NEW YORK — Sometimes new technology can have surprising side effects.
When The Timberland Co., known for its wheat-colored boots and rugged outerwear, launched its first Web site in 1999, it wasn’t expecting a flood of e-mails from customers. But it got 6,000 e-mails in the first month and knew it had to come up with a way to automate the answering process.
The Stratham, N.H.-based company tried two other tactics before it finally struck gold with e-mail management software from eGain Communications Corp. of Mountain View, Calif. At first, Timberland’s telephone customer service representatives wrote a unique reply to every e-mail. But they weren’t able to keep up with the volume of correspondence, and e-mails containing embarrassing spelling errors and typos were sometimes posted to other Web sites or sent to the company’s board of directors.
“It was a very manual process,” said Bill Bragger, Timberland’s manager of global consumer service. “It was enormously time consuming and fraught with perils as far as quality and consistency were concerned. In a phone call, there’s a lot of room for error, but an e-mail becomes an official corporate communication.”
So Timberland created and hired a second group of customer service reps just to handle e-mails. They had college degrees in writing-related fields such as English and were paid more than the other group. They also replied to each e-mail individually. But when the volume of e-mails suddenly doubled to 30,000 from 15,000 in early 2000, the company hit its breaking point.
“There are only so many bodies you can throw at something,” said Bragger.
Customers expected the company to respond to e-mails as quickly as a phone call, he said. So Timberland started looking for a software program that could automate the process by offering reps replies from which to choose and started tracking the correspondence.
First, Bragger wrote down all the company’s “pain points,” everything that didn’t work about the current process, and came up with a wish list. Then he contacted vendors and found a dozen or so companies that offered software that handled everything on his list. Bragger invited the firms to demonstrate their software and narrowed the choice to two contenders, one of which was eGain Mail from eGain.
Bragger asked the customer service reps to make the final choice. It was an unusual move, but Bragger had once been involved in a rollout where the user group didn’t know anything about a new software program until they were being trained on it, and they sat back in their chairs, folded their arms and told the I.S. department why it wouldn’t work. So Timberland’s 40 customer service representatives played with the two software programs for two weeks. They liked eGain because of its easy-to-understand graphic user interface, which resembled a Web browser.
“They were so enthusiastic, that was the end of the trial,” said Bragger.
The company installed eGain Mail in September 2000. Right off the bat, Timberland reduced its volume of incoming e-mail by 25 percent because the new software automatically sends a reply to each correspondent within three to five seconds of receiving an e-mail. The response simply says that their e-mail has been received and will be answered within 12 hours. That message has eliminated e-mail from customers asking if Timberland received a previous e-mail.
After it sends out the automatic reply, eGain Mail scans the content of incoming e-mails and presents several possible responses to a customer service representative. The responses are ones Timberland has crafted and refined over the years. The customer service rep chooses the most appropriate one and adds other comments if necessary. The software assigns a file and case number to the e-mail so all correspondence from that address can be gathered into one file that is easy to view.
Since installing eGain Mail, Timberland has folded its two customer service groups back into one, eliminating about 500 labor hours a month, or the equivalent of about a dozen people working full time. Morale has improved among the reps, according to Bragger, because now there is only one pay scale for the group. They also enjoy their work more because it is more varied, he said.
The company’s contact with customers is also more consistent because e-mail messages are standardized and there is only one team responding to both e-mail and phone calls. Seventy-eight percent of e-mails are answered with standard responses and 22 percent require some kind of customized addition.
Response times are faster, too. Customers receive near-instant replies to their e-mail when it is received and questions are resolved within 12 hours, instead of 48 hours.
The e-mail software also has helped Timberland’s customer service representatives be more efficient. The telephone group used to be busy 80 percent of the time. Now, customer service representatives use downtime between calls to answer e-mails and they are occupied during 93 percent of their workday, Bragger said.
The software has been essential to improving customer satisfaction, employee efficiency and shareholder value, Bragger added.