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At Your Service

“At Your Service”

How to deliver online customer support that helps, not hinders.

Using the Internet to provide customer service can reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction. But you have to know what you’re doing; otherwise, you can alienate customers quickly. Consider:

  • Veteran online shoppers abandoned transactions 10% of the time because they were unable to find information or get adequate answers to questions, according to a study from the Software Information Industry Association.
  • 18% of online shoppers who contact customer support are either unlikely or highly unlikely to repurchase from the merchant again, according to BizRate.com, a company that rates Web retailers on customer satisfaction.

Even if you don’t engage in e-commerce, you still need solid online customer service. People want information fast, and they prefer to get it themselves. The Web provides a more-economical forum to deliver that information — and it’s often the first place a customer will turn to.

Saving Time, Saving Money

From the customer’s perspective, online service spells convenience. Customers can visit your Web site any time they want. They can access more specific information about your products or services than in a brochure or catalog. And unlike a call center, they don’t have to wait in a phone queue or drill down through multiple menus.

In a nutshell, online customer service makes it easier to do business with your company.

It also can save you money. Customer field visits can cost hundreds of dollars, and even a phone call can cost several dollars, but online customer service averages pennies per interaction.

Cisco Systems currently handles about 80% of all service questions online, which will account for some of the $800 million Cisco expects to save this year from its Internet business functions.

A Few Ground Rules

To understand what content and tools to offer on your Web site, put on "customer-colored glasses" and look at your business from their viewpoint.

Format strategy. The type and amount of information you present depend on customers’ capabilities. HTML pages may be fine in many cases. But when formatting is important, such as for an instruction manual, you may want to use a PDF file, which provides more control over the document’s structure and format. There’s one catch: To read PDF files, customers need special plug-ins for browsers. Newer browsers often have those applications built in, but the point remains: Consider what type of hardware and software customers use.

Scalability and performance. How many customers will your site serve — hundreds or millions?

If it’s a large user base, your commitment to unique and complex software and technological "know how" will increase dramatically so that your computer platform can handle a high volume of connections. Having a Web site crash under heavy use is not going to instill trust.

Likewise, can your database handle many users? Sluggish performance can be as much a turn-off as being denied access to a site. In fact, experts estimate that people will wait no longer than 20 seconds for a page to load before moving on.

Navigation. It doesn’t matter how robust your site is if customers can’t find what they’re looking for. Determine what customers are trying to accomplish and design your site accordingly. Put important navigation options at the top; many users won’t scroll down to find what’s visible at the bottom of the page.

Integration with your business. The Internet complements other customer-support channels, but it doesn’t replace them. If you installed voice mail, for example, you wouldn’t get rid of your receptionist.

Make sure you have the appropriate resources to support whatever you’re offering online. Information must be kept current — how current depends on customers’ needs.

Helping Customers Help Themselves

People typically come to a Web site looking for an answer to a problem, whether it’s to purchase a product or solve a technical problem. Those answers can often be provided through seven self-service tools and information:

  1. Contact info. Make it easy to find. That includes address, telephone and fax numbers. Many companies try to hide their phone number in an effort to reduce call-center volume. Bad move. The best way to reduce calls is to make your site very utilitarian, so customers don’t need to call. Besides, it may be a virtual world, but listing all your contact points makes you appear more credible to customers.
  2. Search engine. Give customers a search tool that really works. One study found that 92% of searches failed to return relevant information.
  3. Frequently asked questions (FAQs). Ask everyone in your company, from customer service staff to the receptionist, what questions they typically field. Then spell out both questions and answers in the customer’s language.

    Depending on product and complexity, you may want to create FAQs on different levels, such as one section devoted to new customers and another for seasoned clients.

  4. Troubleshooting guides. These don’t replace live technical help, but they can be a good starting point for customers. Not many companies offer troubleshooting guides, probably because they are tough to execute.

    It’s crucial to keep the guide in the customer’s language, instead of techno-speak. Real customers don’t look for a link that says, "I’m having trouble with the primary domain-name server in my Windows 98 dial-up networking control program," points out Jim Sterne, author of "Customer Service on the Internet." They want to click on one that says, "The screechy sound that comes out of my modem sounds funny, and I can’t get to Yahoo!"

  5. Patches and upgrades. Especially if you’re a technology provider, posting patches and upgrades is an easy way to help customers keep products current.
  6. Online case studies. Showing how different customers have used your product not only serves as testimonials, but it may illustrate new applications.
  7. Online forums. Be it mailing lists, bulletin boards or news groups, forums are a great way to create a sense of community and "warm up" your Web site. Allow customers to share both success stories and complaints. You can’t always please everyone, but it’s better to deal with complaints on your turf than to risk customers airing their grievances in other venues. Caution: Post clear rules of use, and then delegate someone within your company to moderate the forum, making sure that any content to be posted is within acceptable guidelines.

Assisted Service: Lending a Hand

The Internet is ideal for customer service because it allows interactive communications. If customers can’t find what they’re looking for, you can lend a hand through assisted service.

E-Mail. Get back to customers in a timely manner — and that means in 24 hours or less, experts agree.

It’s amazing how many companies fall down on e-mail response. According to a study by Peppers and Rogers Group, apparel/accessories, drugstore and vitamin sites had the best score card, some responding in less than two hours. The worst electronic pen pals were book, video and music sites; despite Amazon’s timely track record, many players in these categories took more than 48 hours to answer customers’ questions. Financial-services and garden sites also scored poorly.

Slow e-mail response encourages customers to:

  1. Contact you through the phone or fax, negating efficiencies you would have realized from the Web.
  2. Check out a competitor. After all, you don’t seem to value their business.

Use an auto-responder to as
sure customers that their message did, indeed, land on the right server. And if you can’t meet a 24-hour turnaround, tell customers when you will respond.

When you reach a certain volume of e-mail, you’ll need a tool for managing it. Software is available to filter e-mail by subject and route it to appropriate reps. There are also systems that use artificial intelligence to answer e-mail by looking not just at key words but by analyzing their context in questions. These systems can reduce workload on your customer support staff, but aren’t infallible.

Chat-enabled call centers. Web chat, also known as instant electronic messaging, enables a customer to engage in real-time dialogue with one of your service agents. Communication takes place in a pop-up box on the customer’s browser screen. Web chat offers efficiencies because, unlike a phone call, there is generally some lag time in communications, and a rep can assist four or five customers simultaneously.

Another benefit of Web chat is collaborative browsing. The service rep has the ability to "push" Web pages to the customer’s browser, which can help if the customer is trying to locate something and the service rep knows its exact location.

Answering e-mail or Web chat requires different skills. An employee might be very good on the phone, but be poor at typing or communicating through text. And without hearing the inflection of speech, it’s easy to misinterpret a message. Look for reps with good writing and interpersonal skills — perceptive people who can read the tone of customers’ messages.

"Call-me" buttons. By clicking a button on your Web site, a customer can enter his phone number and get a call back. These work best if a customer has multiple phone lines, so the rep can call while the customer is still online. If your customer doesn’t have a dedicated Internet line and is using a telephone modem, have him specify a callback time.

Some callback buttons utilize voice-over IP, an emerging technology that transmits voice-over Internet connections. Because of bandwidth limitations, voice-over IP is more of a novelty right now than ready for prime time. Yet experts predict it will become more mainstream in the next year, especially for business-to-business sites.

In Search of Repeat Buyers

When it comes to online shopping, customer support is the No. 1 driver behind a buyer’s likelihood to purchase again from that merchant. This chart shows the relationship between different variables and their influence on repeat purchases.


Source: Bizrate.com

When to Use What

Because assisted service requires a live person to step in at some point, costs are higher than self-service. Example: Giga Information Group estimates the cost of a self-service transaction (such as FAQs) at about 5 cents, compared to an e-mail response at about $1.75 each.

Deciding which tools to offer customers depends largely on your product/service and the buying transaction. Chat is typically used when the customer needs an immediate answer — or you want to give them an immediate answer to hasten the purchasing process. Example: If consumers are ordering flowers, waiting even two hours for an e-mail answer can be too long — one reason that 1-800-Flowers.com was an early champion of Web chat.

Yet if you’re selling something like nuclear power plants, online chat isn’t really going to do the trick. Customers need longer, more-involved dialogue.

Tools also depend on the customer’s mission. If he or she wants to check on the status of an order, the customer might opt for self-service. But if there’s been an error in delivery, customers will probably want to talk to a live agent.

Some Final Words

Devise a strategy to move customers online. Too many companies have the "If we build it, they will come" site mentality. Have a URL that’s easy to remember. Publicize your Web site through various printed materials, from business cards to advertisements. If you’re a business-to-business company, enlist your salesforce to educate customers about online support.

If you engage in e-commerce, make sure ordering and return instructions are crystal clear. Also, provide a return label with delivery. Ease of returns is one of the primary concerns with business-to-consumer customers.

Monitor, monitor, monitor. The best way to improve your site and offer better customer service is to listen to customers and watch their behavior. Pay attention to e-mails. Analyze activity on your site. Through log data, you can determine the most common entry points and paths and modify navigation. Yet use caution with major redesigns. Users learn sites quickly, and major changes can throw them off.

Remember: Customer service can be more important to your company’s success than your actual product or service.

Writer: TJ Becker