The people element of the marketing mix refers to how an organisation's staff interact with customers and other stakeholders during sales and pre- and post-sales communications with them.

Smith and Chaffey (2005) suggest that, online, the main consideration for the People element of the mix is the review of how staff involvement in the buying is changed, either through new roles such as replying to e-mails or online chat enquiries or through them being replaced through automated online services. These are some of the options:

• Autoresponders. These automatically immediately generate a response when a company e-mails an organisation with an enquiry or submits an online form.

• E-mail notification. Automatically generated by a company's systems to update customers on the status of their order, for example, order received, item now in stock, order dispatched.

• Callback facility. Customers fill in their phone number on a form and specify a convenient time to be contacted. Dialling from a representative in the call centre occurs automatically at the appointed time, and the company pays, which is popular.

• Online chat. A real-time chat session is initiated by the customer with customer service staff to discuss questions about the product or service. For example, One Account ( offers this facility once the customer is on an enquiry path (this facility could not be offered on the home page since this would generate a volume of enquiries that is too high for staff to respond to sufficiently quickly).

• Co-browsing. Similar to online chat, but in this case the customer support staff share the customer's desktop to explain how they should use the site. This is often combined with a phone call. Such a situation has technical limitations since it requires a broadband connection and software needs to be downloaded onto the end-user's machine to manage the session.

• Frequently asked questions (FAQ). For these, the art is in compiling and categorising the questions so customers can easily find (a) the question and (b) a helpful answer.

• On-site search engines. These help customers find what they're looking for quickly, and are popular when available. Advanced online retailers invest in optimising online search so that the customer's queries are answered with relevant results, rather than be presented with a blank page. Site maps are a related feature.

• Product selection tools. Guide the customer through a range of choices to recommend the best product for them, based on criteria defined by the customer.

• Virtual assistants or 'avatars' are representations of customer service staff. featured Miss Boo who was an avatar that advised on products. One specialised company creating avatars is German company Kiwilogic ( which is distributed in the UK by Creative Virtual ( They create avatars or virtual customer-service staff for Ikea and Cahoot which they call 'Lingubots'. These operate using natural language processing. After a question is answered the visitor is directed to the relevant page of the site.

Organisations can test actions needed at each stage for different types of scenario, e.g. enquiry from a new or existing customer, enquiry about the web site or e-mails from different stages in the buying process such as pre-sales, sales or post-sales.

To manage service quality organisations must devise plans to accommodate the five stages shown in Figure 5.11. The stages are as follows.

People variable

The element of the marketing mix that Involves the delivery of service to customers during interactions with customers.

Figure 5.11 Stages in managing inbound e-mail Stage 1: Customer defines support query

Companies should consider how easily the customer can find contact points and compose a support request on site. Best practice is clearly to find e-mail support options. Often, finding contact and support information on a web site is surprisingly difficult. Standardised terminology on site is 'Contact Us' or 'Support'. Options should be available for the customer to specify the type of query on a web form or provide alternative e-mail addresses such as [email protected] or [email protected] on-site, or in offline communications such as a catalogue. Providing FAQs or automated diagnostic tools should be considered at this stage to reduce the number of inbound enquiries. Epson ( provides an online tool to diagnose problems with printers and to suggest solutions.

Finally, the web site should determine expectations about the level of service quality. For example, inform the customer that 'your enquiry will be responded to within 24 hours'.

Stage 2: Receipt of e-mail and acknowledgement

Best practice is that automatic message acknowledgement occurs. This is usually provided by autoresponder software. While many autoresponders only provide a simple acknowledgement, more sophisticated responses can reassure the customer about when the response will occur and highlight other sources of information.

Stage 3: Routeing of e-mail

Best practice involves automated routeing or workflow. Routeing the e-mail to the right person is made easier if the type of query has been identified through the techniques described for Stage 1. It is also possible to use pattern recognition to identify the type of enquiry. For example, Nationwide ( see Mini Case Study 5.3, use

Autoresponders or 'mailbots'

Software tools or 'agents' running on web servers that automatically send a standard reply to the sender of an e-mail message.

Brightware's 'skill-based message routeing' so that messages are sent to a specialist adviser where specific enquiries are made. Such software can also be used at Stage 1 to give an autoresponse appropriate for the enquiry.

Mini Case Study 5.3

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