From the November 2000 issue of Startups

Neil Closner ran a brick-and-mortar store for baby products, he could look his customers in the eyes, answer their questions in person and tell by their smiles-or frowns-how satisfied they were. As president of 2-year-old, 12-employee BabyUniverse.com, the 27-year-old entrepreneur can't perform any of those basic customer service functions. "Online, you don't have that human, physical interaction," says Closner. "We have to make up for it in any way we can."

Closner and other e-business entrepreneurs are making up for this lack of human contact in multiple ways: e-mail, telephone support, well-staffed chat lines and easily accessible FAQs. These automated and semi-automated customer service tools are admirably suited to the 24/7 schedule of e-commerce. But there's no doubt that replacing the friendly smile of a salesperson with all these techno-tools raises some very relevant questions. Here are the basic steps of creating a solid customer service program for your site.

  • Good e-business customer service allows shoppers to do all kinds of things with ease: find ordering information, check the status of orders, view their order histories and account balances, and, of course, get live help via e-mail, chat lines or telephone. Decide which of these things you'll need the most by considering your customers' needs. For instance, BabyUniverse's customers tend to be first-time parents who have lots of questions about safety and want product recommendations from experts, so direct communication with live customer service staff is essential.
  • To help you decide what elements to incorporate into your customer service, check out other sites. Study competitors as well as major online sites known for good customer service, such as Amazon.com. Check how easy it is to find FAQs, locate ordering instructions, check order status, update account information and, if necessary, contact customer service by phone, e-mail or chat.
  • Will you want to handle these jobs by yourself or outsource? This decision will be driven by how fast you need to have your customer service function operational, whether you want to hire and train the necessary employees, whether you can invest the capital to purchase the necessary software and hardware, and how much control you want to have over the process. Third-party providers usually charge stiff setup fees and monthly tariffs ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars but will provide and maintain needed technology for lower upfront costs. You can also get up and running faster if you outsource, going live in weeks instead of months, and you will be relieved of hiring and training employees.

Lack of control, however, is a bigger issue for many firms, large or small. "It probably would be more cost-effective for us to outsource," says Closner, "but I don't want to trust a farmed-out calling center to handle my customers." If you do it in-house, hire good communicators, and teach them about technical and other issues concerning your products and services. Create standard forms for customers to use when submitting questions by e-mail, and prepare FAQs. These forms will be invaluable to customers as well as your staff.

  • Site design is critical. You want a lot of information and assistance available, but it must be easy to reach. "People are often impatient and might not look deep enough on your site to find what they are looking for," says Ken Shapiro, president of Askit.com, a New York City online automatic 24/7 question and answer service.
  • You may be able to partially outsource customer service to companies like Askit.com-Closner uses the site to reduce the load on its telephone help lines. "It probably saves us 50 to 100 phone calls a day," he says. In the future, Closner expects to offer online chat with live video of customer service representatives showing customers how to, for example, fold up a baby stroller. It won't be cheap, but customer service is already his second-highest cost, next to keeping the Web site up and running.

But Closner says it's worth the cost. "Customer service is probably the most important factor in my company's reputation," he says. "If we don't make customers happy, they're not going to come back."

Brain Food

Call Center News Service is a Web publication that covers the latest technology, trends, vendors and issues in customer service and the call center industry, including online customer service for e-businesses. Go to www.callcenternews.com.


Mark Henricks, author of Business Plans Made Easy (Entrepreneur Media Inc.) and Mastering Home Networking (Sybex Inc.), writes on business and technology issues.