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Customer service? The computer says “no”

Monday September 5 2011

James Passingham argues that, while times may be tough on the High Street, poor customers service communications are hindering multichannel retail growth

James Passingham argues that, while times may be tough on the High Street, poor customers service communications are hindering multichannel retail growth

 

High Street retailers have taken a battering of late with Jane Norman recently going into administration. The Office of National Statistics has reported that consumer purchases leading up to March fell by 0.6%, so it seems there’s worse to come.

 

However, James Passingham, chief executive of call centre and network communication managers Foehn, maintains that poor and outdated communications infrastructure and lack of investment in newer technologies definitely isn’t helping.

 

Keeping pace with expectations

 

“We don’t shop the way we used to,” he stated. “Today, our purchase experience depends on what we see in the shop and what we hear on the phone. E-tailers aren’t the perfect examples of customer service, but for traditional high street retailers with a larger estate to manage, customer service is still very disjointed between the various entities.

 

“My recent experience of buying and ‘installing’ a new sofa highlighted the variation on information being given. Depending on whom I spoke with I received conflicting information on stock levels, discounts and product range.

 

“Most retailers will have some form of centralised call centre system, which monitors first call resolution and carries out quality assurance grading,” he continued. “This is fine for e-tailers, where the call centre sits at the heart of customer interaction, but for High Street retailers striving for seamless customer service, this needs to extend out across the whole of their domain.”

 

One answer Passingham suggested is an open-source Asterisk telephony toolkit, allowing the low-cost implementation of a multi-site call centre environment – handling complex data without the need for expensive hardware at each site, just a central telephone system (PBX). “Being software-based also means retailers can scale up their wider call centre operations to include part-time staff at peak times such as Christmas,” he explained. See Tickets, Europe’s largest online ticketing company, has made substantial savings by moving to an Asterisk-based call centre environment.

 

The price for a shopfront

 

“There’s no getting away from it,” Passingham continued. “The fixed costs of a retailer with 40-plus stores is higher than that of the comparable e-tailer.

 

“A large area of additional cost and potential savings is down to the management of the wide area network (WAN). Constant attention to the network pays dividends as ever-changing technologies mean there are more economical ways to reduce the expense of the WAN.

 

“Similarly, ISDN lines often tie High Street retailers into set numbers of telephone lines that are costly to extend and can’t be scaled back – meaning many retailers are often reluctant to pay for extended technology to support busy periods. A scalable option is a session initiation protocol (SIP) connection voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) service, which connects the company’s PBX via the internet, for easy scalability.”

 

He said solutions like Cisco’s Dynamic Multipoint Virtual Private Network (DMVPN) can also provide enhancement of the VPN, allowing retailers to build a secure WAN with lower administrative overheads and greater resilience. This type of network structure makes it easier to cope with changes in store numbers and locations, he added.

 

And of course the web

 

“Good web management is about maximising customer experience and optimising your website to drive sales. Usability and speed are the new competitive advantage but unlike Tesco.com, not all High Street retailers have mirrored the quality of their offline investment in the online world,” added Passingham.

 

“Improving traffic management can enhance speed, ensuring faster page loading and secure transactions – Shopzilla.co.uk claimed speed improvements of five seconds resulted in a 25% increase in page views and a 10% increase in revenue. Systems like Zeus give retailers the ability to build a set of rules which instruct the website on how it should handle and process requests. It means they can prioritise ready-to-buy visitors avoiding ‘check-out abandonment’ in times of peak demand.”

 

Finally, in a recession he added it also makes sense to negotiate downturn clauses with suppliers and partners. “Not only does this avoid having to renegotiate contracts but it also keeps costs down,” he concluded. “In essence retailers need to think technology-driven customer service and cost reduction to stay ahead.”