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September 13, 2007

The Online Customer Service Problem

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It’s been an interesting few days on LED Digest. On Tuesday, Ron Coble started a thread about problems with customer service and the conversation hasn’t stopped. In his post, Ron highlighted a few bad experiences he’s had with e-commerce Web sites, including the time he contacted the customer service department to see how much it would cost to ship a lounge chair and ottoman to the home of his 87-year-old father. Surely, the customer service department would recognize an easy conversion and be quick to respond to Ron’s question, right?

Appears not:

"As I write this, it has now been 3 weeks and never so much as a
reply. Now wouldn’t you think that if someone is asking about
delivery charges that they are pretty far into the purchase decision
and you would want to follow up with that person immediately?"

After Ron’s original post, several other LED Digest subscribers joined in to share their war stories about dealing with e-commerce sites and how sometimes customer service is severely lacking, frustrating users and causing site owners to miss out on sales. It seems we have ourselves a wide-spread problem.

Here’s a quick note to all the site owners out there in case this wasn’t clear from the beginning: Customer service is part of Internet marketing. Online marketing isn’t just about creating a flashy pretty Web site. Pleasing and responding to the needs of your customers is actually a very big part. Without them, your Web site is nothing more than a placeholder on the Web. Where’s the value in that?

By being quick to respond to customer concerns, problems and inquiries, it helps to establish trust, something that is so very important on the Web. You want your customers to feel like you’re there for them. You want them to feel like your site will still be there tomorrow, that there are actually people behind it.

Anyone who has seen me out and about knows that I’m a big fan of Seatbelt bags. They’re sturdy and adorable and I have quite a collection. They’re also fairly expensive, at least for a 20-something trying to support herself in one of the most expensive states in the universe. That being said, when I’m on the hunt for a new bag I send their customer service people a lot of questions, mostly via email. And you know what? They actually answer me, and very timely at that. And because of that, I trust them. I trust that I’m going to get the product they’re offering in the condition they’re promising. I trust that their site is credible. And I trust that should there be a problem with my order (which there never has been, they’re awesome), that they’ll be around to replace it or at least help me sort it out.

That’s what Internet marketing and branding is about. It’s about establishing trust and showing customers that you care about them.

So much of Internet marketing is about establishing these kinds of relationships. It’s why sites put pictures on the About us page or write friendly bios. It’s why we try to design Web sites to be intuitive. It’s about meeting users needs so that they feel comfortable enough to do business with you. Sure, search engine optimization and keywords are important, but they don’t mean anything if you’re ignoring users when they try to make contact.

Any company with a contact or email form should have a prompt system for answering any and all inquiries that come in. It’s just good business. Now, of course there are honest mistakes, the time when that email is accidentally directed to your spam folder or the days when life just gets in the way and you’re unable to check email, but those circumstances should be the exception, not the rule.

Ask yourself, how long does it take you to respond to a customer email? How long does it take to get a contract out? To pick up the phone and make contact when necessary? To respond to a support call? Are you responding to users as quickly as you should be? These are all actions that build trust and they’re all very important to your brand, both online and off.

With all the money you’re spending on search engine optimization and Internet marketing, don’t forget the personal touches that will help your site stand out. You don’t want to frustrate people to the point where they’re complaining about you so loud in discussion threads that nosy bloggers pick it up, do you?

Now, go check your email.

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3 responses to “The Online Customer Service Problem”

  1. Alan Bleiweiss writes:

    Lisa,

    Thanks for posting this. While I’d recently subscribed to your blog, I had no idea that LED existed before and after reading your post I went to the LED site and read several of the threads. As a consultant to small and mid-size business clients for many years, the topics at LED are obviously quite relevant to my work. I really get a kick out of the fact that it’s an old-school email list and look forward to throwing my twenty five cents in.

    On the subject of customer service, I need to be honest and admit that as an independent consultant I had a very difficult time keeping up with all my responsibilities including responding to client emails.

    Yet whenever it came to anything to do with a problem, I have always done my best to drop whatever I’ve been doing and jump on getting resolution for my clients. I’ve always explained to new web clients how vital it is to be timely in responding to their customers needs.

    Then again, maybe my attitude is a result of the fact that in the mid 80’s I worked for Citibank in telephone customer service, and they required that we attend four weeks of full time training and pass numerous tests before we were ever allowed to actually answer a phone with a live customer!

  2. Lisa Barone writes:

    Alan,
    We’re glad to have you as a new subscriber and LED Digest really is a great, great source of information. I’d encourage you to get involved over there. It’s a wonderful group.
    I agree that it really is essential that customers know you’re working hard to to meet their needs. If only more companies instituted the kind of training Citibank did back in the day. I wonder if they still train their reps the same way.

  3. Adam Audette writes:

    Great post Lisa, and thanks for the comments and support!

    The customer service issue is huge. A person I have a lot of respect for is Tony Hsieh, who has grown Zappos.com into a huge success story by focusing primarily on one thing: customer service. They’re a “customer service company that happens to sell shoes” and their #1 core business value is to “Deliver WOW Through Service.” They’re so focused on making the customer happy, that they require each new employee (no matter what level) to attend a 5-week training course doing actual customer service work.

    Their marketing approach drives business growth primarily through word of mouth (and a pretty huge SEO/M campaign). They do some traditional advertising but not much. They can get away with that business model because a large percentage of their profits are generated through return shopping (and because online retail clearly works). Making people happy works too.

    If you ever have a question about something at zappos, try sending an email to their customer service, or picking up the phone and making a call. You’ll be surprised at how responsive they are. Tony’s made customer service an essential part of their company culture, and it’s been really effective.

    Sounds like the same for the good folks at seatbeltbags.com — they clearly “get it” and it shows. Customer service is so important… it can erode or empower a business.



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