ERM systems can improve workforce management and cut call-center costs.

At 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., e-mail response management is all about efficiency. The Carle Place, N.Y.-based company, which gets an average of 2,300 e-mails a day (that figure quadruples during holidays), has had a system from ERM vendor Kana Inc. in place for six years. "We wanted software that would let us streamline our e-mail," says Lou Orsi, the company's director of vendor relations and strategic projects. While the system used to send out only automated messages to customers, repeated complaints forced the company to rethink its strategy. Now, all messages are handled by live agents. Kana's software assigns each incoming e-mail a case number, prioritizes messages by keyword (cancellations and order changes get top priority) and provides reporting on message volumes. "That makes it easier to manage the workflow," Orsi says. "The system connects with our scheduling software so we can figure out how many people should be handling emails at any given time."

That's important, because although the company's name makes its telephone number unforgettable, 60 percent of the firm's orders now come in over the Web. Though Orsi won't say how much the system has saved the company, it's key to the firm's continued success: Revenues increased by 11 percent in 2005, to $670.7 million, and the firm attracted 3.3 million new customers—though profits remain slim.

In addition to improved customer service, Jupiter Research's McGeary says that companies that deploy ERM systems can handle 54 percent more e-mail per hour than those without one, "and do it with up to 39 percent fewer full-time people." Jones of Connextions agrees. When one client of Connextions first signed on, most calls were handled over the phone, "but now almost everything we do is over email," Jones says. As a result, both order fulfillment and customer inquiry response take place in less than 24 hours. "Their support costs have been cut in half," Jones says.

To get the most from an ERM system, pay close attention to design. Set customer expectations by explaining how queries should be crafted, with appropriate keywords. Using Web forms instead of free-form e-mails can alleviate this issue because they force customers to use language the system can understand. Be sure to define a large number of rules in the system's rules engine (the mechanism that connects keywords with knowledge-base data) to help the system create the most accurate responses. Finally, every e-mail acknowledgement and response should include a way to contact a live agent if customers need more help.

This article was originally published on 02-06-2006
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