Everything needed to create a truly responsive site — monitoring and analyzing customer queries, creating the right content and posting it in a well-organized manner, handling email communications, etc. — can be extremely labor-intensive. A website can be a victim of its own success if the volume of communications exceeds the resources dedicated to supporting that communication.

Effective, scalable automation tools can automate such time-consuming knowledge collection, which, when neglected, can result in out-of-date content, and dissatisfied customers, and a lower profit margin.

Automated customer service solutions can be software-driven, services-driven, or a combination of both. They run the gamut from FAQ manager programs, to email management systems that help you automate the process of sorting and responding to incoming inquiries, to full-blown customer relationship management systems. The incorporation of some or all of the systems discussed in this section will help to prevent the disorganization that often arises in many web-based customer service operations — especially problems generated by the inability to handle the volume of traffic that can be experienced if your website suddenly becomes popular.

Most of the solutions discussed herein are expensive. Still you should give them some thought before you decide whether or not to forego the golden opportunity these solutions provide — an online, customer-initiated, one-on-one relationship.


Although FAQs are built simply by creating web pages with questions and answers, the knowledge contained in an ever-growing FAQ section will, over time, become difficult for the customer to search and for you to maintain. Therefore, as your website grows, consider automating its FAQ section to ensure that the knowledge contained therein can be searched rapidly by your customers. An added bonus of an automated system is that it allows you to more easily maintain a large and/or dynamic FAQ section.

Software, such as, FAQ Generator (, FAQ Manager (, and MyCGIScripts’ FAQ Manager ( will provide the assistance you need. For more FAQ management tools go to your favorite search engine and type in “FAQ Manager.” The results should provide you with a selection of products that fit your needs and budget.


Customers not only want the ability to place orders for product and services, they also want to obtain additional product/service information, to resolve billing issues, to track down shipments, and to ask installation and product support questions. As stated previously, most of today’s websites give their customers information on how to contact them by telephone, email, or by a form on their site. However, as customers become more “Internet Savvy,” and as hold times at call centers increase (as they must with the e-commerce explosion), customers will become more inclined to send emails to the web-based business. After all, why should they wait “on hold” to get information (or place an order) when they can just fill out a form or send an email and then read the reply at leisure? Moreover, servicing customers through online methods is a proven cost-effective solution that can give a boost to your business’s profit margin.

Most home-based or small web-based businesses can, initially, rely on their internal email system to process customer queries. But even when using this method, the following is suggested as best practice when responding to customer’s email inquiries (you should pick and choose what would be suitable for your particular e-commerce business):

  • Issue a “thank you” auto-acknowledgement for each email as soon as it is received with a time frame of when an answer can be expected (then respond within that time frame), along with an 800 number that the customer can call if they need an immediate solution.
  • Have “click and drag” paragraphs available for CSRs to paste into the email response.
  • In some circumstances suggest a phone call (if the customer is willing) rather than being drawn into a long series of email exchanges.
  • Above all, be fast — make it your goal to satisfy 90% of your customers’ email inquiries inside two working hours, and want to be faster.

Don’t make a customer wait days for a response to their email inquiry, or give an automated response that doesn’t come close to addressing their needs. Don’t require your customer to take an aggressive stance just to obtain proper customer service. While a persistent customer might be able to obtain the answer they’re looking for, it will come with a lot of frustration, which doesn’t foster long term customer relationships.

Many websites handle their email traffic poorly. Should people who communicate with a company via electronic means receive less prompt service than those that use telephones? Remember, demographic studies indicate that people who browse the Web are usually more affluent than the general public, and are generally inclined to try new things. These are the very customers a company wants to attract and keep!

Some web-based businesses believe (wrongly) that automatic email response can handle all of their customer email inquiries. While automatic email response does have a role in many multi-threaded customer service strategies — it can’t do it all — also use live CSR support.

Email Management Systems

Any business that has a large volume of email, or finds that its email volume is growing exponentially, should consider using an email management system. And for those astute e-commerce operators that want to handle email inquiries with the same quality of service as telephone calls, an email management system (EMS) may be in their future. Although costly, an EMS can provide the infrastructure, processes and methodologies to handle online customer service issues in a manner comparable to, and sometimes as good or better than, what is available through most call centers.

As discussed previously, e-commerce is conducted in essentially one of two ways:

1. A customer obtains information on products and services through a website. (How extensive the available online information is can vary from product description to FAQ to an extensive, dynamic knowledge base.) The customer then uses the telephone to call a CSR to place an order and/or to ask for additional information.


2. A customer not only obtains detailed information on products and services through an easy navigational path through a website, but also can obtain additional information through various channels (chat, message boards, FAQs, knowledge bases, VoIP, co-browsing) and, of course, place an order — all entirely through the e-commerce website.

Many customers (especially the Internet savvy ones) prefer to take the self-help route (product/service descriptions, knowledge base, FAQs, message boards, etc.) then, if that doesn’t work, they will contact the website via email. If the customer has chosen to make contact via email, then a website must make it as easy as possible by providing (at the minimum) a form on the website for its customers to fill out. A “Contact Us” web page devoted to email address links segregated by departments would be even better. This desire by customers to use email (and online ordering) represents a great opportunity for websites that have implemented a high-quality email management system. However, if implementing an EMS, study the websites of Net2Phone, Microsoft, HP, and AOL first. Learn from their mistakes.

The advantage of email (and online ordering) is that the transaction can be conducted in an asynchronous manner. Unlike a telephone call, the parties involved in the transaction do not have to be in the transaction at the same time. This is especially valuable to both parties when the interaction needed is minimal, and the need to complete the transaction is not immediate. For example, customers may want to get the tracking number of an order so that they can check the status of their order at their convenience. An email management system can provide the infrastructure necessary to enable a busy e-commerce website to promptly and efficiently handle the vast amounts of customer-based electronic communications.

Clearly, one of the benefits of having an online presence is that customers can conduct their own research on products and services, at their own pace. As discussed throughout this book, a well-designed e-commerce site makes it easy for customers to find what they want, and helps them get answers to most of their questions. Motivated customers will navigate their way through well-designed web pages, and will make purchasing decisions or resolve a service issue on their own. This kind of self-service system offers tremendous leverage to a web-based business that doesn’t have the wherewithal to provide 24x7 call center capabilities. The value of a good EMS can be significant, for both the customer and a busy e-commerce site.

The requirements for a high-performing EMS are to get the right answer to the customers, using the right kind and the right amount of resources. This means that the EMS should recognize the kind of inquiry initiated by the customer, determine what resource it will take to process that inquiry, and then apply those resources to get the answer to the customer. Let us examine each of these requirements in turn.

An incoming message must first be recognized by the EMS for what it is — the system must determine if it falls into a predetermined category of communications, such as a product question, an information request, a billing query, a complaint, or a follow-up to an earlier communication.

Email tends to be free form in nature, so the EMS must have the ability to parse the communication, and determine the category from the message itself. The EMS must then determine if the inquiry can be handled in an automated manner. A majority of customer queries fall within a few categories. For example, a company that sells headsets may receive a large number of installation questions, but the questions themselves may fall into just a few categories (e.g. sound card questions, volume requirements, operating system compatibility, etc.) — the company already knows the answers to most of these questions. With access to a comprehensive knowledge base of answers to these frequently asked questions, a good EMS can match a customer’s request to the appropriate answer in the knowledge base.

Not all email can be processed automatically. Some messages will require customization and personalization. An EMS must have the ability to identify emails that don’t fit into a known category and route them to a knowledgeable person. That person (CSR) can then respond using the knowledge base, one or more phrase banks that contain standard language that reflects the company’s style, and their personal knowledge and experience. The EMS should also provide a spell check function to enhance quality prior to forwarding the response back to the customer. Furthermore, the CSR should be able to annotate notes to either the customer’s message, or to the customer’s profile. Other CSRs can then use these notes to ensure superior customer service. For example, a CSR may use the annotation capability to record why the customer was not charged for shipping costs if the company policy is “no free shipping.”

A CSR may not be able to completely handle all customer communications allotted to him or her. For example, the CSR may prepare a response but want to forward it to a co-worker or supervisor for review before sending it. Another customer inquiry may need a response from someone with more information. To facilitate this, the EMS must provide a workflow capability that allows a CSR to hand off a message to another CSR, or a supervisor. This is similar to what may happen in a call center.

An EMS must enable supervisors to monitor, in real-time, the state of all messages currently open, just as a call center manager can look at the state of all telephone calls being handled by the call management system. This allows supervisors to manage workloads, personnel needs, training needs, etc. Supervisors also can use this information to identify any potential problem areas quickly. For example, a favorable product review on CNET or the mention of a product by Oprah or Ellen Degeneres on one of their daytime television shows may at first cause a trickle then a torrent of information requests. Just like in a call center, an alert supervisor can observe the initial change in the incoming workload, and make adjustments to assure the best quality service.

The EMS also should provide reporting capabilities so that supervisors can more easily measure and manage the performance of their CSRs. Another feature to look for in a good EMS is the ability to survey customers on the quality of service received, and manage the results of the survey. Moreover, the database used by the EMS should be easily accessible so that custom reports can be developed as necessary.

A big benefit of electronic communication is that each message is recorded on media and therefore the details of every customer interaction are retrievable. (This is not often the case with telephone calls). This means that a customer’s entire email history can be presented to the CSR every time a customer sends in a new message. This provides a complete context for the CSR. A good EMS should provide not only the ability to preserve and present context, but also give the company a valuable database of interactions that can be mined for marketing purposes in the future. For example, the database of all customer interactions may reveal that customers who ask questions about one particular product often start by asking about a certain feature. This may indicate a need to change the product in some way, or it may even present a revenue opportunity for a complementary product.

Finally, a good EMS should be easy to use, to install, and to manage. It should not require a significant training effort. It should be adaptable and flexible enough to fit into the way you do business, i.e. not require you to change your business models or processes. Lastly, the system should leverage the website’s existing technology infrastructure by seamlessly integrating with your current email, e-commerce, and front-end and back-office systems.

While out of the reach for most small e-commerce operations, an investment in a robust, scalable EMS provides returns in many ways for a large or enterprise e-commerce business. An EMS can reduce the costs associated with handling customer service requests by up to a factor of five. An EMS might even allow a website to avoid building or contracting with an expensive call center provider because the CSRs can easily telecommute. An EMS enables a website to assure a consistent quality of service to its customers, by ensuring that all customer interactions use the same base of knowledge and communications styles. It can increase revenues by including new product information with outgoing messages (the Marketing Department will love that feature). Most importantly, it can improve customer satisfaction and loyalty by giving your customers a reliable way of communicating with you.

Is an EMS in your future? You consider investing in an email management system if your website:

  • Handles more than 1000 email requests and online orders each day.
  • Has more than five full-time employees handling online communications.
  • Has a customer-base that expects 24x7 service and the same (or better) level of service as they get from a call center.
  • Receives many “routine” email requests.
  • Has found that its online communications are out of control.

If you are considering an EMS, begin by looking into Edify (, eGain Mail (, Notions Systems (, and Transform Response ( There are many more, but this should give you a starting point.

Automated Customer Service Systems

The unique combination of quality automated customer service systems (ACSS) and human customer service teams can help an e-commerce business ensure profitability. The typical ACSS is a web-enabled suite of software that integrates sales, marketing, call center, help desk, field service, inventory procurement, and quality assurance operations. Although these systems are expensive to purchase, when you do the math you may find that, over time, they actually save you money.

Post-sales follow-up technology makes it easy for online merchants to offer superior customer service. These include FAQs and their answers, knowledge databases, and message boards. With the correct deployment, web-based businesses can streamline their service offerings and costs, evaluate and target their key-customer; now a web-based business is on the road to building lifetime value and retention for the long term.

When looking at the implementation of ACSS, take into account that many applications require specialized views of the customer data — predictive modeling tools, campaign management applications, call center packages, and web applications — all which require different views in order to fulfill their role. The customer information architecture must support rapid delivery of customer data in a wide variety of forms suitable for application-specific requirements.

A properly implemented ACSS can find and identify essential bits of customer data that are located throughout a business’s data infrastructure. Once found, that data is then imported into a common knowledge base that is shared by each arm of the ACSS to improve every segment of a business’s customer service offerings. An ACSS also must be scalable and flexible enough to operate effectively through any number of customer preferred channels, i.e., web, chat, email, fax, telephone or VoIP. The typical ACSS platform is a web-enabled suite that lets a web-based business integrate its customer service and marketing efforts. Research the products offered. To give you a place to start, visit, and Firepond (formerly Brightware) ( and pick up a copy of the author’s book, The Complete Guide to CRM (CMP).


Most web-based businesses use some level of technology to increase their customer service offerings. But, technology can’t do it all — timely responses are impossible if the human resources are not available. Throughout this book the author has preached “scalability.” Well, scalability not only applies to technology; it is also relevant to staffing needs. As online sales increase it will become necessary to increase your human-based assets, especially in customer service. Not only will these needs grow throughout a business’s life cycle, they will also ebb and flow with the seasons (for example, holidays, back-to-school, snow season if a website sells snow blowers or mild weather if it sells boating equipment).

As customer service resources become strained to the limit during peak periods, the ability to quickly and cost-effectively scale to meet these demands is essential. One way to assure scalability is to outsource. But be prepared — do your homework and find the call center or customer service solution provider that will meet the needs of your web-based business. If any integration is necessary, have it well in hand before the necessity arises. A web-based business will want a standby customer service solution to have the same access and timely visibility into customer orders as its ongoing customer service solution.

The Complete E-Commerce Book. Design, Build & Maintain a Successful Web-based Business
The Complete E-Commerce Book, Second Edition: Design, Build & Maintain a Successful Web-based Business
Year: 2004
Pages: 159

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