People Who Need People

The internet experience doesn’t have to be soulless. Customers can still get that human touch.

Remember when you thought the Internet would let you get away with ignoring your customers? Self-service was one of the great early promises of the Web: people could read your Frequently Asked Questions, check out your troubleshooting page, peruse your online manual, and dig up the As to all their Qs. Relieved of interruptions, you, the company owner, could get some real work done.

But man does not live by customer self-service alone. Even on the best Web sites, people get disconnected. They get confused. They get frustrated. Then they get in touch. They E-mail, fax, and call, assaulting you with queries that are specific and challenging and that cry out for immediate attention. Someone has to answer them.
Yes, there are database-managed conversation applications out there, like eGain Assistant, offered by eGain Communications Corp. ( But software alone won’t cut it. You need operators standing by. Sympathetic hand-holders. Human beings.

Fortunately, a passel of technologies promise to connect customers with flesh-and-blood representatives right on your site. Internet telephony is one: these days most PCs have built-in microphones, allowing customers to speak through their computers. And companies like HearMe offer free Internet phone calls anywhere in the world. Users just surf to ( and set up a session.

Such services are perfect for college kids phoning home or for anyone who makes frequent calls to the folks back in the old country. But they lack the speed and performance required by a professional customer-service environment. While companies wait for voice-compression technology to jell, many are finding an acceptable alternative in text chat.

Petal Pushers

I came across one example of using text chat both wisely and well while ordering a Valentine bouquet at ( last winter. Since I can no more visit a Web site without evaluating its offerings than Roger Ebert can see a movie without raising or lowering a thumb, I checked out the company’s customer-service page. Like all virtuous Web sites, this one supplied directions for sending E-mail and phoning. But it presented a third option as well: visitors could connect to the company’s eQ&A Chat. Curious, I typed in a message for the rep I assumed must be out there, asking what life was like on the other side of the screen. “Busy!” her response came back.

Before I could type an apology for bothering her, she had transferred me to her supervisor, Marc Noel, who graciously answered all my questions about the fine art of managing E-chatters. Noel told me that his company’s customers feel that buying flowers should take just minutes. When questions arise, they don’t want to disconnect the modem, pick up the phone, and wither away on hold. Using software from eShare Technologies Inc. (, the company’s reps answer questions instantly; customers never leave the site. And like master chess players in the park, reps can juggle as many as six sessions simultaneously. They simply read a question, answer it, and then move rapidly to the next question before the first customer’s reply appears.

Not only is text chat more efficient than other communication mechanisms, but it’s also less expensive. In a study of, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, the one-to-one marketing gurus, concluded that answering customers’ questions in a chat format was 30% cheaper than doing it by E-mail, because reps using chat can reply with greater speed. The savings are even greater compared with service over the phone. And chat isn’t just for posy purchasers who are making low-cost decisions in a hurry. Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and Mail Boxes Etc. all use chat in the sales and service of far more expensive and complex products, working with a demanding and often knowledgeable constituency.

There’s an interesting anthropological angle to text chat, however. The questions you get tend to be either much smarter or much dumber than the stuff that comes through an average call center. Maybe customers are more comfortable asking the obvious when they know they won’t be answered in a voice dripping with scorn. Whatever the reason, expect a steady stream of queries from folks with less than optimum technical proficiency. (Q: How do I print out your page if I don’t have a printer?) Needless to say, your human reps must resist the very human urge to imply a groan in their typed responses. (Software, to give it its due, is rarely sarcastic.)

On the flip side, customers who frequent sites that are highly technical may possess unprecedented amounts of information. “Our customers are better informed and are asking a higher tier of question,” says Peter Corless, product manager at Cisco Systems’ IOS technology division ( That means customer-service reps must be better informed — or better connected to the people and systems that are better informed — than ever. Cisco reps need to find out how customers obtain self-service so that they can understand the mechanism from the customer’s point of view, says Corless. “They do not need to be breathing encyclopedias but rather reference librarians,” he says.

Show and Tell

Sites manned by live people can draw on more than the power of the written word. Tools like Hipbone (, for example, enable a rep to share a browser with a customer so that they can co-navigate. The rep types, “If you click here and then on this specifications button, you’ll find the table with the relevant technical specs,” while the customer watches the cursor slide across the page. The two can then fill out the form together.

Of course, there are always customers for whom you must literally draw a map — and others who prefer to draw one for you. Companies that want their reps to get a little graphic can try Groupboard (, a kind of electronic whiteboard on which dispersed users work simultaneously.
Tools like Groupboard not only allow your reps to diagram their instructions; they also let customers draw circles around the parts that confuse them or underline those passages they find perplexing. By combining such simultaneous sketching with a few product shots, reps can easily show customers what fits where and how.

Moving your customers’ cursors and drawing pretty pictures in their browser windows is one thing. Taking control of their computers is another. It’s an action that requires perfect trust, the kind that a patient has in a surgeon. It is also the deepest connection your human reps can make with your customers and is consequently, when managed well, the most powerful testament to your company’s capabilities.

I learned to trust recently when my E-mail software turned on me. E-mail is critical to my well-being; its failure sends me into paroxysms of disconnectedness. Desperate, I sought relief at (, a Web-based provider of person-to-person technical help.

On the Expertcity site I typed a description of my problem into a text box, and a few moments later a list of Eudora experts popped up together with their proposed fees for saving my bacon. I read some of the experts’ bios and a few reviews provided by earlier users. Then, after correlating the depth of my need with the contents of my wallet, I made a selection.

A chat session materialized, and Chet, my very own personal expert, started asking me questions. Since I had already tried several corrective courses to no avail, he asked if he could take over my machine. Have your way with it, I replied, withdrawing my fingers from the keyboard. Immediately, my cursor started wandering in Ouija-board fashion across the screen. Chet checked my settings and opened a new browser window. Next he clicked to the Eudora Web site, found an updated version of the software, and downloaded it into the proper directory. Then he advised me to install the new version, restart my machine, and call if the problems persisted. Finally, he gave me his home number and thanked me for the five bucks. If you sell or service technical products, this is your future.

But wonderful as text chat and related applications are, sometimes your customers will insist on talking to you. With their mouths. So until Internet telephony is ready for its close-up, please don’t forget to include your company’s telephone number on each and every page of your Web site. And don’t get angry when a customer’s call interrupts that real work. Instead, remember what your real work is.