E-Commerce Essentials

Service With A Smile

Often, much of an online retailer's efforts go into building his or her site, without much thought given to how to service customers when it's done. But it goes without saying that customer service must be every e-tailer's top priority. In fact, as an online merchant, I'd encourage you to provide even better customer service than traditional brick-and-mortar retailers do because of one simple fact: You're not dealing with customers face-to-face. To get consumers to buy (and keep buying) online, there must be procedures in place to instill trust, ensure prompt and reliable service, and simplify the buying process.

But not every e-tailer has caught on. According to a January 1999 survey by Jupiter Communications, only 74 percent of online shoppers were satisfied with their experience, down 14 percent from six months prior. Common complaints include the cost of shipping and slow (or no) responses to customer inquiries.

I once ordered some gourmet goodies online only to discover the e-tailer's shipping costs were exorbitantly high. Since I really wanted the items for a gift, I paid the high price--but vowed never to return again.

Don't make this mistake with your customers. One way to keep your shipping costs down? Ship smart by visiting http://www.smartship.com. Type in the size and weight of the product and where you're shipping it to and from, and this free service provides information on the lowest-priced carrier and methods for shipping. It also has features to easily track packages you've sent (or let your customers track them themselves). Remember, when building shipping costs into your order-processing system, be sure to offer customers the lowest rates possible, or you risk losing the sale.

If you aim to please, customer-support procedures are another consideration. According to Jordan Fladell, president of LeaseAnApp (http://www.leaseanapp.com), a consulting company that provides cost-effective e-commerce solutions, commonly overlooked customer support issues include:

  • How to process orders
  • How to support orders outside of normal business hours
  • How to handle customer-support inquires

Developing a customer-support plan to address these issues is key, Fladell says. It should include an analysis of the entire ordering process, from the number of orders you can support to back-end fulfillment systems and delivery processes.

Consumer-friendly e-commerce sites also offer customer-support systems to better serve their shoppers. Your Web site should include information that specifies how long customers will typically wait for delivery. After each order is placed, send an e-mail telling the customer you've received his or her order and specifying when he or she will receive the shipment. To head off customer frustration, send an e-mail immediately if there's any delay. If possible, include methods for Web shoppers to track their orders' progress (or at least provide somewhere to e-mail or call to find out that information). After customers have received your goods or services, send follow-up e-mails a few weeks later, offering tips on maximizing the value of their purchase and thanking them for it.

For after-hours support, consider building a FAQ page to address common concerns. Ancillary support, says Fladell, may also include an online support module containing clear instructions on how to use your product or service and troubleshooting tips in case customers run into trouble after hours.

Other good customer service practices include quick responses to customer e-mails (consider using e-mail software with auto-responders to address common questions), holding regular online customer support chats, and offer easy ways for customers to reach you, such as a toll-free number or e-mail address. Says Fladell, "It's about keeping all lines of communication open between you and your customers."

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