Customer Service Can Make or Break Your Site

If you thought the wave of e-commerce sites created in the last year has been something, just wait.

The Financial Executives Institute and Duke University predict that more than 50 percent of “mainstream companies” in the United States will sell a product or service via the Web by the end of 2000 (see

How many Web-based bookstores can you name? Most people run out of steam after three or four. This will change if the FEI and Duke are correct. You might expect the number of bookstores online to increase by a factor of 100 in the next two years.

Hundreds of bookstores online? How will people decide where to buy? Price will always be important, but many online stores already sell at cost. How will the coming flood of online retailers differentiate themselves? Customer service. People buy where they get the best treatment.

Everyone knows what customer service looks like in a physical store. It is a staff of attentive clerks who help you find what you want but don’t intrude when you want a little private shopping time. Everything else springs from that.

What does great customer service look like on the Web? You’ll find as many answers as sites. Each site struggles for a way to give customers the best possible online experience, but no company has found the definitive answer. The only thing e-vendors agree on is that great customer service is essential.

On many sites, less than 30 percent of filled shopping carts make it to checkout. Customer service is seen as the way to convert these abandoned carts into orders.

The four basic building blocks of online customer service are answers to frequently asked questions, e-mail (both automated and human-composed), telephone support and a live online chat agent.

Other technologies, such as fax-back and interactive voice response, are just variations on these four basic models.

Nobody has yet hit on a way to meld these together into a smooth-functioning, rich, online shopping experience. But here are some critical steps in that direction:

• Use all four building blocks listed above. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses and appeals to different people. You’ll eventually develop an integrated approach that is ideal to your market.

• Don’t play “content favorites.” Make the same information available in all support platforms. In the best sites, all forms of support draw on the same knowledge base. Any information that can be found in FAQs should be available from a telephone agent, through e-mail or through an online agent. Of course, telephone, e-mail and online agents can answer more personalized questions than FAQs.

Quite often, a question that at first seems unique to an individual is a symptom of a larger problem with your site and can usually be propagated in general form to a central knowledge base.

• Find a way to make chat cheaper than e-mail and telephone. Chat has enormous potential because it comes closest to providing a rich customer service environment. E-mail makes people wait and the telephone makes people use a different medium. With a good chat system, an online agent can handle three or four clients simultaneously as well as provide a wealth of material to inject into your knowledge base.

• Identify customers early, and use the information wisely. Stop thinking of your support system as a help desk. Instead, think of it as the tool set to encourage people to buy. The sooner you know who is visiting your Web site, the sooner you can use your customer-service tools to help them find what they want to buy. And, as a result, the sooner you can convert all those abandoned shopping carts into sales.

What will happen to e-commerce vendors who don’t implement some form of online customer service?

Imagine two Web sites selling the same goods. Both are equally well-organized and sell goods at approximately the same price. But only one has a customer-service strategy that welcomes people to the site, helps them quickly find what they want and supports the purchase right up to the time it arrives at the customer’s door. People are able to buy what they want with a minimum of fuss. On top of that, customers have learned that great customer service can support them after the sale if something is wrong with the shipment or the product is defective.

Which site do you think will do better?

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