Meeting the Amazon Customer Relationship Effect

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Remember how you felt upon returning to the corner hardware store after the first time you shopped at Home Depot? Or do you recall what it was like to shop at your neighborhood bookstore after visiting a Borders or Barnes & Noble? Were you disappointed by the smaller store's selection, or perhaps by its small staff and less-than-perfect customer service skills?


Let's face it, consumers expect more today of companies than they ever have before. In the 1980s and 1990s, the expansion of chains such as Wal-Mart, The Gap and Best Buy raised consumer expectations in the offline world. Today, online companies with great customer service, such as Amazon.com, are raising consumer expectations to a whole new level.


Amazon is the biggest, most-established online retailer, and the benchmark for online customer service performance. It has more than a 20 percent reach in the consumer market, boasts 99 percent on-time delivery and has high customer satisfaction. Like it or not, the odds are that your customers are Amazon customers too, and therefore, they have already experienced Amazon's great service.


When I buy from a company other than Amazon, I often wonder why that company doesn't send me proactive e-mail about when my order will ship? Why doesn't it offer me friendly recommendations of items I may want to buy? Why doesn't it have a helpful FAQ page that can answer nearly all of my questions before I ask them? And why doesn't it respond to my e-mail on the same day, or at all?


Your customers are wondering the same thing because this is what they have come to expect from Amazon and companies like it. Your customers know that great customer service is possible. Amazon proved it to them. Now they're just waiting for you to deliver.


There's no way to compete with great customer service except to have great customer service. A slick Web site featuring underpriced products and unbelievable promotions will keep you on the top of a consumer's list only until the next, slick Web site featuring underpriced products and unbelievable promotions comes along. There is no shortcut for reaching Amazon's level of customer service quality; you must work for it.


Study the customer service of Amazon and other companies that do it well. If you find something that your competition does well, copy it. That's part of the normal course of doing business on the Web. Take a look at companies like Miadora, Eve.com, Fogdog or 800.com. These companies are customer-focused, and the result is easy-to-use Web sites and great customer service, before and after the sale.


Here are some strategies to follow:


Start small. Forget about trying to fix everything and be good at everything at once. Start by improving your customer service processes one at a time.


Training. Amazon puts its employees through a four-week training program before they are allowed to even speak to a customer. This training sensitizes representatives to the importance of customer-representative interactions and prepares them to reassuringly handle the questions of even the greenest Web shoppers.


Make it easy for customers to reach you and send you feedback. Put a link to customer service on every page of your site. On the customer service page, make your phone, e-mail, FAQ links, etc., readily available.


Respond to your e-mail. E-mail is the most popular form of online communication today. I believe that it will surpass the phone as the preferred means of customer support within the next few years. Respond to all e-mail quickly.


Set a goal for response time and exceed it. Ideally, you should respond to e-mail the same day you receive it. If you receive a high volume of customer e-mail (50 or more per day), you should be in the market for an e-mail management system to help you route and respond to messages.


Enable customers to serve themselves. Notice the extensive help section on Amazon's site. Web customers will actually use an FAQ section if it is well-designed and current. If a customer can answer his question without waiting on hold, he'll be happy and save you money.


Be proactive. According to Kristin Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Amazon, "our idea of customer service is no service. In other words, customers are so happy, they don't have to get back to us." Amazon is known for its proactive customer service, such as automatically notifying customers when it has received an order, when the order ships and if the product will be arriving late or is out of stock. Other forms of proactive customer service include periodic e-mail newsletters and notifications of new features or promotions.


Online success is not just about meeting customer expectations; it is about exceeding them. Amazon has a solid track record of consistently underpromising and then overdelivering. If you make this a habit and then copy some of the best habits of the market leaders, you also will be able to put your business, regardless of size, in the same league as Amazon.
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