Figuring Out the Customer-Support Dilemma

Philip Say

Updated · Oct 01, 2001

If your company owns and operates an e-commerce channel, I'm sure your organization has faced the challenge of deploying an effective customer support strategy. I've found that it's a difficult problem for many companies to figure out.

Every company understands the competitive value of superior customer service; however, many companies underestimate the level of effort and resources required to keep customers happy throughout the entire relationship cycle.

Like any other operation, customer support should be evaluated in terms of its impact on overall company performance. This may sound obvious, but many companies deploy support functions that simply don't increase customer satisfaction or profits.

Here is a straightforward paradigm that will help you make tough decisions related to support:

  • Help customers help themselves. Self-help is the most cost-effective customer support tactic. E-commerce sites that provide thorough instructional pages or contextual FAQs improve transaction conversion rates and reduce user frustration.
  • Understand the cost structure of each communication channel. Each customer contact point is associated with a price. Developing a cost profile of each channel can help you evaluate where to invest dollars.
  • Web is cheaper than email. Email is cheaper than phone. To support veterans, this mantra should sound familiar. Savvy e-commerce sites sparingly use call centers as a line of support.
  • Speed matters. Reaction time is one of the greatest determinants of high customer satisfaction.
  • It's never perfect. Customer support should be viewed as the lifework of an enterprise. A commitment to continual improvement should be driven from executive leaders of a company.

What Is the Payoff?

Support is a high-stakes game. Billions of dollars are lost due to lack of customer support during the consumer shopping process. The following metrics categories can help you diagnose symptoms of poor customer support:

  • Shopping cart abandonment
  • Email queue volume
  • Call center volume
  • Conversion rates
  • Slower response times

There are tools to help you run support operations more efficiently. However, I recommend that before you make wholesale investments into new technology, step back and examine your support strategy from a user-experience and process standpoint.

A solid, procedure-based plan should be developed and tested with your customers. Some of the best e-commerce sites in the world (, Dell, etc.) have methodically developed support strategies by tracking users through various support scenarios.

Keeping It Simple

If your company is restructuring the support features of an e-commerce site, I recommend deploying simple technologies before complex ones.

Voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), instant messaging, live chat, and other advanced technologies are interesting; however, for the most part, they still remain unproven in terms of improving customer relationships.

Foundational technologies, such as search engines, knowledge databases, and email management, should be selected and deployed before implementing advanced communication techniques.

A Historical Perspective

Customer support for e-commerce sites is a very new science. However, the last five years have provided a pretty rich history of how the support process should and shouldn't be executed. Companies revising their approach should leverage those lessons as they devise a support strategy.

If you have an opinion on this topic or would like to discuss your customer support strategy, email me.

Philip Say has more than seven years of experience in e-business consulting, product management, and sales. Recently an E-Business Strategist for NOVO, Philip worked with executive managers of Global 1000 companies to define, articulate, and implement e-business strategies. Prior to NOVO, Philip was a Product Manager for PeopleSoft, where he successfully led efforts to plan, market, and launch a comprehensive set of e-business applications for the services industry. In addition, Philip was a business process and technology consultant for Andersen Consulting.

Reprinted from ClickZ

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