Customer Service Key to E-Commerce

Customer service is the highest and best use of the Internet. Online customer service contributes to long-term profits in two ways: increased customer satisfaction leading to longer-term customer relationships and sales; and reduced customer-service costs.

If you're not providing customer service online, start today.

Where else can you shift the time and cost to the customer and increase satisfaction at the same time? Take the FedEx online customer-service site. As a FedEx customer, I can go to and link to the tracking page. I enter the airbill number of my package and the date sent. I receive every point of transfer and the name of the person who signed for the package and the date and time of the signature.

My needs are met, and I am a satisfied customer.

But this is nuts! I pay for the connection to the Internet. I pay for a computer that can use an Internet browser. I have to work through the Internet connectivity hassle. I have to take my time and energy to access the site. I have to fill in the blanks on the site. FedEx doesn't have to answer the telephone, doesn't have to fill in the blanks, doesn't even need to know that I accessed its delivery database. A few nanoseconds of computer work and I am in and gone with the information I seek and I am satisfied.

But is cost and hassle really the issue? No, it's the opportunity for me to be in control. No recorded voice instruction to push this key or that. No hours of operation to contend with, I can look up a package any time I want, day or night. And the real clincher is I can print out the screen and fax it to the customer who swears the package was never received. The customer can find out the new person in receiving hasn't learned to deliver FedEx packages first thing in the morning, reversing the polarity from a customer-service issue to a customer issue.

A definition of Web-based customer service might be induced from this phenomenon: Online customer service provides timely, on-demand information that affects the customer's business and life. This information is probably transaction based or status based.

Transaction-based information could be order tracking, back-order tracking and proactive e-mail notification (a positive customer service), shipping method and date, work-in-process with a due-to-ship date, schedules (when is the electrician coming to you home or office) and other time or activity important in the relationship between the company and the customer.

Status service could be open credit with the company, frequent traveler points (already exists), inventory levels, schedules (times and dates available for delivery of a service), special pricing for the customer, special offers for the customer and any other information set that invites the specific customer to do more business with the company.

The poor customer-service site is the online company-centric site that instructs the customer how to do business with the company, creating work for the customer. The good online customer-service site provides customer-based information on demand, creating solutions for the customer.

These rules can apply to new customers as well. I recently went looking for a new telephone system. One of the phone companies had an online site to create a system for my small business. If I put in the characteristics and features of my business, I would receive a recommended system.

Once I decided what system to buy, it would seem natural that I could access a local dealer for the system. But no: To buy the system I had to consult my Yellow Pages, which did not list a dealer for the company. I was forced to contact the company and spend almost an hour finding my local dealer. It is easy to provide an online dealer locator based on country and postal code/ZIP as a service to the new customer. And the real tragedy is that I was never asked for my name and phone number so the company could get in touch with me. Beautiful graphics, probably designed by a graphic designer or an advertising agency, don't relate to database marketing.

Good online customer service offers customer-based transaction and status information and offers interaction for the customer to take the next step. FedEx offers to schedule a pick-up, selling its service conveniently. Catalog Ventures provides its many catalog customers who visit its online site special pricing on products with limited availability. Hilton does not provide the interaction next step. Once I have my frequent traveler miles, I can look at how to use them, but I can't do so online. I'm sure this will advance over time.

To start your online customer-service Web site:

* Go to your customer-service department and catalog the most frequently asked questions (FAQs), transaction information requests and status requests.

* For nondatabase information, put the FAQs online and provide a place for customers to discuss your products and services as part of the FAQs. Current customers are the best sales people you can have. Give them a place to ask and answer questions among themselves.

* For database-served information, get your IS department in gear to provide that information online. More than likely, the customer-service screens delivering customer-service information can be modified with better instructions and firewalled for protection.

Result: Happier, more satisfied customers.

Tracy Emerick is principal of Taurus Direct Marketing, a direct marketing agency and consultancy, and president of Receptive Marketing Inc., which provides Internet site development and Internet service for electronic commerce and database-driven Internet, extranet and intranet applications.

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