Good customer relations keep your customers coming back for more. Fostering good customer relations requires a customer service strategy that puts in place policies, services, software, and hardware that make it easy for customers to feel confident when making a purchase online. If an e-commerce business doesn’t develop a good customer service strategy it will lose customers — the same way a brick-and-mortar would lose them — by not responding to their needs. Efficient customer service is crucial for survival of any business.
Don’t be one of the e-commerce operators who put an email form or contact/email link(s) on their website without any plan for handling the increasing volume of email. Admittedly, a small e-commerce business serving a niche market might be able to get away with having no customer service strategy since it probably depends only on email and the telephone for receiving and logging its customer queries and orders. Most websites, however, require an infrastructure that allows them to serve their customers through a combination of email queries, online ordering, and telephone support.
To provide customer-winning customer service and to reduce your customer service burden, encourage your customers to be self-sufficient. The best way to do this is to have a well thought out customer service strategy that provides your customers with the detailed information they want and need. This include product/service descriptions, frequently asked questions (FAQs), and knowledge bases consisting of, for example, product specifications, articles, technical papers and manuals, white papers, and case studies.
Let’s now look at how to build a good customer service strategy.
The first step is to ensure that the customer service department and/or call center knows how to handle every aspect of a customer’s transaction. Although email should be used as the main means of communication, telephone support (especially a toll free number) is also important. Your customer service representatives (CSR) should be able to access and manipulate all the information involved in a customer’s order, including tracking the status of an order through the fulfillment process until it reaches the customer’s doorstep. If possible, the CSR should be able to communicate with the customers via email, the telephone, or online direct-connection software (chat) — all of which are within the budget of most web-based businesses.
The second step is to determine just what the web-based business’s continuing customer service strategy should address. Start with the minimum strategy set out in the previous paragraph, but also plan ahead. To do this, answer the following:
If the answer to any of these questions is a “no,” “I don’t know,” or “maybe,” it’s time to get to work. Begin by monitoring your customers’ requests for information as they come in — many tend to ask the same set of questions. Diligent monitoring of customer service inquiries allows a website to determine where to direct its efforts — enabling much more efficient use of human and infrastructure resources. You also can use the information gathered to redesign web pages to make them more responsive to your customers’ needs.
Consider building an online knowledge base of product specifications, articles, technical specifications, white papers, and case studies that can answer many of your customers’ immediate inquiries. Supplement that knowledge base with a comprehensive FAQ section. This empowers your customers to answer their own questions without human intervention, which translates into not only satisfied customers but also an eventual increase in your business’s profit margin. An added benefit of an online knowledge base is that customers develop the perception that the website has a good grasp of what their questions and problems might be thereby strengthening their overall confidence in the site and its offerings.
Don’t go down the road that some websites have taken, e.g. www.microsoft.com and www.netscape.com — too often leaving the customer in “self-help jail.” Let product descriptions, FAQs and knowledge bases be the first line of service, but in addition offer easy-to-access email support, chat, toll-free number(s), and other forms of direct communication.
You must constantly look for ways to make your website more responsive to the constantly changing needs of your customer base. If you don’t develop a comprehensive customer service strategy, you will lose your customers to the competition, reap poorer returns on their investment, and even find yourself spending more money than is necessary on expensive customer service solutions such as conventional call centers.
HOW TO EARN A REPUTATION FOR GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE
Here are some tips to help your e-commerce site win customer service kudos:
There are two basic approaches an e-commerce business can take to provide award-winning customer service. The first approach is called the “separate technology method,” i.e. the customer support is separate from the website. The second is a “multithreaded contract strategy approach.” The second method builds upon the first approach by adding managed email, dynamic FAQ pages, web-based chat, and more.
When an e-commerce business is in the start-up stage, separating the website from the call center might very well be a good approach. The separate technology method just requires that the web designer place the proper contact information in a prominent place on the web pages. Then either in-house staff or a call center takes product/service orders, handle technical support, customer service, etc.
As the business grows and prospers, however, there will be an ever-growing burden on the business’s customer service resources. Automation solutions can help you to keep apace with growth and still provide quality customer service. Automation solutions include direct web-based transactions such as online ordering, shopping carts, etc., followed with a FAQ section to answer the most common questions about the business’s products and/or services, etc.
To keep customer service so that it continually compliments the growth of the business (rather than hindering it), the first approach will only suffice in the short-term. So while many new e-commerce websites begin in some phase of the “first approach” mode, don’t let your site linger there too long. When laying out your customer service blueprint, keep in mind that your business will need to include an infrastructure that allows it to adopt a more sophisticated technology as the need arises.
Taking the second approach means that the website is no longer an island, but part of a multi-threaded contact strategy. To provide good customer service on the Web, companies must open new lines of communication. Email, while universal, must be well managed. FAQ pages and a dynamic knowledge base are easy to set up; and when managed properly and kept current (perhaps with the aid of specialized tools) they can be an asset for a website.
Web chat, whether text- or voice-based, can be especially effective for quick real-time customer queries, since it can be faster than a phone call. Examples include real-time query and response (some with co-browsing features) “Talk to Me” buttons. “Call Me” buttons, which allow customers to schedule a call back by a CSR are also effective. While the real-time solution is best, the “call me” system is more affordable and can be implemented by almost any size e-commerce business.
Many small e-commerce sites and even some mid-sized businesses will find the multi-threaded approach to be too much for their budget. But there are e-commerce sites (large and small) that currently use various degrees of this type of advanced customer service strategy. Here are a couple of examples:
Landsend.com though its trademarked “Lands’ End Live,” which according to the website states: “As you shop at Landsend.com, you can be in direct contact with a customer service representative by phone (if you have a second line or a direct connection to the Internet) or through an online “text chat.” Instant assistance!”
VenueSwimwear.com and REI.com both not only serve an international customer base, but also provide their customers a cornucopia of customer service choices: FAQs, toll-free telephone numbers, email and snail mail contact information and last, but not least, online assistance via chat.
So while the full multi-threaded approach may not be within the budget of the start-up e-commerce business, most can implement some of the features outlined in this section (and gradually add other features as business dictates) to increase its customer service functionality.
A number of the customer service solution companies and customer relationship management solution companies are moving toward the Application Service Provider (ASP) model, which simplifies integration with a website and thus lessens the initial cost for such solutions.
Let’s look at some of the more common multi-thread solutions.
A “Call Me” button on a website means that call center agents need to be on hand to call back a customer, either instantly or at a scheduled date/time/number. Customers seem to love this feature and it is a really powerful technique especially for a website that sells high value products.
A “Talk to Me” button on a website requires that a CSR be instantly available when the customer clicks the button (the customer also must have a multi-media capable computer — sound card, speakers, microphone and the right software). This option uses voice-over-IP (VoIP) to establish an instant voice link between the customer and the call center agent. However, Internet congestion, delays in the website’s servers, in the customer’s ISP servers, in the call center’s servers, etc. can mean that this method sometimes produces poor voice quality. However, vendors such as Aspect (www.aspect.com), have products that can link VoIP with web chat so if the voice connection goes bad then text chat can take over.
Co-browsing requires that, when requested, a call center agent instantly be available to take over a customer’s browser to help with a form or to manipulate text or images on web pages as the customer is viewing the same page. Only businesses offering very high value products (e.g. stock market investments), or perhaps businesses teaching customers to use complex products or who provide online schooling should look into this type of technology.
Web chat is a real time interaction between the customer and a CSR using text to conduct chat sessions. And while this service also requires that a CSR be available basically 24x7, a single CSR can handle multiple chat sessions, perhaps as many as eight. This is good. And since it is highly productive, text-based chat can be used cost-effectively for low end products.
There are many live web-chat solutions available to the average website operator. For instance, Peoplesupport (www.peoplesupport.com), Facetime (www.facetime.net), InstantService (www.instantservice.com), Liveperson (www.liveperson.com), and others provide live, human customer service agents that are available instantly when a customer clicks on a “chat” button. Most of these services are relatively inexpensive, mainly because most offer a hosted version of their product, i.e. the company hosts the software and then rents it out to you on a monthly basis or other contractual terms, rather than selling the entire package to you for your implementation and management. For example, LivePerson’s setup fee is around $1000 plus about $250/month per CSR.
For many e-commerce businesses, a hosted solution is the way to go. Just think, a completely integrated front-end and back-end where the applications are implemented and hosted by a single vendor — that’s a model that’s hard to ignore. For a small- to medium-sized e-commerce site the ASP route, like that provided by LivePerson, is a good option since all that is needed are a few simple lines of HTML code and the button icon for its web pages, and it’s ready to go.
One caveat, though; do not use (at least not at this time) automated online personalities (robots) that supposedly can respond to a customer’s live chat questions. They can’t — they just cause your customers a lot of frustration. I would advise staying away from this type of solution, at least until the technology improves.
A website could offer its customers that have multi-media capability (sound card, speakers, microphone and the right software) the ability to click on a website button to call a CSR over the Internet (a “Talk to Me” button). Once connected, the CSR cannot only talk to a customer, but if the CSR’s computer is equipped with the right software, he/she can even access the same web page the customer is currently on. They can then browse the site simultaneously, solving order problems and even filling out forms together. Customers like the personalized experience (the human touch) this type of technology offers.
Another plus for the “Talk to Me” method is cost savings. The calls are routed across the Internet (voice-over-IP) so they cost much less than a traditional telephone call. So, using the “Talk to Me” option (which is Voice over IP) also will have a positive influence on a website’s monthly toll-free number costs.
Numerous industry studies show that shopping cart abandonment rates dramatically drop when some type of “live” interaction is offered.