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Ring My Bell

When your e-customers ask for help, is anyone there to answer?

Just as in the world of brick-and-mortar, customer service can make or break your e-business. Yet dealing with customers online presents a daunting set of challenges. A recent survey conducted by Jupiter Research revealed 72 percent of online buyers cite customer service as a critical factor in their online shopping satisfaction, but only 41 percent are satisfied with the service they've received.

A variety of customer service solutions are hitting the Web to mend this weak link in the e-commerce chain. Busy netpreneurs are finding two types of third-party services useful: sans humans or humans included. Either way, the aim is to reduce expensive support phone calls and piles of unanswered e-mail.

Virtual customer support presents a low-cost, low-personnel option, but functionality is limited. Approaches range from the use of Interactive Voice Response systems to cartoon assistants. Somewhere in the middle are services like Ask Jeeves' natural language technology-essentially the same as the Ask Jeeves search engine, but applied to customer service on participating sites.

The top choice for online human-assisted customer service is chat. Chat offers the advantage of real-time interaction accessible directly from businesses' Web sites. Companies like LivePerson offer this high-tech Internet version of a traditional call center. Although the costs have to be closely examined, one-on-one service is the ideal for customer support.

A June 2000 study by Datamonitor reported a loss of $6.1 billion in online sales due to poor customer service in 1999. That figure indicates that top-level service isn't a luxury; it's a necessity that pays off in added sales and repeat customers.

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This article was originally published in the December 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Ring My Bell.

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