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.
You keep your customers happy by offering them great customer service. It’s business common sense, right? But while many businesses talk about it, customer feedback often suggests few are good at delivering it.
E-Commerce planning and customer service
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 :-
- answer questions about the product or service.
- sort out problems in the order to delivery 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.
In passive cases, the customer finds answers and solves problems themselves using your website. That’s easier for you and the customer.
To enable this, you have to first identify common questions and problems and then share the answers and solutions on your site.
Passive e-Commerce customer service - FAQs
FAQ sections on store websites make life easier for customers and for you.
For customers, finding the answer on the FAQ page is usually less hassle than contacting you. No waiting for you to answer the phone. Or respond to an email.
This customer self-service also frees up your time. Your team can focus on answering infrequently asked e-Commerce questions and solving specific customer problems.
Let’s look at some typical FAQ topics :-
FAQS - About Us / Contact
About Us tells the customer who owns the store. It states why the store exists, and how it runs. It often includes the company’s origin story and purpose.
Usually, you add a contact link in the top or bottom menu bar and on relevant content pages. But it’s also common to include them in the FAQs.
You should include all the different ways to contact you e.g. phone, email, messenger and physical address. Include your customer service working hours, and what to do if customers need help outside those times.
FAQs - Ordering and Shipping
The Ordering and Shipping section tells customers how your order to delivery system works.
This is a common area for customer questions, so, it’s helpful for them (and you) to be thorough here.
You should cover areas like :-
Where you deliver to
Non-standard, remote or overseas locations are often more expensive to deliver to and can cause problems. For example, delivery to a PO Box isn’t good if your products are bulky or perishable. Access to some remote locations (e.g. remote cattle stations) can be difficult. For international customers, customs might be an issue.
If you have delivery location limits, your FAQs should explain what they are and why you have them.
Maximum order quantity
Tell customers if there are limits to how much they can order. Limiting the number of units per order helps you manage stock levels. Limiting the spend per order reduces the risk of fraudulent buyers.
Explain briefly how your order to delivery process works. Tell customers what happens when they place an order. Tell them what notifications to expect as the order progresses. If you offer order tracking, tell customers how to access that.
Delivery process and costs
Tell customers how and when you deliver products. Make sure you include :-
- courier details.
- how often you ship products.
- the likely time between orders being placed and delivered.
- how much delivery costs.
- details of express delivery options, if relevant.
Delivery times vary between categories and brands.
For example, in fashion or alcohol delivery windows can be as fast as 2 hours. But some deliveries take up to 5 business days or more. Delivery times are a common customer question. They want to know when they’ll get their order.
You should also outline what happens if the customer isn’t available to accept a delivery e.g. collect it from the post office instead. Plus, make it clear how they can have it delivered to a different address if that’s easier e.g. a work address or when sending a gift.
Finally, include details and a link to any relevant customer rights or consumer protection laws.
In Australia for example, that would be the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
Example rights include ensuring products are safe, information isn’t misleading and costs aren’t hidden.
Customers can also usually ask for a repair, replacement, refund, cancellation or compensation if there’s a problem.
FAQS - Any Other Questions
Some questions won’t fit into these areas, so include an Any Other Questions FAQ section.
For example, questions about the product or service such as how it’s made, how it works and how long it lasts. Make sure to cover your benefit and point of difference (taken from your e-Commerce positioning).
You can also answer questions about product availability if relevant in this section.
Some companies now use marketing technology to make it easier to find the right answers in the FAQs.
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 types in a question. The software recognises key terms. It gives them a choice of possible answers.
Or even simpler, they click on prompts which take them to the right answer.
Managing the FAQs
Ask your customer service team to track the most asked questions. They should regularly review existing FAQs, and add new ones.
FAQs reassure customers and build trust. They show you’ve got efficient systems and processes to manage their order. They also help your team spend more time on specific or unusual customer questions.
Active e-Commerce customer service
Of course, you can’t predict every customer question or problem. Sometimes, customers need 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 because 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Example - Automattic
Everyone works remotely with only occasional face-to-face meetings. And everyone they hire starts out working in customer service.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
Recognise the value
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. Understand customers. Meet their needs. That’s your basic business model.
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.
And then invest resources and time in your e-Commerce customer service so they can manage all the unusual and unpredictable questions and problems.
Get it right and customers are happy. And if customers are happy, you soon see the benefit of that in your results.