Self-service Shouldn’t Replace Customer Service

Customers are satisfied with their ecommerce experiences and in many cases seem to prefer online buying to brick-and-mortar shopping trips. That’s what recent studies show — but it doesn’t mean virtual merchants should allow complacency to take hold.

The web is experiencing unprecedented growth as non-travel ecommerce has exceeded $100 billion. While service levels have displayed some ebb and flow, overall satisfaction with the channel has been strong in recent years — particularly in comparison to traditional retail. That said, I caution ecommerce owners to listen up and remain vigilant in their customer service efforts.

Checklist for Excelling at Online Customer Communication

  • It is not enough to provide an 800/toll-free number if it cannot be easily accessed — starting on the home page.
  • Similarly, complete contact information should be provided and easily visible.
  • Call center representatives must be trained on products, operational functions and a customer-centric attitude.
  • If all CSRs cannot be product experts, designate specialists who will handle issues beyond order placement or return.
  • If you offer live chat, make sure the service quality and team is intact.
  • Be aware of and test new methods (i.e., Click2Call, perpetual shopping carts, Google Checkout).
  • Use email to communicate customer service capability and deliver merchandising messaging throughout the order process.
  • Make returns easy for customers, as this goes a long way toward retention.

We recently completed our ninth annual Mystery Shopping study in which we took a three-pronged look at customer service. We benchmarked call center, online metrics and email. Additionally, we tested live chat in cases where that was a fourth communication option. The overarching take-away from the study is that, in their quest for efficiency and profitability, merchants have aggressively embraced self-service online. And it’s to their detriment.

If the web’s capabilities as a sales channel are to be maximized, self-service should not replace customer service. It’s imperative that ecommerce merchants absorb this fact, as the highlights of our findings showcase. To help businesses transpose the concept to real-life practices, the accompanying communication checklist can aid in exemplary merchant execution.

Accessible Contact Information

After hovering in the 90 percent range for several years, the 800/toll-free telephone number has finally showed up on 100 percent of our surveyed sites. Unfortunately the toll-free number’s visibility was not always optimal on many sites; it was there, just really hard to see. With surprising frequency, the 800 number didn’t even appear on home pages.

Customers must be able to access the contact information they need. This was clearly revealed through consumer research we conducted in conjunction with StartSampling, a marketing and promotions company. Surveyed shoppers made it plain that they aren’t willing to tolerate roadblocks as they navigate online.

Trained Customer Service Personnel

Because customers already live in an automated world where they encounter poor service in many aspects of daily life, merchants must choose wisely whether, where and when to automate. Consumers want the opportunity to talk with a human; simply offering potential buyers an 800 number might be a nice first step. But without the opportunity for them to ask questions and get answers, a toll-free number is not sufficient for serious shoppers. It ends up as a costly example of good intentions that didn’t result in action.

An in-depth evaluation of the call center communication experience was added to this year’s mystery shopping. Initial phone message quality/length was ranked on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the best. The 97 sites that offered these messages averaged 4.0, but prompts could be improved with more opportunity for general queries that went beyond order placement and returns.

Disappointingly, the overall customer experience, also ranked on a 1-5 scale, averaged 3.5. Customer service representatives (CSR) were too often simply computer operators who recited information from pre-formatted scripts. They did not seem to have adequate product knowledge training. Further, as the chart indicates, there is ample room for improvement with CSR attitude and efficiency.

Communication Options

Email is certainly the communication vehicle of choice by consumers. On a positive note, the average response time for customer service question emails improved this year, averaging slightly less than 24 hours as opposed to 30 hours last year. As automation replaces true personal communication, the number of these responses that are “personalized” in the salutation continues to increase (76 percent vs. 69 percent last year). Yet the quality of the answers deteriorated.

It would be our recommendation to make careful choices about when and where to automate. As fewer new customers arrive online, it will be ever more important to retain customers by cultivating relationships.

Live Chat Makes Further Inroads

The technology has improved and the feature works more frequently than in the past, but one-quarter of CSRs are still not able to correctly answer questions posed.

That might explain why the overall quality of live chat remains static at a “fair” level. On a brighter note, the average time to chat increased by more than a minute versus last year, most likely a result of multi-tasking on the part of CSRs.

Once again, the service lesson here centers on a dedication to service supported by trained personnel.

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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