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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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Snapshot : This week we showcase the value of e-Commerce customer service. Customer service is about answering questions and solving problems. Keep online customers happy and they spend more. We cover the different passive and active customer service touchpoints where customers need help. And we share how to support your customer service team with e-Commerce content, systems and processes.

Keeping customers happy seems like business common sense.

But though many businesses talk about their great customer service, they don’t always deliver it. Customer feedback soon tells you if the service is great or not. 

For e-Commerce businesses, customer service is part of the customer experience on the online store website. It’s also part of the smooth running of the order to delivery system

Smart e-Commerce businesses see customer service as a way to boost their competitive position.

Smart e-Commerce businesses use customer service to enhance these opportunities and overcome these challenges. They use it to boost their competitive position.

They understand how customer service fits into e-Commerce. They’re clear on what it does, why it matters and how to support it.

How customer service fits in e-Commerce

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

You set it up before you launch. It’s part of your customer experience after you launch. And it helps you keep track of how well you’re meeting customer 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

Online shoppers interact with customer service in two ways :-

  • passive customer service from the store website.
  • active customer when they contact you directly. 

Passive customer service means the customer finds answers and solves problems themselves.

This is clearly easier for you and the customer.

You set up your website to answer the most common questions and solve the most common problems. 

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

Information may be unclear. Processes may fail. Orders get damaged or lost. Sometimes, customers want to speak to a real person. That’s when you move to active customer service. But let’s look at how to deliver passive e-Commerce customer service first. 

Passive e-Commerce customer service

As part of your website testing, you make sure it’s easy for customers to find, choose and buy products. If it’s all easy and runs smoothly, that’s passive customer service. You also anticipate questions they might have and set up a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section. 

Frequently Asked Questions - FAQs

FAQ sections in online 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.

If customers can answer their own questions, that’s less hassle for you. Your customer service team can focus on answering the hardest e-Commerce questions and solving specific customer problems.

Let’s look at some typical FAQ topics :-

Screenshot of the Three-brains website FAQ page which says questions and answers to help you raise your game

FAQS - About Us / Contact

About Us tells the customer who owns the store. It states why the store exists and how it runs. This often includes the company’s origin story and purpose

Usually you add a contact link in the top or bottom menu bar and and on relevant content pages. But it’s also common practice to include them in the FAQs.

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 you need help outside those times. 

FAQs - Ordering and Shipping

The Ordering and Shipping section of the FAQs tells customers how your order to delivery system works.

This is an area where customers often have the most questions, so it’s helpful for them (and you) to be thorough in the answers you give. 

This includes :-

  • where you’ll deliver to.
  • the maximum order quantity.
  • the order process.
  • payments.
  • delivery.
  • customer rights.

Where you'll deliver to

Often, non-standard, remote or overseas locations are more expensive to deliver to and can cause problems. Delivery to a PO Box for example is not good if your products are  bulky or perishable. Access to some remote location (e.g. remote cattle stations) can be difficult. For international customers, customs might be an issue. 

If you have delivery location limits, explain what they are and why you have them in the FAQs.

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. Limited the spend per order reduces the risk from fraudulent buyers. 

Order process

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.

Payments

Share which payment types you accept, and any extra costs e.g. credit card fees. In the FAQs, it’s helpful to include payment security details such as the payment gateway encryption level. Also, share any payment protection details from third party payment services like Paypal or Afterpay

Delivery

Tell customers how and when you deliver products. Make sure you include :-

  • courier details.
  • how often you ship products.
  • the likely time between orders placement and order delivery. 
  • details of express delivery options, if relevant. 

Delivery times clearly vary between categories and between brands.

Hand holding a small wrapper package marked fragile

In our reviews of e-Commerce fashion and alcohol for example, we showed delivery windows as fast as 2 hours. But some deliveries took up to 5 business days or more.

Customers often ask about delivery times because they want to know when they’ll get their order.

Make it clear what happens if the customer isn’t available to accept a delivery e.g. collect it from the post office. Make it clear if how they can have a product delivered to a different address e.g. a work address or when sending a gift. 

Customer Rights

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.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

FAQS - Any Other Questions

Some questions won’t fit into these first two questions, 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.

ChatBots

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 and gives them a choice of possible answers. 

Or even simpler, they click on prompts which take them to the right answer. 

Screengrab of the Quantas chatbot conversation on Facebook messenger - HI I'm the Qantas concierge chatbot

Chatbots improve the customer experience because they remove unnecessary information. They’re a good example of progressive disclosure (as per our article on design psychology). They only reveal information as and when the customer needs it.  

Managing the FAQs

Ask your customer service team to keep track of the most asked questions. They should regularly review existing FAQs, and add any new FAQs. 

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

Not every e-Commerce business has its own customer service team. Your business context affects how you manage customer service. (for example 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, handle 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, 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 services model work. In general in-house is better for customers, and outsourced 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 that finances matters 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. 

Build training plans so they can answer specific questions. About your brand, for example. Or about the order system, so they can help when there’s a problem.

Common question and problem 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 article on design principles for more on priming). 

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 used on a previous project :-

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 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 have a clear process for each scenario.

Payment enquiries

Payment enquiries can be complex to manage.

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

You need to establish controls on your payment 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 charges 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 helps 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.

You e-Commerce customer service approach needs to 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 important 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 the needs of customers.

It sounds like common sense. But we’re always amazed 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 and save on customer service. It just doesn’t work that way. 

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

Example - Automattic

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 customer service approach in the book The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun).

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 else they do. They prime (see priming in our article on design psychology) a focus on customers. 

Everyone in the business has talked to real customers and solved problems for them. Compare that to most businesses who 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 do you need to take to help them keep your customers happy? 

Invest resources

Like any business asset, you need 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 system 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 sue they get the praise and recognition they deserve, because they’re the people who talk to your customers every day.

Conclusion - e-Commerce Customer Service

In our first ever article we 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.  

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

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 the see the benefit of that in your results.

Check out our guide to managing an online store for more on this. Or contact us 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

Small fragile delivery box in hand : Photo by jesse ramirez on Unsplash

Legal scales : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm 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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