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Exhibitor Focus

Jun 01, 2011

Delivering Superior Customer Service

Keeping Prepaid Consumers Happy

Arlene Hauben

When Manuel D. in North Miami, FL bought a general purpose reloadable (GPR) debit card at the grocery store, the clerk explained how to use it. But later when the consumer tried to activate the card, he had to call customer service for help.

Although Manuel bought the card at a retail store, he had to go online or call an 800 number to find out his balances and get explanations about fees. Often times, the instructions in small print on the back of a plastic card is not clear enough for users to fully understand.

It’s a complicated world, and prepaid products can be confusing. That’s why card companies have to improve customer service if they want to beat the competition.

“Standards for customer service change in a digital world,” said David Stone, CEO of CashStar, an eGift card company. “Companies have to always be on 24/7 and on holidays to answer questions.”

Why is customer service so important? The Harvard Business Review reported that if you can prevent 5 percent of your customers from leaving you, you can increase your bottom line profit by 25 – 95 percent.

A US News and World Report study found that the average American business loses 15 percent of its customer base each year. About 68 percent of customers switch from one business to another because of poor or indifferent service; another 14 percent leave because of an unsatisfactorily resolved dispute or complaint.

Stiff Competition and High Churn in Prepaid

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New prepaid products are introduced every day, increasing competition for the consumer dollar. How do prepaid providers deliver customer service so the consumer will prefer their products?

The challenge for prepaid is even greater because of product innovation and the wide variety of products that are offered. Consumers have many questions about calling cards, prepaid wireless, gift cards, and GPR cards, especially new or unusual products. Unless a card company has a robust customer service program in place, it may lose out by frustrating customers.

Corporate culture dictates the level of professionalism and quality of customer service. Companies like Apple, Nordstrom, and Zappos, an online footwear company, have raised the bar on customer service excellence.

Dan Kahrs, senior vice president, Operations, InComm, said, “Our commitment to superior customer service has led to one of our major big box retailers outsourcing their card-specific customer service program to us.”

InComm, a distributor of stored-value gift and prepaid products, is dedicated to the concept of continuous improvement in giving customers a positive experience. “A lot of time is invested in consumer education and training on gift card use,” Kahrs added.

InComm uses an interactive voice response (IVR) system with reporting options that make it easier for a customer to connect with a live agent or to resolve issues by selecting choices from the menu that are offered. Connecting to a live person is one of the first five options available after calling the 800 number. To help educate consumers, messages and video tips have been developed to explain the various attributes of gift card usage. This information helps to preempt calls and drive down call volume at the call center.

How the Digital Age Changed Customer Service

The Internet is the place where brick-and-mortar retail has been replaced by e-commerce standouts like Amazon, eBay, and Staples. The Web is a natural channel for marketing prepaid services.

When prepaid providers sell cards on websites, they have to be prepared to provide steady and secure customer service. CashStar, which hosts digital card programs for more than 100 retail brands, tries to be customer focused.

“We follow the Zappos approach to customer care,” said Stone. “Leaders in the digital prepaid business have to provide touch points and connections for consumers because they are learning a new digital form factor and have many questions.”

Gary Vaynerchuk, author of “The Thank You Economy,” recalled the Internet in its early years: “Corporate websites…made it…easier to pander to the idea of service without actually providing any.”

Then companies began outsourcing their customer service departments to India and other foreign locations. Customers had to communicate with service representatives who talk from scripts.

Then in the early 2000s, social media entered the picture and gave power back to the consumer. Now customers are talking to each other online and reviewing products they bought, talking about how they like this, and hate that. Customers are comparing notes on the products they purchase.

Vaynerchuk said of social media, “The impersonal Internet suddenly turned chatty, personal and revealing.”

Twitter, Facebook and social sites brought back word of mouth. If consumers feel cheated, they can gripe about it via social media. “Business leaders have to start thinking like small-town shop keepers,” wrote Vaynerchuk.

Gen Y’ers and Gen X’ers are two consumer groups most likely to go online to compare prices and exchange information. Frequently, they develop a liking for a particular brand that caters to their market.

For example, Plastic Cash International caters to the teen market and its website offers GPR debit cards with a teen brand, MYPLASH. The brand is also distributed through retail partners, but teens are more apt to use the website.

To limit customer calls about activation and fees, Plastic Cash provides simple and complete information on their website. “We outline everything clearly on our website and make the information as simple as possible,” said Brian Newberry, president/CEO, Plastic Cash International. “Keep it simple; the better the information, the less costly.”

Newberry warns against playing what he calls the “fee shell game.” For example, fine print or conditions attached to fees make it difficult for consumers to understand what they will be paying.

Since outlining everything on their website, Plastic Cash gets less than 100 calls a week about the product, compared to 1000 calls a week, a few years ago. The company is getting ready to launch “Professor of Prepaid,” an interactive video that teaches teens and young adults how to avoid fees and how to manage their money.

Most Common Questions from Consumers

In the prepaid industry, there are plenty of questions about plastic and digital cards.

“Unfortunately, there is one silver bullet to improve the customer experience to keep your prepaid customer,” said Mark Beresford, director, Dunn & Company (EDC), a management consultancy in London. “It takes a rich and compelling customer proposition that addresses the needs of the customer.”

Consumers are always asking for their balances. When selling prepaid services on the Internet, “Allow consumers to receive balances and transaction alerts via text or email,” advised Lori Breitzke, E&S Consulting. “This is a sure way to cut down on complaints.”

InComm says the largest volume of customer service calls are in reference to Vanilla Visa balances. Knowing that over 25% of these callers prefer the added assurance of speaking with a live agent, the company has made it easy for callers to get to an agent. For the other callers, the system offers the chance to “hear their balance” and the brief hold message also reports the customer’s balance.

“Over 95 percent of our customer service calls are resolved within one call and have an average duration of a few minutes,” said Jeff Sheldt, vice president, Customer Operations, InComm.

Delighting the Customer Via Mobile Media

Customer relationships are best managed via the mobile phone, according to Gary Schwartz, president, Impact Mobile. “The mobile phone can be a visual display for your plastic card,” said Schwartz. “The plastic card is becoming interactive by being tethered to a mobile phone number.”

According to Schwartz, prepaid folks should be using SMS texting to provide balances, send offers to retail stores, fulfill top-up, and really almost anything. “A consumer’s one-to-one relationship with service providers and retailers creates a much heightened experience,” said Schwartz. ”Mobile is the simplest channel for the greatest reach to the shopper.”

Schwartz thinks that apps are too complicated and that customers prefer utilities that use no more than one click. “Engage the shopper at the prepaid mall and get him to register his mobile phone number,” said Schwartz. “Now you have access to the consumer and can both delight and upsell.”

Whatever distribution channel is utilized, the more streamlined the delivery process, the better the customer experience. Best practices in customer service feature a robust system that includes low-cost, self-service options accessed by the Internet or mobile phone, and processes that are very responsive to customer inquiries and complaints.

That’s how you keep prepaid customers happy. •


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