Thiiings! Discounts, coupons, pop-ups, sweepstakes. eCommerce stores are pilling on the features and sales gimmicks like they’re about to go extinct tomorrow. There’s one thing they’re not too keen on investing in, though and that’s customer service. The idea being that it’s somehow more important to get new people to shop rather than those who’ve already done so. Depending on the corner of the world you run your business from, this type of backwards thinking can become pretty pricey. US businesses lose about $41 billion each year due to poor customer service, according to a NewVoice Media study, while a Harris/ClickSoftware Survey shows UK brands flushing nearly £15 billion annually down the drain for the same reason. Here’s what you can do about it.

 Understand what customer support really is

Help. That’s right, customer support is less about up-sells, settling disputes, product returns and much more about helping people. In other words, telling a frustrated customer who hasn’t received their order that they “have to understand that it’s a busy season and orders can get delayed” does not constitute customer service, since you haven’t really helped them, you’ve just raised their annoyance level to a whole new high. Considering that according to Accenture’s Global Consumer Pulse Survey, in 2013 alone, 62% of global consumers switched service providers due to poor customer service experiences, your customer support strategy has just turned into a competitor support strategy.

Although your customers won’t love you if you give bad service, your competitors will.” – Kate Zabriskie

Like it or not, every single online business is in the people business and that’s particularly true for eCommerce stores. While online shopping presents a slew of advantages, it’s biggest downside is the decrease in buyer confidence since there’s no actual person the customer is in contact with during the shopping experience and if you’ve got a poorly-designed store that requires even a moderate amount of detective work to navigate, you’ve pretty much set yourself up for failure.

There are 3 essential components of valuable customer service – Identifying the problem – Finding a solution – Offering compensation.  

 Identifying the problem

Businesses often see the customer complaining as a problem, when in reality, it’s the first and most important step in solving issues. Considering that 91% of customers don’t contact customer service but do complain to their friends and families about their poor experience, customer complaints are an integral part of the solution rather than the problem.

When you view complaints as a negative, you treat them with negativity and dismissively, an attitude that is easily perpetuated throughout the organization and seeing as, according to McKinsey, 70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated, businesses are much better of treating their customers in a positive and solution-oriented manner.

Finding a solution

Following the same consumer-centered framework as before, finding a solution involves adopting the customer’s point of view. Brands often take a one-size-fits-all approach instead of treating each complaint as part of a theme, if you will. Huge online retailers like Amazon have entire departments that deal with issues pertaining to orders, accounts and returns, making it easier to get correct solutions.

Overworked, poorly-trained customer support reps can do more harm than good, which is why many companies are looking towards automating their customer support departments. Not a bad idea, if it actually worked. When dealing with issues regarding a product or service people want to talk to people, with 83% of consumers requiring some degree of customer support while making an online purchase. (eConsultancy).

Solutions should be practical and actionable. For example, instead of telling an already impatient customer who hasn’t received their order in time to be even more patient, give them the alternative of resubmitting the same order, letting them know that in this case they’ll have to send the delayed items back. This means that if the package has somehow been lost, the customer won’t have to wait for the second coming to get their stuff.

Offering compensation

Some blunders are too big to let slide and require some form of compensation. It stands to reason that the bigger the blunder, the bigger the compensation. From vouchers, to freebies, free delivery, reimbursements and exclusive items, even the smallest gesture towards appeasing your upset customer can make up to 95%of them give your business a second chance.

As with any service or product, effectiveness is much more important than speed. While people do expect fast customer service, consumers will allow for up to 24 hours for a response. Studies have shown that users prefer to be assisted over the phone (61%), email (60%), LiveChat (57%), online knowledge base (51%), “click-to-call” support automation (34%) (eConsultancy). However, the decisive factor in choosing how you’ll provide your customers with assistance should take your business’ resources into account over users’ preference, because offering support over the phone won’t be worth much if they have to wait 20 minutes to get in touch with someone.

Asses your resources and devise a strategy

Business owners and managers tend to think about customer support as either outsourced to specialized companies or neatly-tucked into a dedicated in-house department. To me, customer support is much closer in spirit and objectives to marketing rather than a stand-alone entity or paired with a sales department.

Customer service is the new marketing.” – Derek Sivers, CD Baby

Just like marketing, customer support is about communication and, contrary to popular belief, the latter is not in the least bit inferior to the former. Marketing is about meeting people at their best, making them open to your message, while customer support is about seeing them at a much more sensitive, and perhaps more decisive stage in their communication with the brand. Fail at customer support and all your marketing is at risk.

Think about your customer support reps and approach as part of your customer retention strategy, making sure your marketing and communication specialists thoroughly train your support reps in terms of language, tone, general attitude and their approach to turning new customers into loyal consumers. This type of approach works best with in-house teams but it can be effectively implemented with outsourced teams as well, provided that everyone works together, of course.

Track what you’re doing

Whether you’ve got a mom and pop shop and are yourself in charge of customer service, have an in-house team or are outsourcing this side of your business, make sure you can track every single complaint coming in. The practical reason behind this is that people forget, teams quit or get fired and outsources can get dumped or can dump you. Having an accurate record of all the issues that have arisen so far, will help whoever picks up the slack next run an effective department, without starting from scratch.

From Salesforce to Freshdesk, there are a ton of software out there that can help you run an effective customer service department, or office, or desk. However, if you have a small online store or a business that doesn’t require the extensive features software like these offer, you can use a simple GoogleDrive spreadsheet template to track all your customer service requests and, over time, work out a system that works for your business and consumers.

Act short-term but think long-term

Your customer has a problem now but solving it carries the very real possibility they will become a repeat-customer making your effort completely worth it. Therefore, the measures you take should be focused on dealing with the problem as soon as possible, while offering an incentive to shop again. Generally these come in the form of vouchers or discount coupons but, depending on the issue, you can go as far as reimbursing shipping charges or even part of the order.

Brands are becoming less about special  and discounts  and more about experience  and status. According to Customers 2020 Report, by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. Most customers are already prepared to pay more for the boost in image a designer outfit or high-end gadget affords so start thinking how your brand makes people feel rather than what discounts it offers.

Always keep in mind the old retail adage: Customers remember the service a lot longer than they remember the price.”

– Lauren Freedman, President of the E-tailing Group

Become more social

Social media might not give you worldwide notoriety over night but it will bring you closer to your customers. According to a study conducted by TOA Technologies more than one million people view tweets related to customer service every week, with 80% of them being negative or critical. The reality of online social interaction is that customers will contact you wherever you make yourself available to them.

Some business owners believe they can set up different platforms to do different things, and that’s true, if you’re thinking in terms of online advertising and communication. Not so much, when it comes to customer service. If you have a social media presence, and if you don’t you really ought to, consumers won’t differentiate between website and, say, Facebook messages in terms of customer support, let alone between one platform or another.

Wherever you are, that’s where they might contact you for help and you’ve got to be ready to help them. An NM Incite Social Care Survey  reveals that 71% of those who experience positive social care experience are likely to recommend that brand to others. Pretty sure you won’t want to miss out on that.

The Bottom Line

Simply put, your bottom line is becoming ever-more reliant on your customer’s level of satisfaction and experience, of which 79.7% of consumers cite the contact center as being involved in defining it. And if that’s not a good enough reason to invest in adequate, sustainable customer service, I don’t know what is.

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