customer and gather information about what they really like, that's going to have more long-term value than simple cost savings.
Bonde's interview, Self-Service Can Do More Than Cut Costs, offers plenty of good suggestions for implementing self-service solutions. Among his tips: Companies may need to rethink their metrics for channels that may overlap, such as contact centers and Web sites.