Don’t Forget The Online Human Touch

Now that the holiday dust has settled, many online businesses are struggling to figure out how to combat the notion that e-commerce is marred by poor customer service.

This holiday season yielded stinging but consistent complaints: complicated sites that were difficult to navigate; merchandise that arrived late or never; too many steps required to complete a transaction; and the big daddy of them all, no human beings with whom to interact.

So, when did technology become synonymous with electronics at the expense of people? And when was customer support relegated to the realm of software and machines?

The Rise of CRM

Somewhere along the way, customer service was preempted by something called Customer Relationship Management (CRM), which is often perceived as having more to do with mechanized interaction with prospects or current customers than it does with real human relationships.

Today’s technology allows CRM to exist by offering e-businesses the capability to interact with their customers individually through ingenious systems that link back-office data with front-office applications. The premise is that if a business can see its operation through the eyes of the customer, it will be better able to establish systems and practices that attract and keep those customers.

For example, if a company can seamlessly link the data it has mined about a customer’s shopping patterns and preferences with a call-center operation that offers customer service, it can offer customers highly customized shopping experiences. The hope is that the customer will feel a sense of greater personal attention.

Further, consider the customer who expresses doubts about an e-tailer’s ability to deliver goods by a certain date. If the e-tailer has its outsourced warehouse inventory information tied in with its customer support operation, it is easier to instantly reassure the customer, and perhaps close the sale.

E-Businesses Buying Into CRM?

Recent entrants into online commerce are dancing as fast as they can to organize their operations. The ideal business has a comprehensive view of its data warehousing, inventory control, targeted marketing techniques, customer support systems and Web site traffic patterns. CRM technology aims to achieve all of that and more.

Evidently, business owners are increasingly enthusiastic about the possibilities. International Data Corporation (IDC) projects that worldwide CRM service revenues, including consulting, systems integration and outsourcing will reach $90 billion (US$) by 2003.

High Tech and HighTouch

Questions remain, however, whether high tech CRM solutions alone can provide the comfort zone that consumers desire. In fact, if all an e-business does is mechanize its operation and streamline its business electronically, it may miss the human touch that could eventually become critical to true online success.

Another way of looking at this concept is that all of the fancy back-end computing in the world is not enough. The companies must also design high human touch at critical points in the sales process. According to this theory, the companies who connect high tech with high touch will emerge as the biggest winners.

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