Sicely, Alaska charmed America's sitcom devotees with a homegrown, low-tech spirit that briskly contradicted the "Zero Time" ethic of fast business in the New Economy. Once a week for five years, the cast of "Northern Exposure" exemplified the lure of lag and the charisma of care. Today, one cutting-edge software company is using the model of Sicely's general store -- the post office/grocery depot/advice booth manned by local truth-teller Ruth-Anne Miller -- to demonstrate the look and feel of customer service now.
The company is Silknet Software, Inc.  and the Sicely ethic is a simple one: Treat your customers as if they were your neighbors. Sometimes, that relationship requires candid conversations and in-depth transactions related to the customer's expectations, requests, and problems. Other times, it requires an innate sense of trust and comfort that enables the customer to answer his own questions and service his own needs. Without exception, that relationship, if executed effectively, raises the expectations and standards of both parties, and transforms customer service from a chore into an opportunity.
"This is the way we used to deal with customers -- with respect," says Silknet Vice President of Marketing David Fowler. "A store employees's first priority was helping the customer, regardless of whether that employee worked primarily in the toy section, the fishing gear section, or at the checkout counter. When a person walked into a general store, the employees asked how they could help and even wandered around the store with you to find what you needed. Since then, the commerce model has moved from personalization to mass marketing to today's hybrid model of mass personalization."
This ethic of mass personalization has governed Silknet's methods and mantra since 1995, when the New Hampshire-based company first introduced its "customer-centric" e-commerce software to an unlimited and unruly Internet population. During the last four years, Silknet has helped powerful clients like Sprint PCS, Microsoft, and 3Com synchronize existing departments, policies, and internal structures with the new demands and prospects that an e-commerce solution inevitably represents.
"Companies can no longer take their existing systems, open them to the outside world through an Internet browser, and claim that they have an electronic commerce solution," says Michael Bettua, Silknet director of marketing. "They must start from scratch, view the interaction from a customer's perspective, and implement new systems that will allow customers to do business in a way that makes sense to them."
For Silknet, that means creating software that allows customers to log onto the Sprint PCS Web site, enter their desired specifications for a wireless service, and then browse a selection of appropriate plans and units. Shoppers who want to dial and caress the phone before making a final purchase may then drive to a local Sprint PCS store, where the retailer can access the customer information gathered online 30 minutes earlier and demonstrate the exact models displayed on the Web. A month after purchasing a phone, customers may call the Sprint PCS 1-800 number to complain of a broken antenna. Not only is the customer service representative able to order a replacement antenna, he can also view the customer's purchasing history and then suggest a new service plan that may better accommodate her penchant for late-night international calls.
Suddenly, the Web site is not an abandoned shopping cart. The brick-and-mortar component is no longer out of the loop. And customer service representatives are no longer just troubleshooters -- they are salespeople, advisors, and prodigies of Ruth-Anne Miller herself.
"Customers in the Web economy want to experience the same service regardless of the communication channel they choose at any one time," says Bettua. "Customers need to move seamlessly between learning, buying, and receiving customer care."
"Seamless" is the adjective of choice at Silknet. But standing behind that buzzword is a very basic understanding of the Web marketplace: Pleasing and serving existing customers is infinitely more effective than struggling to capture new ones. At the same time, empowering loyal customers to serve themselves is infinitely more cost effective than any other alternative. Thus, Silknet's second favorite catch phrase: self-service.
Self-service does not mean plopping customers in the middle of a Web labyrinth with no emergency exits and expecting them to either hunt down the pertinent answers or die trying. Instead, it means enabling customers to solve their own problems quickly, easily, and intuitively. It means forecasting customers' most common questions, and establishing clear and concise methods for answering those inquiries, and providing solutions online. It also means furnishing a "panic button," because everyone needs training wheels from time to time.
"Sprint PCS has estimated that if fewer than 10 percent of their customers use the Web to answer the number-one call-center question, the savings would pay for their entire e-business system," Fowler says. "Speed is the big issue for customers. Time is precious, and the Web can solve needs that might otherwise require 15 or 20 minutes of waiting on the phone for a customer service representative. Plus, the Web is not restricted by 9-to-5 business hours."
It's a timeless debate: Is the Web really the great equalizer? Silknet would argue that it is. Their business model is built upon the promise of providing equal service to every user and equal opportunity to every client -- regardless of size or success. Though definitely designed for larger businesses, the Silknet solution is constantly being expanded and contracted to suit the needs of different clients. Priceline.com, for example, needs to accommodate five to 10 million active customers whereas Altus Mortgage serves only a fraction of that number at one time. One size isn't going to fit all, and Silknet doesn't think that should prevent any company -- dot-com or brick-and-mortar -- from launching a full-blown assault on the Web.
"You're either headed for e-business or elimination," says Fowler. "If you don't build the best business model, someone else will. They will enter your marketplace and eat your lunch. If you want to survive, you must build an e-commerce solution that does two things: attracts customers and keeps them."
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