Spending on customer service staffing boosts online sales

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So it makes business sense to have more salespeople to help the customers at your brick-and-mortar stores. But what if the store we’re talking about is a website? Does the same strategy of having more salespeople “on the floor” boost sales for online retailers?

Being There for Online Shoppers

In a brick-and-mortar store, when a shopper has a question or can’t find an item, she seeks out a salesperson. What happens when she can’t find one? According to The New Yorker article, “One of the biggest problems retailers have is what is called a ‘phantom stock-out.’ That’s when a product is in the store but can’t be found. Worker-friendly retailers with more employees have fewer phantom stock-outs, which leads to more sales.”

On an e-commerce website, what’s the equivalent of seeking out a salesperson? It’s contacting the e-tailer in one of several ways: via phone, live chat, click-to-call, email, or social media. To avoid phantom stock-outs and avoid having shoppers leave your site without buying anything, you need to be there when they seek your help. The way you do that is by having well-trained representatives who respond quickly and effectively to customer service requests from shoppers on your site.

More and more retailers are realizing just how critical such a customer service function is, both online and off. According to a new report from NRF and KPMG, nearly 67 percent of companies rank customer satisfaction as the top strategic initiative for 2012 and, similarly, 82 percent say customer service strategies will be their top priority in the coming year, up from 75 percent last year. Luxury brands in particular, who are seeking to differentiate themselves in a crowded online marketplace, understand that they can do so by providing a level of customer care that competitors don’t. What’s more, having a knowledgeable customer care representative available not only helps you make a sale on one specific occasion, it becomes part of an improved customer experience and fosters brand loyalty.

Staffing Your Online Customer Care Function

If you’re persuaded that highly available, knowledgeable salespeople can boost online sales, the next question is, How do you get them? You could hire and train a sufficient number of employees to staff an internal contact center capable of handling the volume of phone calls, chat requests, emails and social media posts that come your way. One advantage of such an internal staff is that you can ensure your agents are immersed in your brand and convey your brand personality with every customer interaction. But the downside relates to capital expense. Staffing your own internal call center involves expenses related to hiring and training, benefits, managers, office space, sophisticated telecommunications hardware and software, increased network bandwidth and more. All the money you spend for those items is money you can’t spend on your core business mission.

Yet cost savings is only one consideration in the decision, and, according to Kate Leggett, a senior analyst at global research and advisory firm Forrester, it shouldn’t be the main one. In her latest report, “Decide Whether To Build or Source Your Customer Service Operations: Profiles of Eight Leading Customer Service Outsourcing Vendors,” Leggett addresses the building/buying/outsourcing debate and advises not to outsource to save money. “[Cost] is the absolute wrong reason to outsource,” she says. Rather, outsource for consistency and standardization within voice, chat and e-mail channels, and to better serve your customers with a delineated response flow.

E-tailers with strong brands who do decide to outsource often find that the smart business decision is to engage a contact center that specializes in brand care. You still get the benefit of having agents who are experts in your brand, but you realize savings on the capital expense front. And you get the main benefit you were after all along: Increased sales that come from not abandoning customers shopping online—not to mention delivering a better overall customer experience that more closely replicates the in-store experience, fosters brand loyalty, and promises future sales from repeat customers.

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