Customer service includes a wide variety of functions, from tracking packages and answering questions to processing returns.

"Letting a customer know where their order is at all times is critical in terms of establishing a relationship with them," says Sherri Ingram Breetzke, 37, founder of The Creativity Zone, an online gift shop based in Melbourne, Florida. The company specializes in handcrafted gifts and saw its sales increase 138 percent last year.

Breetzke, whose suppliers use UPS and the United States Postal Service (USPS) to distribute their goods, makes an effort to communicate as much information as she can to customers after they've placed an order. For example, she sends detailed follow-up e-mails that list the order number, the order total, the items ordered, the expected arrival date and a phone number or e-mail address for customer service. She also includes a tracking number, so customers can monitor their delivery date on the carrier's Web site. Some sites go so far as to allow customers to access tracking systems online so they can find their products in the supply chain.

"A quick note to let the customer know the item is on its way alleviates potential concern about delivery," Breetzke says. "The customer can now anticipate when the package will arrive." Once the package has been delivered, she recommends sending another quick e-mail to the customer. That way, it's easy for your customer to contact you in the event the item arrived damaged. (It also gives you the opportunity to ask if the item arrived safely and answer any additional questions.)

Lastly, Breetzke says it's important to let customers know if there could be any unexpected delays in shipment. "Take the time to e-mail your customers when a shipment won't arrive on time," she says. "Customers understand that delays happen and will be generous in their expectations. But they do not understand when companies fail to take the time to notify them and show a perceived disregard for common courtesy."

Breetzke handles these notifications personally because her site generates a manageable number of orders. If you're handling thousands or millions of orders each month, you should probably use an automated e-mail response system, which can be programmed not only to send out e-mails once products are shipped, but also to let you answer a variety of e-mail requests automatically (sans human intervention). You can also set up this type of system to automatically send an e-mail after a product has been shipped or for any other purposes you wish.

But e-mail isn't the only path to great customer service-real-time online chats between customers and customer service reps and FAQ sections are other options. These technologies work because they help answer questions, solve problems and sell additional products.

And if you don't already, always post your toll-free number on your Web site. As long as you have an answering machine that lets callers know when you're available and when you will be able to call back, that should suit your customers' needs.

Contrary to what you might think, technology doesn't make or break your customer service reputation. In reality, it's the people behind the technology who are most important. While e-mail, chats, FAQs and toll-free numbers are certainly important parts of your customer service survival plan, they won't mean much if the people manning the phones or conducting the chat sessions aren't trained properly.

EHobbies.com, a 100-plus employee hobby destination site encompassing content, community and commerce, understands these ideas well. The Santa Monica, California, company, which launched last year, has an in-house customer service staff of 10 people who man the phones from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., answering questions about the more than 15,000 hobby-related products (including model train sets, plastic, wood and paper models, and rocketry accessories). After 6:30 p.m., the phones are switched to an outsourced call-center company until 6:30 a.m., so customers and visitors can still speak to a live person. EHobbies' vice president trained the teleservices support staff, a team familiar with all the products on the Web site. Both in-house and outsourced groups answer phone calls and respond to e-mails as quickly as possible.

You can never go too far in providing customer service," says Brad Sobel, 38, CEO and co-founder of eHobbies, which budgets 35 percent of its annual expenditures for customer service and support. "You have to get into the mindset of your customers. You have to ask them questions, listen to them and follow up with them. You can never do enough."

It seems as if a number of online merchants are lacking in the customer service department. A recent study by the Software and Information Industry Association found that 10 percent of experienced online shoppers in the United States left a site during last year's pre-Christmas rush because they were frustrated by poor site design, technical difficulties and the retailer's failure to answer queries. The study found that 17 percent of respondents had a question about either products or services while they were shopping. Although 75 percent of them were able to find some sort of FAQ sheet, nearly 20 percent never resolved those problems or questions-thus abandoning their entire purchase.

Fortunately, savvy Web marketers continually develop new ways of enhancing customer service. Some offer free shipping, which can result in savings of as much as $15 per item for some customers. Free shipping became popular during the holiday season, when some major online retailers initiated the freebie. Experts recommend offering discounts in delivery selectively to avoid product markups.

A study of 5,831 shoppers by Forrester Research found that the cost of shipping was a major factor in decision-making for 82 percent of online shoppers, but that Internet merchants need to be cautious when reinstating shipping costs. Customers could return to brick-and-mortar stores if delivery charges cancel out any online savings. Analysts suggest offering flat rate or reduced-rate shipping to loyal customers.

Many Web sites also offer their customers hassle-free return policies that let unsatisfied customers return purchases within 30 days for a prompt refund. However, most businesses charge customers a small return fee. When the item is returned, for example, the customer's credit card will be credited for the price of the items and any taxes, excluding shipping costs, but with a return charge of about $5 deducted.


is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines.