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Serving Customers Online

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Posted January 30, 2002 By Blake Rohrbacher     Feedback

Most companies with online presences perform dismally when it comes to dealing with customer inquiries. But it doesn't have to be that way.

I must say that I'm very disappointed. This is just not at all what I had hoped to see. I had hoped that online businesses were starting to get their acts together. Alas, the situation is still quite bleak.

Of course, I'm talking about customer service and the dismal report released recently by Jupiter Media Metrix (my esteemed colleague, Jonathan Jackson, has also written an article about this report). The gist of the report is that less than a third of online retailers responded to customer service emails within six hours. Sadly, click-and-mortar retailers did even worse by this measure than Web-only retailers. One would think that they would understand customer service a bit better than that.

I guess the good news, if one can call it that, for click-and-mortar players is illustrated by the percentage of retailers who waited more than three days to answer emails or didn't answer them at all. Only 28 percent of click-and-mortar retailers committed that egregious sin against their customers, while an abysmal 40 percent of Web-only retailers did so. All told, only about half of the sites responded within the 24 hours that is recommended.

Still, speed isn't the only thing that's important in customer service. Though difficult to quantify in studies, anecdotal evidence suggests that online retailers are doing just as poorly in other areas, including making it easy for visitors to find their own answers and providing quality answers.

If online retailers made it easier for us to solve our own problems, we might not even be in this mess. It's always nice to have a live person walk us through issues, even via email, but if so few retailers answer our emails in a timely fashion, there is little hope for that. The next best person that I can trust to fix things is myself. Allowing me to go online and look on my own can solve so many problems. Did my order go through? When did it ship? Is it in transit? Where do I send returns? What do I do if the widget is missing a part? When are the repair people coming? Offering consumers access to the same data your customer service personnel have can help stem phone calls and emails. Just think of it as less you have to ignore.

It doesn't matter how fast you respond if you send back something that doesn't answer a customer's question. Just because it's easier to quantifiably measure response time doesn't mean that response quality is irrelevant. I would rather wait a week for something that actually solves my problem than get a stupid answer in five minutes. With a stupid answer, I'm still going to have to write back or, most likely, call back, which will cost you the precious money you saved by sending me that worthless response. Automated customer service emails are only as good as the answers they provide. You get no credit for just purchasing the software.

Remember that different businesses have different timeframes in which they must respond to customer requests. My Aunt Tillie can probably hold out a few days, waiting to hear about the shipping status of her plaid tea cozies. BigTown Bank, on the other hand, needs to know what's wrong with its Internet banking software within minutes, if not seconds. This is just part of knowing your customers and treating them with respect.

When serving your customers (remember, this is what we are supposed to be doing), set their expectations correctly. If your customer service emails are hand carved in stone by craftsmen in Bavaria and it takes a few days, let them know. If it should only take a day or two, but you're going to ignore the emails for a week, let your customers know. Then, meet (or, if you want to be in business for a long time, beat) those expectations.

Send relevant responses. Provide ways for your customers to help themselves (wasn't there once something about "teach a man to fish..."?). If you can't seem to figure out what you should be doing, just remember the last time you sent an email to customer service and waited and waited and waited...

Blake Rohrbacher is a consultant with Intellectu Interactive Marketing. Intellectu develops marketing and business strategy for clients working offline and online. The company does site evaluation and optimization to help clients connect with their customers and provides market analysis, data modeling, and business planning expertise to help complement clients' in-house expertise.

Reprinted from ClickZ.

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