Customer service is especially important in today's socially connected world as consumers can harm the image of a company with a single comment. In my experience advising leading ecommerce companies, the following techniques can help all merchants — large and small — offer excellent online customer service.
1. Emphasize Self-Service
Self-service continues to be an important part of online customer service. Customers have become savvier with using the Internet and they at times prefer self-service to emailing or calling a customer service representative. Also, from a business perspective, it is not cost-effective to have your customers contact your customer service team for every question.
A site should have a frequently asked questions page to address the most common questions. This page should be updated periodically based on new questions. The FAQ page can use rich media, such as how-to videos, to effectively answer customer questions.
A searchable knowledgebase of all customer questions that have been answered in the life of the site is also helpful. It allows customers to search for specific topics if they cannot find the answer on the FAQ page. A knowledgebase can run an automatic search and show the potential answers based on the question the customer is emailing to customer service team.
2. Provide Easy Access to Contact Information
Most larger sites support multiple ways for consumers to contact customer service — e.g., phone, email, chat, and asking customer service to call you by using the click-to-call feature, such as on Amazon. It is helpful to offer these different means of communication but it is also important to have the contact information easily accessible to the customers. Zappos does this well as its customer service phone number is displayed at the top of every page.
Most other sites have a "customer service" or "help" link at the top of every page and after clicking on it, a customer gets access to the contact information for customer service.
Unfortunately, many sites make it difficult to get out of self-service mode and talk to a real person or email someone. They try to answer a customer's question by using the set of answers available in their knowledgebase or use a virtual customer service agent. I have yet to come across a site where the virtual customer service agent works well. It is a good cost cutting measure but it also leads to disappointed customers.
If you are really serious about customer service, make the contact information easily available. If customers call and there is wait time, tell them how long the wait might be or offer to call them back. Remember, consumers contact customer service because there is a problem. You do not want to aggravate it by offering lousy service.
3. Solicit Feedback
A successful business follows a process of continuous improvement. You can have the best customer service team and tools in place, but it is still important to know what the customers think about your business. This can be accomplished by setting up focused surveys to gather customer feedback. Tools like Foresee and SurveyMonkey can help with creating the surveys, which can be standalone or included as part of existing communication with the customers. For example, including a "feedback" link in order confirmation emails is a good way to gather input, while also making the customer feel valued. Customers can also provide feedback by responding to shorter surveys after your customer service team has resolved their problem. Amazon does this well by sending out a "Yes/No" survey link after resolving a customer issue.
Another way to gather customers' feedback is to engage with them on social networks. This could be on a public site like Twitter or Facebook or an internal network. As a representative of your company, you will answer customer queries or respond to customer comments on these social networks. Comcast is one example of a company that has been interacting with customers and resolving their problems effectively on Twitter for the last several months. This technique can result in understanding the social perception about your business and handling any negative comments before they become major issues.
Lastly, you could also interact with your customers by conducting periodic customer focus groups to understand how your customers use your site and perceive your business. This is usually is a more expensive option.