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Let’s recognise the value of e-Commerce Customer Service

Customer service headset sitting on a desk next to a laptop

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Why read this? : We look at why e-Commerce customer service is such a key part of online selling. Learn how to build the right team, system and process to keep online customers happy. Read this for ideas on how to improve your e-Commerce customer service.

Giving great customer service keeps customers happy. It’s business common sense, right? But while many businesses talk about it, customer feedback often suggests few are good at doing it.

In e-Commerce, customer service is driven by their experience of your store website and order to delivery system. 

Smart e-Commerce businesses use customer service to boost their competitive position. It’s part of their e-Commerce strategy. They’re clear on its role and how to support it.

E-Commerce planning and customer service

In e-Commerce planning, customer service is part of the experience you create.

You set it up before you start selling online. It supports customers after you launch and helps you track how well you’re meeting their needs. 

It’s the first point of contact for customers when they need you to :-

e-commerce planning process - The 5 key steps of the e-commerce process

Passive and active e-Commerce customer service

E-Commerce customer service works at 2 levels :-

  • passive customer service where they interact with the store website.
  • active customer service when they interact with you directly.

Passive customer service is normally done by creating an FAQ page.

As you test your site before launch and manage it post-launch, you gather the most common questions and problems customers have.

e-commerce planning process - 5 key steps in e-commerce experience

You then create standard answers to these challenges and make your FAQ page easy to find on the site. This means potential customers can find out answers themselves, and only need to contact your active customer service system when their question or problem is more unusual or more specific. 

This makes life more convenient for them and for you, and means your team can focus on only those challenges which can’t be solved with a standard answer. Common areas to include in an e-Commerce FAQ page include questions about order processing, payments and returns and refunds.

Active e-Commerce customer service

Of course, you can’t predict every customer question or problem. Sometimes, customers want to speak to a real person. That’s when active customer service comes in.

Not every e-Commerce business has a customer service team. Your business context affects how you manage customer service. (e.g. how big your business is, and how many enquiries you get). 

Some businesses have in-house customer service teams. These integrated teams fully understand the customer and the brand. They’re 100% committed to helping your customers because that’s their role.  

However, it can be a challenge to manage their workload. The number of enquiries can ebb and flow. They can come in at odd times, like evenings, weekends and holidays. It can be expensive to have a permanent team on hand to manage this. 

Because of this, some businesses outsource customer service to specialist suppliers. These suppliers run a centralised customer support team which, for a fee, handles enquiries for you.

You brief them on your customers and brands. Your team only has to deal with unusual enquiries the outsourced team can’t handle. You lose the direct customer contact, which isn’t great. But it’s cheaper as you don’t have to manage the peaks and troughs in enquiries.

In-house vs outsourced

We’ve seen both types of customer service models work. Generally, in-house is better for customers. Outsourced is better for short-term finances. It depends on your priorities.

The better option is usually in-house because of the customer connection and your control of the customer experience. Outsourcing suggests finances matter more than customers, and you have less control. 

Answer questions and solve problems

Whichever approach you take, the main role of the customer service team is to help customers. To answer their questions and solve their problems. 

You train them to answer specific questions. About your brand, for example. Or about the order system, so they can help when there’s a problem.

Common question areas include :-

  • First point of contact.
  • Order and delivery enquiries.
  • Payment enquiries. 
  • Returns and refunds. 

First point of contact

Not everyone likes doing everything online. Some customers want to talk to a real person. 

Your e-Commerce customer service team acts as the first point of contact for your brand. 

First impressions matter.A positive first impression primes the customer to be more positive about the brand. (See our design principles article for more on this). 

Prepare a clear opening statement for the team. It needs to sound friendly, polite and helpful. 

man with glasses sitting at a desk behind some computer screens while on a phone call

For example, here’s one we’ve used before :-

Hi, you’ve reached *name of customer service rep* from *name of store*. How can I help you?

Sounds obvious, right? But many businesses struggle to get this first contact right 

Also, make sure you prepare a clear message for when customers can’t contact you. e.g. your team are on other calls, or it’s out of hours. 

Example message - On other calls

Thank you for calling (name of the store).

Our team are currently dealing with other enquiries. Please hold the line, or press 1 to leave a voicemail. 

Please leave your full name and your phone number including area code. Give us a brief summary of your enquiry and one of our team will call you back as soon as they’re free.

Example message - After Hours

Thank you for calling the (name of the store).

You’ve reached us after hours. Please leave your full name and phone number, including area code. Leave a brief message after the tone and your call will be returned on the next working day. Thank you.

Order and delivery enquiries

Once the customer places the order, send them a confirmation email with the expected delivery time.

This should include a link to the delivery company’s tracking system, so the customer can follow their order’s progress. 

The better informed the customer, the less the need to contact you. 

However, sometimes customers lose or delete the email with the tracking details. Sometimes they have internet connection issues.

Close up of a delivery driver handing over a cardboard box delivery to a customer

It may be they’re not comfortable with technology. Or they don’t understand the details you send. (for example, they’re not fluent in your language, or your information isn’t clear. 

That’s when they contact your e-Commerce customer service team for help. Your team need clear processes, and access to the right technology to help those customers. 

They’ll need the customer tracking details or an order number. They’ll need access to the store’s customer order database, and the delivery company’s order tracking system. 

You need to plan for different scenarios e.g. order not received, missing in transit, arrived damaged and have a clear process for each scenario.

Payment enquiries

Payment enquiries can be complex to manage.

As per our order to delivery guide, you must protect people’s financial details and make sure their personal data is secure.

You need to establish controls on your payment gateway, for example. Establish who can validate refunds. Who checks regularly to make sure processes are followed correctly.

This helps prevent irregular or fraudulent refunds.

Hand holding a VISA card in front of a laptop

Payment enquiries often relate to over or under-charges. Your team needs the right processes, authority and technology to resolve payment issues.

That’s why you need to be transparent about all fees and delivery costs when you take an order. There should be no surprises for the customer when they see the receipt or invoice.

Returns and refunds 

Your returns and refunds policy often appears in your terms and conditions. But it’s also worth including a simpler version in your FAQs. 

Not every customer will be happy with their order.

You need a clear plan to manage returns and refunds, as these add extra costs. 

These are costs you need to cover but treat them as a cost of keeping customers happy. Easy returns and refunds help build customer trust. 

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

It can often be easier to ask customers to keep or destroy unwanted products themselves. It’s especially true if the product can’t be re-sold.

For example, in the online fashion industry, this often happens with intimate clothing like underwear or swimwear. Returns happen a lot because the customer doesn’t get to try the products on before they buy. The sizing and fit may not be right.

For standardised categories like online alcohol, there can be other returns and refund issues. For example, damaged products (say with glass bottles), or stolen products (if left on the doorstep)

The external value of customer service

Every time a customer has an enquiry, it’s an opportunity to help. Help customers and they keep buying. It’s not that complicated.

Your e-Commerce customer service approach should be flexible and dynamic.

It directly helps specific customers. When a customer feels their problem is listened to and fixed, that makes them feel special. That feeling often makes them more loyal to the brand. 

Customers share their experiences – good and bad – of customer service. Look at social media feeds and review sites – lots of comments on customer service. 

Build a good e-Commerce customer service reputation, and you’ll soon see the benefit show up in your profit and loss.

Woman in exercise gear sitting cross legged on a yoga mat and twisting to one side

The internal value of customer service

Your e-Commerce customer service team are also a valuable internal asset for your business. 

They interact with customers every day. They’re close to what customers think and how they feel. These are key insights for your marketing team and agency. Marketing is all about the customer after all. Listen to customer service and you hear the customer’s voice.

That means regular interactions between customer service and the marketing team. Regular sharing of insights and information. Working towards a common goal – serving customer needs.

It sounds like common sense. But we’re always amazed at how many businesses undervalue their customer service team.

They banish them to another part of the office, or even to a different office. They set up call centres with low-paid staff and scripted conversations. It’s all about saving cost, not serving customers. 

You can’t claim to be “customer-centric” and then scrimp on customer service. You have to put your money where your mouth is.

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

Example - Automattic

One company we know who value customer service highly is Automattic. We came across their approach in The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun.

They’re better known as the owners and operators of the world’s most popular website content management system, WordPress. (Plus other platforms like WooCommerce and Tumblr).

They’re a pioneering business in terms of work culture. They focus on hiring creators (rather than critics or coasters) and don’t have traditional managerial and admin hierarchies.

Everyone works remotely with only occasional face-to-face meetings. And everyone they hire starts out working in customer service.

Everyone. 

This approach means everyone in the business understands how much customers matter. 

It sets the tone for everything they do. They prime (see our design psychology article) a focus on customers. Everyone in the business has talked to real customers and solved problems for them. Compare that to most businesses that rely on market research reports and focus groups.

That direct interaction makes the customer real.  

How to support e-Commerce customer service

We’ve covered what e-Commerce customer service teams do, and why they matter. But how do you support them? What actions should you take to help them keep your customers happy? 

Invest resources

Like any business asset, you have to invest in your customer service team. To set it up in the first place and to maintain it properly.

So, training and education, for example. Help the team understand what customers need. Teach them how to interact in a way that keeps the customer happy. And of course, show them how to solve customer problems with the minimum of fuss. 

That also means giving the team access to the right marketing technology and systems. (So you avoid the many challenges of martech).

Glass jar knocked over on floor with coins spilled out onto the floor

They need access to delivery and payment systems, for example. This means they can track down relevant information about the order and fix any problems. They need easy access to key contacts like warehouse staff, couriers and payment teams. 

It’s not an area where you can cut corners. This leads to poor customer service, and that means lost sales. 

Invest time

Every customer interaction is a chance to connect with the customer.

You should see customer service as a way for everyone in your business to get closer to your e-Commerce customers.

The more time you spend on it, the better the experience will be for customers. 

For example, you could have all new starters spend time working in customer service. (Like the Automattic approach from earlier). 

Calendar

Make sure there are regular interactions between customer service teams, marketing teams and agencies too. Have them sit in on calls. Ask them to share common questions.

Also, make sure you involve customer service in marketing planning. Consult them on major changes in the marketing mix. They’ll have a good feel for how customers are likely to react to any changes. 

Recognise the value

We’ve talked about personality styles in previous articles on marketing, creativity and e-Commerce. In those functions, you mostly find Extrovert Feelers, Extrovert Feelers and Introvert Thinkers. 

But there’s a fourth personality style – Introvert Feelers. These are very common in customer service roles. This type is empathetic and caring, they’re great at bringing teams together. They put the needs of others before themselves. This value of helping others fits well with customer service. 

They’re often the unsung heroes in the business. Make sure they get the praise and recognition they deserve as they’re the people who talk to your customers every day.

Conclusion - e-Commerce Customer Service

Our first-ever article talked about the importance of understanding customers. Do that and you learn how to meet their needs and grow your business. 

That goes double for e-Commerce, where you don’t have face-to-face contact with customers. You need great e-Commerce customer service to build your connection with online customers.  

Set up your FAQs and online store website to answer common and predictable questions and problems.

Customer service headset sitting on a desk next to a laptop

Then invest time and resources in your e-Commerce customer service teams and systems. Train and empower them to manage all the unusual and unpredictable questions and problems. Get this right and customers will be happy. And if customers are happy, you soon see the benefit of that in your results.

Check out our managing an online store guide for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help with your e-Commerce customer service plan. 

Photo credits

Customer service headset near laptop : Photo by Petr Macháček on Unsplash

Customer experience in a  coffee shop : Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Man on phone in office : Photo by Berkeley Communications on Unsplash

Delivery – driver handing over package : Photo by RoseBox رز باکس on Unsplash

Visa card and laptop : Photo by Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Yoga : Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash

Dog ears : Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

Coins spilled from jar : Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Calendar : Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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