Online customer support complements call centers

Customer service given online helps cut cost and provides more immediate response, but call centers remain integral for businesses providing mission-critical products and services.

Moving customer service functions online will provide cost savings to companies but not every company can afford to do so as, particularly those offering mission-critical products and services.

Mark Johnson, head of Asia-Pacific for Message Systems, said moving parts of or all the customer service capabilities online will help companies in their cost-cutting measures. This is because a customer service representative is able to conduct multiple chat conversations with customers simultaneously, which is more than the one call he is able to take at any one time when it is done over the phone, he explained.

Furthermore, for problems relating to hardware, software and mobile handsets, online support can be a better medium to resolve consumers' issues. "For example, when working with a technology product, pictures or specific written instructions are sometimes more effective in solving the problem," Johnson said.

The executive's comments come after some companies moved their customer service online. Telstra, for example, did away with two call centers  in August which resulted in 422 job cuts. It attributed the move to a 20 percent drop in call volumes.

Apple, too, started providing online support via its Apple specialists  for iPhone and iPad customers in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Brazil. Customers can now get online help before and after purchasing their gadgets without having to head down to an Apple store.

Johnson also noted the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and Chinese mobile operators are using microblogging site Sina Weibo as an additional channel for their customer service staff on top of the traditional call centers.

He did state online support should not be the only channel for customers to get assistance, and it should be part of a complete support program that includes rich support tools such as live video chats, instant messaging, forums, and call centers.

"If a customer's computer or Internet connection is down or if the company's Web site or server is down, a pure online model without a call center is useless and can lead to disastrous customer backlash," he explained.

This is particularly for businesses that offer mission-critical products and services as issues raised are usually time-sensitive and the response given is closely linked to customer satisfaction, Johnson pointed out. For instance, it is a bad idea for a telco not to have a call center established as many consumers call in due to their systems being down which makes it impossible for them to go online to seek help in the first place, he said.

Customers like online support but need immediate answers
Consumers whom ZDNet Asia spoke to mostly agreed with Johnson's observations although online help is their preferred primary medium.

Vietnam-based civil servant Nguyen Thao Nguyen said she prefers having a chat using instant messaging tools when it comes to getting help from customer service. However, she still wants the option to be able to speak to company representatives "as soon as possible".

"I don't like to wait for too long or even worse--waiting [only to get] no reply," said Nguyen.

Singapore-based student Adrianna Tan also stated her preference for online customer service to phone calls as she does most of her activities online. U.S.-based online shopping site has "excellent" online customer service as it has an instant chat option for consumers, she said.

Inefficient online communication channels such as via e-mail are given a miss by Tan though. "I prefer online customer service. If it's online but inefficient, I'd rather not use it. I need immediate answers during customer service queries," she stated.

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