Snapshot : This week we explore what e-Commerce customer service does for customers and for your online sales. Learn how to use customer service to answer questions and solve customer problems. We’ll share how customer service teams add value to your business, and how best to support them to maximise that value.
It’s no secret that serving customers is how you grow your business. But actions speak louder than words when it comes to customer service.
Surprisingly few businesses give customer service the focus it deserves.
For e-Commerce businesses, customer service brings a unique set of opportunities and challenges.
There’s opportunities to inform and engage with a great customer experience on your online store website. But there are also many challenges to make sure your order to delivery system runs smoothly.
Smart e-Commerce businesses use customer service to answer questions and solve customer problems, boosting their competitive position.
But to do these things, they first need to identify where customer service fits into e-Commerce. Only then can they identify what their customer service does, why it matters and how to support it.
Where customer service fits in e-Commerce?
In the e-Commerce planning process, customer service is part of the shopping experience you create – it’s a system you put in place before you launch. But it’s also part of the on-going online selling process after your launch.
Customer service deals with questions and problems. These might be questions about the product or service. But for e-Commerce, more commonly, its dealing with problems in the order to delivery process.
(though obviously only if you mange order to delivery yourself and don’t outsource it).
E-Commerce customer service and what it needs to do
Customers access customer service in two ways.
Firstly, there’s the passive customer service they get by visiting the store website.
And then there’s the active customer service they get when they need to contact you.
In an ideal world, the customer gets everything they need from the passive customer service.
All your information and navigation is clear. All your processes work. Orders turn up when expected and in perfect condition.
But of course, it’s not an ideal world. Some customers get confused. Sometimes they want to talk to a real person. And of course, sometimes deliveries go wrong.
That’s when you need active customer service.
E-Commerce customer service on your website
But just before we go into that, let’s cover how passive customer service on your website helps.
If you’ve tested your e-Commerce site properly, you’ll have set it up to make finding, choosing and buying products as easy as possible. You’ll have identified the most common questions online shoppers have and collated them into a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section where you provide the answers.
Frequently Asked Questions - FAQs
FAQ sections are now standard on e-Commerce websites. Most, though not all, people would expect to find this section on a store website, and know to look there for the most commonly asked questions. (the clue being in the name, obviously …).
FAQ sections make life easier for customers and also for you.
If customers can find the answer to their questions on the FAQ page, they don’t need to contact you. That’s generally a positive for them.
No waiting for you to answer the phone, or respond to an email.
If your FAQs answer customers questions without them needing to contact you, that’s good for you. You don’t tie up resources and time repeatedly answering general questions. You focus your resources and time on answering specific questions and solving customer problems.
FAQS normally cover three types of general questions that come up for e-Commerce customer service :-
FAQS – About Us / Contact
The About Us section tells the customer who owns the store, and relevant details about why the store exists and how it runs. For example, it can include details of the company’s origin story or purpose.
Contact details usually also appear in navigation bars and in relevant places across the website. But, you should also add them to the FAQs as you’ll have space to give full details. This is especially important if you have multiple points of contact, or if you have different teams handling different types of customer enquiry.
Make sure to include details of all contact channels you offer e.g. phone, email, messenger and mailing address. If you don’t offer 24-7 contact, make clear the times customer can contact you with questions.
FAQs - Ordering and Shipping
The Ordering and Shipping section covers the specific details of how your order to delivery system works. It sets customer expectations for what you will (and won’t) do for them, and what to expect when they place an order.
You should include details of where you will and won’t ship too.
It’s not uncommon to limit where you’ll ship to e.g. you may not ship to some overseas locations if there are customs issues for example, or you may not ship to PO boxes if the products are bulky or perishable.
Unless you’re happy for the customer to order unlimited amounts of product, you should detail what limits you’ll place on an order. You can place limits by volume – to help you manage stock levels – and / or – by value – to minimise the risk from fraudulent transactions.
The Order Process
Make sure you provide information about your ordering process. Tell customers what happens when an order is placed, and what notifications to expect as the order moves through your order to delivery system. Include details on order tracking that the customer can look up when an order is underway.
Outline which payment types you accept and any additional fees and costs they incur. It’s worth adding payment security details here such as the payment gateway encryption level. Include details of any payment protection offered by third party payment services like Paypal or Afterpay.
Provide details of how and when you deliver products. Make sure you include courier details, how often you ship products and the likely time between orders being placed and being delivered.
Delivery times will vary between categories and between brands.
This variation in delivery times between suppliers means this is one of the most commonly asked questions by online shoppers.
You should also outline what happens if the customer isn’t available to accept a delivery, or wants the product delivered to a different address e.g. a work address or when sending a gift.
Finally, you should also outline key customers rights based on consumer protection laws in your country. Outline specific rights, or link to the relevant website.
In Australia for example, there’s the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) covers these.
Example rights include ensuring products are safe, information isn’t misleading, costs aren’t hidden, and customers can ask for a repair, replacement, refund, cancellation or compensation if there’s a problem.
FAQS – Any Other Questions
For question that don’t fit into the first two sections, include a wrap-up Any Other Questions FAQ section.
For example, include common questions about the product or service. How it’s made, how it works and how long it lasts for example. Make sure you clearly article your benefit and point of difference (from your your e-Commerce positioning).
Other questions which might not fit, include if you sell a product in other channels but not online, explain why you made that choice. Also, if you don’t offer express delivery options (which many businesses don’t), this is a good section to explain why.
ChatBots as an addition / replacement for FAQs
When you collate all these FAQs together, you can end up with a long list. The longer the list of questions, the more difficult it is for the customer to find the answer they need.
Some companies have looked to marketing technology to improve this interaction.
Companies like Qantas have added chatbots to their customer service interface on their websites and social media platforms.
Rather than present a list of questions and answers, the chatbot works like an automated conversation.
The customer either types in a question and the software recognises key terms and directs them to possible answers.
Or the customer clicks on prompts which help them navigate to the right answer.
Chatbots improve the customer experience because they remove unnecessary information. They’re a good example of progressive disclosure (as we cover in our article on design psychology). They only reveal information as and when the customer needs it.
(Check this link for more business benefits of Chatbots).
How to source FAQs
Your customer service team will be your main source of questions that customer frequently ask. Check in with them regularly to make sure existing FAQs are working, and to add any new FAQs which come up.
They can refer customers to these FAQs as back-up to answering their questions, which also helps them focus on the more unusual, and more specific questions they get.
FAQs help reassure customers that you’re a credible e-Commerce store with efficiency systems and processes to manage their order.
But of course, they can’t cover every eventuality. In particular, they can’t answer questions about a customers specific order if it goes wrong. That’s where your customer service team comes in.
E-Commerce customer service teams
Not every e-Commerce business will have its own customer service team. It really depends on your business context how you manage customer service. (for example how big your business is and how many enquiries you get).
If you manage customer service in-house, that means they’re fully integrated into your business. They understand your customers and your brand. They’re committed to helping customers, because it’s what they’ve been hired to do.
However, customer service teams can be expensive. There can be irregular peaks and troughs in enquiries. If you employ them, you need to pay for them whether there’s no enquiries or millions of enquiries. You may also need to pay more to cover non-standard times like evenings, weekends and holidays.
Because of this cost, some businesses outsource customer service to specialists suppliers. These suppliers run a centralised and generic customer support model which your brand plugs into.
You brief them on your customers and brands, and for a fee, they handle day to day enquiries. You then only have to deal with very specific or expert enquiries.
The benefit is you get to use their systems and processes and they manage all the peaks and troughs. Your overall cost per enquiry can come down significantly.
In-house customer service usually better for customers
We’ve seen both in-house and outsourced customer services models work, but in general in-house is better for customers, and outsourced better for short-term finances. It depends which your business prioritises, though as marketers, we would say customers matter more. (and you’ll see better longer-term finances by supporting customers).
Outsourcing customer service sends a message that finances matters more than customers so we’re generally not fans of this approach. Outsourcing does create risk because you’re not in direct control of the customer experience, so we always advise treading carefully if that option comes up.
Customer Service teams answer questions and solve problems
Whether in-house or outsourced, you should always train your customer service team to answer questions and solve problems.
Questions about the brand will vary by category. For this article, we’re focussing on questions and problems that are more specific to e-Commerce, since these will be more consistent across multiple categories,
Common question and problem areas include First point of contact, Order and delivery enquiries, Payment enquiries and Returns and Refunds.
First point of contact
Not everyone is comfortable doing everything online. Some customers just want to talk. They want to make sure there’s real people behind the online store.
Your e-Commerce customer service team play this role as the first point of contact for your brand.
First impressions matter. If your team are friendly, polite and helpful, it primes the customer to think more positively about the brand (see our article on design principles for more on priming).
Prepare a clear opening statement for the team so they sound friendly, polite and helpful.
For example, here’s one we used on a previous project :-
Hi you’ve reached *name of customer service rep* from the (name of your online store), how can I help you?
Sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many businesses don’t focus on getting this opening contact correct.
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.
Here’s some examples from the same project :-
On other calls
Thank you for calling the (name of the e-Commerce store)
Our team are currently dealing with other enquiries, so you can either hold the line, or press 1 to leave a voicemail.
Please leave your full name, your phone number including area code, and a brief summary of your enquiry and one of our team will call you back as soon as they’re free.
Thank you for calling the (name of the e-Commerce store) You’ve reached us after hours. Please leave your full name, phone number, including area code, and 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, you should send them a confirmation email with details of the expected delivery time.
This confirmation should also ideally include a link to the delivery company’s tracking system, so the customer can follow their order’s progress.
The more informed you keep the customer, the less likely they’ll feel the need to contact you.
However, sometimes customers lose or delete the email with the tracking details.
Sometimes they may have internet connection issues. Or they aren’t comfortable with technology. Or they simply don’t understand the details you send. (for example, they’re not fluent in your language, or your writing isn’t clear and simple).
That’s when they’ll contact your e-Commerce customer service team for help. That team need clear processes and access to the right technology to help those customers.
They’ll need the customers 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 develop an action plan for each scenario.
Payment enquiries can be more complex to set-up and manage. As per our order to delivery guide, you have more obligations to protect people’s financial details and data.
You’ll need to set up customer service access to your payment gateway for example. But this has to be strictly controlled, since it affects the finances of both the customer and your bank balance.
Most businesses for example will limit who has authority to validate refunds and run regular checks to make sure processes are followed.
There have been cases where this system has been used fraudulently, so you want to make sure you have proper controls and processes in place.
Payment enquiries often relate to over or under-charges, and the customer service team need the right processes, authority and technology to resolve these problems for customers.
That’s why you need to be transparent about all fees and delivery charges when you take an order. There should be no surprises for the customer, and what appears on the receipt / invoice should match what they’re charged.
Returns and refunds
You often detail your returns and refunds policy in your terms and conditions, but it’s also worth including a simpler version in your FAQs.
Not every customer will be 100% happy with their order. You need a clear plan to manage returns and refunds, as you incur all the costs of delivery.
While you obviously want to minimise these, avoid the temptation to pass costs on to customers. Keeping customers happy long-term adds more value than any short term benefits you’ll see.
It can sometimes be cheaper to ask the customer to keep or destroy unwanted products themselves, especially if the product cannot then be re-sold. For example in the fashion industry, we know this often happens for more intimately worn clothing like underwear or swimwear.
In fact, clear returns and refund policies are vital in categories like online fashion, because of the way the customer buys. They don’t get to try the products on before they buy, so the sizing and fit may not be right.
For more standardised categories like online alcohol, there can be different returns and refund issues. For example, if the product is damaged (say with glass bottles), or was stolen (if left on the doorstep).
E-Commerce customer service – external value
Every time a customer has an enquiry or problem, it’s an opportunity for you to help them. Help customers and they’ll like you more. It’s not that complicated. Don’t help them, and obviously you risk losing them.
Your overall website experience and your FAQs aim to help with the most common and predictable enquiries and problems, but there will always be unusual and unpredictable enquiries and problems too. That’s because there are always unusual and unpredictable people in the world.
That’s why you need a flexible and dynamic e-Commerce customer service approach. It helps you manage the unusual and unpredictable. It’s one of the few activities where you can directly help a specific customer.
Not only does this prevent the risk of losing the customer, you increase their gratitude to the brand for solving their problem. That’s an important part of creating more loyal customers.
Customers are generally happy to share their experiences – good and bad – when it comes to customer service. Look at social media feeds and review sites, and you’ll see a lot of comments on customer service.
Set up your e-Commerce customer service to sort customer problems out, and you’ll build your brand reputation as someone who cares about the customer experience.
E-Commerce customer service – internal value
Your e-Commerce customer service team are also a valuable internal asset for your business.
They interact with customers every day. Those interactions mean they’re closest to what customers think and how they are feeling. These are important insights that should fuel what your marketing team and marketing agency do. Marketing is all about the customer after all. The people who speak to customers every day should make sure the rest of the business hears the customer’s voice.
That means regular interactions between the customer service team and the marketing team. Regular sharing of insights and information and working towards a common goal – serving the needs of customers.
It sounds like common sense, but it amazes us how many businesses undervalue customer service.
They banish them to another part of the office, or even to a different office. They set up call centres where low paid staff work there way through scripted conversations in a way to minimise the impact on the business, not fix the problems of customers.
You can’t claim to be “customer-centric” and then scrimp and save on actually supporting customer service. It just doesn’t work that way.
Example – Automattic Customer Service
One company we know who value customer service highly is Automattic. They’re better known as the owners and operators of the world’s most popular website content management system, WordPress. (as well as other platforms like WooCommerce and Tumblr).
We came across their approach to customer service in the excellent The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun, an account of his time with the company.
They’re a pioneering business in terms of their work culture. They focus on hiring creators (rather than critics or coasters), with very little 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.
Making all their staff start out this way means they get the message right away how much customers matter. This sets the tone for everything else they then do. (in effect, they prime (see our article on design psychology) a customer focussed approach).
They’ve talked to real customers and experienced and solved their problems first hand, rather than reading about them in a market research report or from a focus group.
A great way to make sure everyone in the business understand the customer.
Support your e-Commerce customer service team
We’ve covered what e-Commerce customer service teams do, and why they matter, so let’s finish off with some thoughts on how you best support them.
As we already said, customer service is an important asset that builds your relationship with customers. Like any asset, it needs maintenance and upkeep to perform efficiently.
That means training and education for example. The better your e-Commerce customer service team understand customers and understands your business, the better they’ll be able to solve problems
Give them access to the systems that manage deliveries and payments for example, so they can track down information and fix problems. They need to be able to contact key teams in the order to delivery system like warehouse staff, couriers and teams who manage payments and refunds. .
It’s not a smart area to try and save money, when it leads to to poor customer service. We know of one global company for example who tired to save money by consolidating all their customer data into one centrally hosted database (rather than individual databases by country).
Problem was that database was hosted in Europe. And the internet connection speeds were so slow for the ANZ customer service team, it could take several minutes to fully access a customer’s records. That team ended up having to go back to a separate local database just so they didn’t have to keep customers hanging on the line.
Every moment you interact with customers adds to how well you understand them. You should look at your e-Commerce customer service approach as a way for everyone in your business to better understand customers.
Follow the Automattic / WordPress example we shared for example, and have all new starters spend some time working in customer service.
Make sure there are regular interactions between customer service teams, marketing teams and agencies too.
Recognise the value
But there’s a fourth personality style – Introvert Feelers – and these are very common in customer service roles. This type is empathetic and caring, they’re great at bringing teams together and put the needs of others before themselves.
A lot of Introvert Feelers end up working in professions like healthcare and teaching, and the values that work there – helping others – fit well with customer service.
They don’t assume these roles looking for praise and recognition, but they value it greatly when they receive it. They’re often the unsung heroes of any organisation, so when you have a bunch of them in customer service, make a point of telling them and everyone else what great work they do in supporting customers.
Conclusion - e-Commerce Customer Service
In our first ever article we talked about the importance of understanding customers.
If you don’t understand and then serve customers, you’ve got no business.
That’s why e-Commerce customer service matters so much. Understand and serve your customers, and you grow your online sales.
Set up your FAQs and online store website to manage as many common and predictable questions and problems as you can.
And then set up your e-Commerce customer service team with the right investment in resource and time so they can manage all the unusual and unpredictable questions and problems.
That way, you build a stronger relationship with specific customers, and a broader reputation for offering great customer service. Those are both great returns on the investment you put into customer service.