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Poor response to e-mails gold mine for company

January 9, 2002 

Some retailers' dismal response to customer e-mails during the holiday season could be good news for Westminster-based Finali Corp. A survey, done by New York-based Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, revealed that the majority of the 250 retailers polled performed slowly when it came to dealing with customers' e-mail queries. Only 30 percent of the companies responded to requests within six hours, and one-third took longer than three days or did not answer at all. One of the companies that bucked the trend was, an online retailer that uses Finali and its Net Sage automated agent to handle customer service. Finali's goal is to respond to customer queries within four hours, a mark it has hit more than 85 percent of the time since taking the retailer on as a customer last year, said Finali Vice President Bill Duclos. And, the company says, it makes the experience both cheaper and more user-friendly than retailers can do in-house. Net Sage, an automated online helper, lets customers find the answers to many of their questions online. "We really leveraged the Web," said Finali CEO and co-founder Bob Burgin. "Customers prefer to go to the Web and do it themselves. But most sites are really bad at that." Using Net Sage, backed up by Finali's staff of about 115 employees, cut its customer service costs by 40 percent, Burgin said. A second survey, done by Massachusetts-based Gomez Advisors, reported that 30 percent of the e-mails sent to 79 sites between Nov. 27 and Dec. 5 were not answered. Further, the survey said, only 14 percent of the companies provided correct responses three of four times. Add to that the fact that the number of e-mail queries is rising as companies have cut staff, and giving customers prompt and accurate online service becomes a bigger, more expensive challenge. It's a vicious cycle, the Jupiter survey points out -- 95 percent of the customers surveyed said if they didn't hear back after the first attempt, they would try again. And 60 percent said they would forgo e-mail for a more costly and time-consuming telephone call the second time. So, the more companies cut in-house staff to save money, the more they risk losing money dealing with ongoing customer complaints. In another Jupiter survey, only 16 percent of merchants said they would outsource the task, and 52 percent said they would hire seasonal help instead. "A lot of people just think they're good at everything," said Jon Nordmark, founder and president of Greenwood Village-based online retailer and a Finali customer. "And some people think they need to control their entire organization." EBags realized early on, though, that hiring the experts would save money and let the company focus on its own areas of expertise, he said. Nordmark estimates that employing Finali for customer service cut costs by about 10 percent, even before factoring in things that can't be measured, such as sales lost because of slow customer service.

By Janet Forgrieve. Copyright © 2001 The E.W. Scripps Co.

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