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Serve 'Em Right

When it comes to customer service on the web, think big.

The great thing about the internet is that anyone can set up shop. But that also means you have to compete with the big guys-and customer service is no exception. "Customers today are very savvy," says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group Inc., an e-commerce consulting firm in Chicago. "They expect best-of-breed customer service everywhere they shop on the web. They don't care if you're small."

Each year, Freedman's firm tracks the top 100 e-tailers on set criteria to select best-in-class merchants relative to customer service and communication. The most successful online businesses offer the following:

1. A toll-free number: Says Freedman, "This is pretty critical."

2. Keyword search: According to Freedman, "People today are used to searching for things online, and they want a seamless search experience on the web-sites they are considering buying from."

3. Timely answers to e-mail questions: "A small e-tailer should probably strive for 48 hours," says Freedman, who adds that it's important to personally address customer queries instead of sending automated responses.

4. Ground shipping in four or fewer days: Freedman advises, "Make [your] shipping policies very clear in all [your] communications with customers."

5. Quick checkout: The best sites offer checkout in six or fewer clicks.

6. Inventory status: While Freedman says real-time status is best, "[let] your customer know within 24 hours if the product they are ordering is in stock."

7. Online shipping status: "[Offer] a link to UPS or FedEx so they can check their orders [directly]," says Freedman.

8. Order confirmations: Include one in the shopping cart, and send an e-mail confirmation as well. Be sure to include the order number.

9. Recommendations: During the shopping process, suggest other products and features. "This is standard for larger merchants," says Freedman, who adds that it can help you increase order size.

10. Clearly displayed customer service hours: This is especially important if your customer service hours are limited, says Freedman.

Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.

This story appears in the March 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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