E-commerce is the great leveler when it comes to big and small brands. A customer can just as well go on to a startup’s website as she can switch to the site of a legacy brand in a matter of seconds. The old differentiators of great store location, high voltage marketing and fancy store trimmings are no longer relevant when a potential customer can compare prices for a particular item across five different online retailers in a flash.
In a cut-throat ecosystem like e-commerce there are just a handful of factors that really offer an edge to one player over the others and fantastic customer service tops this tiny list.
So what makes e-commerce customer service outstanding, fantastic, a real differentiator for your brand? Here’s what.
1. Be Available
The internet is an information superhighway that remains open round the clock. This means your online store technically has no closing hours. Would you leave your customers in a physical store unattended while they browse around? Then, why would you abandon them to their own devices when they’re online in your e-commerce store?
Invest in customer service that is available whenever you have traffic on your site. 24×7 is great, but if you can’t afford it; then at least make sure you’re available for a quick chat during the working hours of your geographical region. Display your customer care details prominently. This not only inspires confidence in a first time visitor to your site, it reduces the trouble an existing customer has to go through to fix a problem with their order.
A visionary in the field of customer service, Tony Hsieh of Zappos once said “Too many companies think of their call centers as an expense to minimize. We believe that it’s a huge untapped opportunity for most companies, not only because it can result in word-of-mouth marketing, but because of its potential to increase the lifetime value of the customer.”
This investment in their customer service has paid off rich dividends to Zappos. In his book The Human Brand, Chris Malone reveals that 75% of Zappos’ daily sales come from repeat customers.
2. Get it right the first time
More than any other aspect of your e-commerce experience, the one that remains in a customer’s mind the longest is every interaction they have with your customer care team. This is supported by hard data from IQPC’s Executive Report, which shows that nearly 80% of customers believe that the customer care center defines their customer care experience with a brand.
So building a great customer experience is a bigger priority than say, beating down prices as low as you can afford.
When I say ‘great customer experience’ I don’t just mean building a world-class customer care team. I also mean making your site easy to use and simple to navigate. Getting your user flows just right to minimize efforts from the customer’s end. Building a company culture that puts the customer above all else and strives to be as fair as possible to the customer.
It’s not enough to set it up and forget about it. Test your processes on an ongoing basis to check for any bottlenecks that might sour a user’s experience with your site.
3. When You Get it Wrong, Fix it no questions asked
Despite your most dedicated and sincere efforts at ‘getting it right the first time’, there are bound to be slip-ups and issues. When such a scenario crops up (as it inevitably will!) train your team to make the customer happy first and fix your broken processes later.
Being defensive about your services and making a customer jump through numerous hoops to help them out only results in a customer who’s pissed off and one who will not hesitate in spreading their displeasure towards your brand among their entire circle of friends and family. Besides the negative publicity, American companies lose a collective amount of $41 billion every year thanks to bad customer service – a figure that your company can ill afford!
A customer care team that trusts the customer and puts them first enjoys the benefit of winning over the customer in spite of hiccups in their user experience on your site.
4. Focus on Speed
When a customer contacts customer care, it’s usually for a problem that they’re already facing. A hold time of even five minutes seems like an eternity to an already troubled customer. In such a scenario, what your customer will value most is not a discount coupon that your representative gives out at the end of the call, it is the speed with which her problem is resolved.
This theory is confirmed by research, which shows that 82% of customers feel that the biggest contributor to a great customer service experience is the speed with which their issues are resolved. The same study goes on to specify that online shoppers expect help within five minutes of contacting customer care – anything longer and you’ve crossed over to the side of offering a terrible customer experience.
Train your staff to move quickly when a customer faces an issue and do whatever it takes to address it immediately. The shorter the wait time, the happier will be your customer.
5. Offer Self-Help
We’ve already discussed the importance of having a crystal clear purchase flow where the customer knows exactly what is being offered to her at every step of the purchase process. From in-depth product descriptions, ample photos of the product, microcopy in your checkout forms to every tiny detail about shipping, delivery and payment instructions it’s imperative to be completely transparent with your customer at the very outset.
Besides offering clear instructions on how to proceed at every step, offer the user the option of trouble-shooting by themselves if they still get stuck at any step.
A dedicated section that covers most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) helps users help themselves without having to bother with contacting your customer care team. Detailed product guides for your flagship products is a good idea, especially when these products are high value in nature.
6. Make Returns Easy
A huge part of the regular shopping experience that e-commerce misses out is the touch and feel factor. Users unfortunately cannot see, touch, feel or wear any of the products that they plan to buy while they’re on your site. This means that there is a definite possibility of the customer not liking the product they bought online or that the product may have a defect that the customer could not inspect at the time of purchase.
In such cases, being able to return goods to the seller is a huge bonus that helps a customer make their initial purchase decision. Unless, you deal with extremely perishable items, as a thumb rule offer free returns on all products that you sell. Offer a generous window of time during which returns can be made – 30 to 60 days from the date of delivery is a bare minimum that customers expect for returns. Offer a replacement product or their money back without hassling them too much about the return. This is where free shipping becomes important. Offer to take care of shipping charges on all returns and see customer confidence in your brand soar.
7. Get Active with Social Customer Care
Nearly 70% of the online population is active on social media today. Users spend disproportionate amounts of time networking with each other and with brands they love (or love to hate.). It then follows that social media is a key platform through which customers have conversations with brands.
When a customer leaves behind feedback on your social networks regarding their experience, acknowledge it immediately and thank them for their inputs. This basic validation makes a person feel important and brings them closer to your brand. Complaints via social media need to be tackled with similar alacrity. Research by Gartner shows that brands that do not respond to customers on social media face a 15% increase in their customer churn rate.
Allocate social media customer care duties to a specific member of your team to ensure no unhappy customers go unanswered. This helps in single minded focus on an extremely critical customer contact channel, prevents oversight from your end and helps in maintaining accountability when things go really wrong.
8. Offer Live Chat
We are all used to being approached by a friendly sales rep as soon as we seem a little lost in our favorite department stores. Even discount retailers and wholesalers have on-ground staff that offer a personal touch when you are confused with what to buy or how to buy.
While we cannot offer in-person customer care during an e-commerce transaction, we can offer the next best thing to a physical presence – live chat. With live chat, customer care does not have to be restricted to post-purchase experiences. Live chat offers users the option of contacting your customer care team even in the middle of a transaction without them having to get out of the process even for a minute.
Customer satisfaction levels for different customer service platforms
According to a study by eDigital’s Customer Service Benchmark, live chat performed best among all the various customer care platforms out there. Immediate response times and the ability to multi-task while getting one’s problems solved are two of the most important reasons users prefer live chat over phone calls or writing in via email.
9. No Hidden Charges
An online relationship with your customer is built on a deeper level of trust than a similar relationship offline. When a user trusts you to have their back and offer them actually what you claim to offer on your website, any extra charges or unforeseen costs come as a nasty surprise. Things like shipping costs, sales tax, service charges or even higher pricing for certain sizes or color options are things that ought to be clarified up front to avoid ruining the users’ customer experience on your site.
Sites like eBay understand the importance of being transparent with their customers and offer a live shipping cost calculator on each product page.
Many sites indicate their product prices inclusive of all taxes right at the outset instead of topping off prices by a substantial amount at the very end of the purchase process. This not only builds trust in a customer’s mind, it also acts as a significant differentiator that sets you apart from competition.
10. Nurture Existing Customers
We have all read about how returning customers are SO much better for our business than new ones. Study after study tells us that returning customers spend more per visit, buy more often and are less trouble to service than brand new customers. According to research by Bain & Co., even a 5% growth in customer retention can increase a business’ profits by 95%.
Use your customer service to delight first time customers and convert them into returning, loyal customers. A friendly tone of voice, a helpful attitude, quick problem resolution are all factors that contribute significantly to how a customer perceives your user experience and decides on whether to return for a repeat transaction.
Use your satisfied customers as spokespersons, promoting your site to their friends and family. Actively encourage them to spread a kind word about you by offering them incentives in return. This could be a special discount on their next purchase, free shipping on their next purchase or even a small complimentary gift voucher that can be redeemed on your site instantly. This is backed up by research by NewVoiceMedia, which found that 69% of users would recommend a company to others after a positive customer experience.
E-commerce is already a tough place to survive with ever increasing competition, price wars with offline retail and a customer who’s becoming more discerning about what they expect from a shopping experience. It is only going to get more competitive as the years go by. By the year 2020, the key to stand out and rise above competition, will not be low prices or superior product quality, it will be customer service.
Where do you think you’ll be in the next five years? With the right focus on customer service today, the top of the heap would be my bet!