Demystifying E-Commerce: How to Offer Competitive Customer Service

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A customer service strategy for an online store is as critical as it is for a brick and mortar.  Some may start with the misguided perception that having the online storefront shields the business from the dreaded encounters with customers that physical stores have.  But anyone with the least experience in e-commerce would agree that customer encounters can be very challenging at times – especially if not handled with a clear process and a precise approach. 

It might be useful here to define customer service broadly as encompassing moments when customers seek contact with the business for matters beyond the scope of browsing the store, adding goods to cart, or checking out.  Customer service is the interaction that happens between the business and the customer, at the customer’s request, to address a certain queries or issues.  Yet one can still look at it in the traditional model of two parts: pre-sale and post-sale service.

Pre-sale Customer Service

Pre-sale isn’t usually a very challenging interaction; this is where potential or return buyers are asking questions about the products, prices, shipping methods, or other aspects that relate to a probable order they want to make.  The key factors for whoever is handling the “ticket” are

  1. Having the proper knowledge to address the query professionally.  This is about training and preparing the customer service staff on the various aspects of the business and giving the right access to information when they need it to address queries.
  2. Addressing the query within a guaranteed time window and as fast as possible.  This metric is about capacity and clear SLA’s to the customer service team while managing the customer service expectations (for example, responding to e-mails within 24 hours). 
  3. Having the right attitude and approach to engaging the customer and converting his/her query into an interactive experience, thereby increasing the chances of a sale and registering a positive point with the customer for future purchases.

Post-sale Customer Service

Post-sale is where the action is.  These are customers that placed orders and are calling, e-mailing, or posting on Twitter or Facebook for specific concerns, queries, complaints, or, if you’re lucky, praise.  These will increase, in correlation with the number of orders on the site, and it’s important to build capacity to handle the growing influx of customer contact.  The customer service team must have visibility on order status and a deep knowledge of the business model, specifically the supply chain.  The systems they use must be designed to provide such knowledge and manage a rigorous workflow that results in resolving customer issues.  It is redundant to stress the importance of the attitude of call-centre staff or the tonality of the e-mails going to customers.  The more the customer comfortable the customer feels about the person handling their query, the more they are likely to accept delays or inconveniences (to an extent).  Therefore it is crucial to empower agents and give them the tools to act rather than just taking notes. 

The channels that an online store makes available for customer contact are also worth planning and designing specific approaches for.  The ones we see in the region are telephone, customer service e-mail, and social media (facebook fan pages and twitter).  Some use live chat but that isn’t a big trend yet.  Clearly social media is adopted by many customers who will post with immense passion about an experience.  Opening up such a channel must have the right skills standing by to handle these public posts under a customer service and branding strategy.  So be prepared and use the posts to bring the customer closer.  

Customer service for an online store should evolve and be viewed as part of the overall user experience.  It becomes a competitive advantage in the face of growing competition and increases return purchases by happy customers.  So make sure there are clear policies on the site regarding warrantees, returns, exchanges, shipping times, fees, etc.  Also expect that no matter how clear the policies are, customers will want to enforce their own. How the business manages these policies becomes a secret sauce that either kicks off with customers or simply turns them off. 

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