This article is reprinted from STELLAService.com from 4/16/10.

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The term “customer experience” is vast and getting bigger all the time. Practitioners chunk it into component pieces, like website design, reliability, responsiveness, security, fulfillment, personalization, information, empathy, and so on.

Over the next few weeks I want to explore various facets of customer experiences that firms should tend to sooner rather than later because often a firm can make dramatic improvements by focusing on “low hanging fruit” they haven’t even noticed is there for the picking.

Today, I want to build on Nicole’s post from last week–the one that led with the cartoon about phone support hold times and how they’re calculated (which I LOVED, btw :)).

But instead of looking at phone hold calculations, I want to share an experience we had at eBay a few years ago about what chat hold time actuallylooks like to customers, and how a company might go about managing it to advantage by listening to customers and setting/meeting basic expectations.

After all, great relationships–especially ones between companies and customers–start and end with setting expectations and building trust. Michael C. Jensen, in a fall 2009 article, explains this connection:

“The Law of Integrity has a critical effect on business: increased performance…One’s word to one’s self is a critical part of integrity…By failing to honor our word to ourselves, we undermine ourselves as persons [or companies] of integrity…and we will appear to others as inconsistent, unreliable or unpredictable.”

If you say what you mean, and follow through–even if you set the bar low–you have a great chance of building solid, lasting trust.

But if you set an expectation and then totally fan on it, you break your word, and any shot of building trust is gone with the wind.

A few years ago, I wondered how many times customers contacted eBay’s Customer Support (CS). I asked around and quickly realized we had no idea what the total monthly volume was. Why? Because each team ran its own business and the systems for each channel (i.e. chat vs. phone vs. email) were in silos that didn’t talk to each other.

So we decided to count manually, which took some time. After about a month, we came up with the number: eBay received north of nine million customer contacts per quarter in the U.S. marketplace (ebay.com) across all channels combined.

Then we did some deep-dives to figure out how many contacts were chat vs. email vs. phone for each specific issue that members contact eBay about. And within each channel, we tried to discover as many insights as possible to help us drive new strategies for setting and meeting expectations with our customers.

We learned that about 8% of the chats initiated by our customers about Selling issues were being abandoned. We defined abandonment as when the member initiates a Chat but closes the Chat window before the Customer Support Representative (CSR) responds. Here’s an illustrative graph of what that abandonment looked like:

This graph–with its sharp drop-off and long tail–shows exactly the points at which customers abandoned their chat with eBay because a CSR hadn’t responded yet. In fact, it shows that about 50% of customers abandoned the chat session after waiting just one minute. After 3-4 minutes, only 20% of the customers are still willing to wait for a rep.

The data provided several insights into customer behavior: We found a small percent of chatters were (0 to 6 sec.) were just exploring the chat feature; we also discovered that after 2-3 minutes we’d lost about 80% of our customers.

We used the insights to determine new chat hold time “targets” and also to employ “chat hold scripts” which we’d previously only used randomly for promotions. For example, you can tell customers how long they will have to wait (set the expectation), and you can show wait times (show that you’re trying to meet the expectation).

You can also try to engage the customer with useful information while they wait (like offering a Seller-appropriate Help page), or you can offer them another channel of communication (like immediate access to a phone rep in some cases, or a call back by a rep).

The key is to communicate the expectation clearly, and then stick to it like it’s your only chance to win that customer.

In our times of online communities, global commerce, and radical online competition, no firm will succeed with a haphazard strategy of appearing “to others as inconsistent, unreliable or unpredictable,” as Jensen says.

Customers just won’t stand for it, and your competition will eat your strategy for lunch.

© 2009 John Dila

In the beginning, people shopped online because it was “cheaper;” the thinking was that online stores didn’t have the same cost overheads brick-and-mortars had and so they passed on the savings to consumers. This probably was the case, and it likely still is, to some extent.

But the past ten years has brought fierce competition for online dollars, and the online shopping experience is constantly evolving.

Today, “cheap” is not the only (or even the most important) reason why we shop online: Convenience, selection, delivery speed, and even belonging to a “community” of like-minded shoppers (think KarmaLoop and Apple) are today’s reasons for much of the money being spent online.

Getting good, if not stellar service online is more and more important to consumers. Today, if the service sucks, you won’t go back.

Today, The Dila View highlights the launch of a new firm —STELLAService.com–which brings objectivity and transparency to assessing and rating online customer experience on the Internet.

STELLA–launching today–will analyze and rate all online businesses and give each one a STELLARating (a number from 0 -100) indicating how good (or poor) its online service is. Formed in April 2009, the company’s Advisory Council and highly trained analysts represent today’s thought-leaders in the area of online customer service, and bring this focus to bear on the independent STELLARating methodology.

Consumers can look for the STELLASeal on websites and will be able to recognize quality online service immediately–and avoid those companies with poor scores.

In turn, low scores will help poor-performing companies identify weaknesses, improve their service, and attract more customers (especially repeat customers!).

In March, STELLAService’s CEO, Jordy Leiser, commissioned an independent research survey “to examine the value of great customer service in the U.S. economy, with a particular focus on how great customer service impacts the online retail category.” The research concludes:

“Consumers in the online retail category are willing to pay even more (10.7%) for great service, which should come as no surprise given the comfort and peace of mind that most consumers want while purchasing from the seemingly distant and remote online marketplace.”

View the results and dollar figures (it’s not a small number)!

Now that the firm has officially launched, watch for the STELLASeal on sites where you intend to shop. If you see it, you’ll know someone you can trust has closely evaluated the company and has rated its performance.

STELLAService would love your comment and feedback. You can find us on FB, Titter, and all the usual places, or you can contact me directly (jd@stellaservice.com).

© 2009 John Dila