Merchant Innovation

Phoning In In-Store Customer Service Calls

One of the things people tend to forget when new technologies disrupt long-settled industries is that ground-breaking devices or strategies take time to grow.

Though the first iPhone was a hit as soon as it was released, that didn’t mean people threw out their flip phones in unison, and even the recent shift to EMV payments will take months or even years to fully transition.

Technology comes and goes in waves, and while most retailers focus on how high-tech solutions can improve their businesses, there’s also a pressing need to deal with old and potentially obsolete systems. When it comes to in-store analog landline telephones in retail, fashion merchant Bon-Ton Stores and telecom firm Vertical Communications think they have it figured out, according to the National Retail Federation.

There’s no doubting that more consumers are now researching their purchases online than ever before, but that doesn’t mean Bon-Ton doesn’t receive a high volume of calls to its almost 300-strong network of retail branches. However, the NRF explained that Bon-Ton used to handle all calls through a bare-bones landline system that made it extremely difficult for in-store associates to respond to complaints, transfer calls across departments and no data management capabilities whatsoever.

Phil Crist, network manager at Bon-Ton, told the NRF that his organization knew it needed a smarter way to handle the traffic on an older technology that consumers clearly aren’t done using yet. Even though most customers simply call in for basic information, such as store hours, applicable discounts and product availability, Crist said, it was still too taxing on in-store employees’ time.

“We needed a foundation that could electronically answer the most common questions consumers seek answers to when making purchase decisions,” Crist told the NRF. “We wanted a new solution that could fit into all locations, could work with IP-based voice service delivery, be flexible enough to centralize data and manage reporting and be a scalable, ‘survivable’ system.”

The challenge then fell to Vertical Communications to fabricate a smart phone network to take some burden off of associates’ backs. By using its Vertical Wave IP technology, the telecom firm overhauled Bon-Ton’s phone network and installed one that enabled callers to speak with an automated attendant that can provide simplified information such as closing times and even driving directions.

The task of serving customers over the phone in an on-demand retail culture is no small one. A report from the University of Arizona’s Norton School for Family and Consumer Sciences found that the average consumer is only willing to wait about 65 seconds before being answered. With about 300 calls placed to major retailers every day, keeping up with this demand is difficult for even automated technologies.

Crist and Bon-Ton had a pleasantly different experience, though. After integrating the Vertical Wave IP solution, callers to Bon-Ton’s stores are now hanging up within 30 seconds of connecting after swiftly navigating through voice-controlled menus to find the answers to questions store associates no long have to worry about.

“This is fantastic,” Crist said. “This means we have served 50 percent of callers immediately. It also means that our in-store associates are not overwhelmed with calls simply asking whether we are open today. This also allows calls that need to get through to specific departments or associates to get through faster. Fewer shoppers are placed on hold, and the phone is ringing in-store less, as well.”

Bon-Ton has stumbled on a little-publicized effect of the entrance of tech and data-based solutions into retail. Way down at the end of the Internet’s long tail, tech like Vertical Communications’ is helping business uncover new ways of doing business by streamlining the ones that no longer work.

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