eCommerce Customer Support - How to make your competitors look second-rate

Aran Reeks
By Aran Reeks
10 Dec 2014

How important is customer service to your business? Instinctively I’m sure you feel that providing effective customer support is one of the most important things any business does – so, of course, you give it a high priority.

But, put yourself in your customers’ shoes for a minute. Is this really how your customer service looks through their eyes? There’s a good chance it might not. 

Why do I think this? Because the vast majority of interactions I have with online businesses as a customer are far from positive. So either I’ve been unlucky or there are significant opportunities out there for businesses that are prepared to invest in getting customer service right.

Your customers are not asking for much. They want clear information about the things they are buying, a simple way to get questions answered, reasonable and clearly stated terms of business, and a sense that somebody actually cares if they have a problem. 

Now compare that to the reality most of us experience: dial 1 for a long wait, dial 2 for a sales message and an even longer wait, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, ‘your call is important’ and “look, I just told the last person who I am and what my problem is, why do I have to explain it to you too.” 

Don’t worry about delighting them – invest in satisfying some very basic needs.

Because eCommerce is so competitive its often difficult to beat the competition on price. But with customer service you have a great opportunity to shine out from the mediocrity of your competitors if you invest in the right people, processes and systems

Too often, businesses compartmentalise their approach to being online rather than looking at everything as an integrated and satisfying customer experience. Customer support often becomes an inefficient fall back for aspects of the customer experience that don’t function as they should.

So how should businesses go about creating a customer service experience that builds satisfaction and loyalty? Here are a few pointers.

First, get the site right

The most efficient way to handle customer support issues is to stop them occurring in the first place. If you are selling products through your site it’s a reasonable expectation that somebody should easily find answers to any question that would affect their purchase decision.

If you’ve carefully mapped a customer journey, implemented blindingly obvious navigation, and provided top class images and descriptions, there shouldn’t be too many questions left to ask about the products.


If customers can see your delivery charges and timescales, return policies and payment methods without having to search for them, you’ve eliminated another bunch of potential queries as well as improving the shopping experience. Simple, clear calls to action linked to common support issues on checkout pages can really help boost conversion rates.

But always remember that customers won’t be as familiar with the site as you are. You may have a carefully designed customer journey but nobody has given them the map and they may still get lost. The quicker and easier you can get them back on course the more likely they are to convert.

Provide multiple options


Inevitably some people will still have questions, either about how to use your site, something they might buy or something they’ve already bought. Nothing says ‘we don’t really care’ more effectively than dictating to your customers how they should contact you.

Some people want to pick up the phone and speak to somebody, and some prefer email, live chat or online forms. If all you offer is a phone number (which they might have to pay to use), what does this say?

On-line support can be more time-efficient and more appealing for your customers than the prospect of being held in a call-waiting queue. But email doesn’t mean that people don’t want, or expect, a quick response.

Other people will prefer to speak to somebody and be talked through their issue a step at a time.

If you care about customer service you’ll provide the options that your customers want to use rather than the ones that you find it easiest to manage.

Trust your customers


This can be a tricky one. If somebody buys something from your site that turns out to be faulty, how many ‘hoops of proof’ do you ask them to jump through before issuing a replacement or refund? Do you insist that the faulty item is returned ‘recorded and tracked’ or by some other method that involves inconvenience and effort?

With some sites you can easily be left with the feeling that they are just making it as difficult as possible to get a refund – even if that wasn’t the intention.

On the other hand you could just do what Amazon does: apologise, send out a replacement straight away and request that the original is returned within a specified period. Simple!

Don’t over-rely on self-service

Some eCommerce consultants will tell you that self-service is incompatible with excellent customer service. This is a slightly extreme view that I don’t share. But it does highlight a potential dilemma: are you implementing self-service to genuinely make life easier for your customers or doing it to reduce support costs?

A well-designed and comprehensive online support function should be a benefit to you and your customers. If customers can get questions answered, resolve issues, and check the status of their accounts and deliveries in a couple of clicks, that’s something most people will welcome. Potentially this is also more efficient for your business and leaves support staff free to pro-actively add value to the customer experience rather than dealing with routine enquiries.


But remember that with self-service you are potentially depriving your business of invaluable interactions; ones that could improve service and identify difficulties that people experience using your site. Would you know if somebody failed to find what they needed and then clicked away?

Once they are in your self-service system is there an easy and obvious way to contact the support team by phone or email if they can’t find what they need?

Avoid making a comfortable assumption that everything is provided if only people look for it. You need to test how well your self-help facility works and actively seek out the views of your customers on its effectiveness.

And if you have a knowledge base or FAQs, how often do you review and update them so that they really do answer your customers’ questions?


What happens when somebody contacts your customer support team? Is every call treated as a one-off? If they’ve called several times about the same issue is this immediately obvious to the person who answers the phone? Can you immediately call up their customer history and details of their orders? 

If any of those points are a struggle then your opportunity to provide outstanding service is undermined. Proper integration between backend systems is essential if support staff are to have any chance of looking knowledgeable and caring.

Nothing is more alienating than calling a customer support line about an existing query and having to repeat the whole thing over again. And nothing is more irritating than when notes recorded on the initial call turn out to be inaccurate because the agent didn’t understand or wasn’t listening.

And finally, do you have the tools to organise and analyse your support calls? Tools that enable you to identify and fix common issues and queries? 

We always recommend using analytics to set targets for the time taken to resolve queries and then monitoring your performance. Set targets that will impress your customers rather than being comfortable - always start with their expectations.

If people fail to meet your internal performance targets you can then target your retraining activity efficiently.

Be there24_hours

Have a look at your Analytics data to see when most people use your site. For eCommerce this is highly likely to be evenings and weekends. Now compare that peak website traffic to the times when you have customer service staff available via phone, email or live chat.

This mismatch is an issue that often gets overlooked when businesses move into eCommerce from selling mainly through physical shops.

Being there also means being able to help; not just having a body at the end of the phone but someone who is properly trained and informed. Customers will take their confidence from your support team. If the person they speak to doesn’t sound confident then they are much more likely to escalate their issue - and that’s bad news for everyone.

Social media  


B2C businesses that treat social media networks as sales channels, or rarely monitor them, are missing another opportunity to offer superior customer service. Smart businesses monitor networks for mentions of their brand and respond instantly to comments.

I recently had a customer service issue with a well-known retailer and was impressed when they responded to my dissatisfied tweet within a couple of minutes. We then had a conversation and my status as a satisfied and happy customer was quickly restored.

If they weren’t on top of the network then my problem would have sat there unanswered for anyone who searched on the brand name – not a good signal to potential customers.

Keep it human

For email queries you will quite likely use an autoresponder. There’s nothing wrong with that as it can give customers a quick reassurance that their query has been received. Just don’t make the message sound like it’s been written by a machine.

Give people a sensible time-frame in which somebody will be in touch and then beat that time. One pitfall here is the ticket that gets raised on a Friday. Many online businesses cover themselves by quoting a 72 hour response time, knowing that nothing will happen until the following Monday. 

For the other four days of the week you are selling yourself short.  Quote two time frames if necessary; or better still get support staff to work over the weekend to offer better service on your customers’ terms.

And be cautious with ticketing systems. These are really useful internally for monitoring and tracking support calls; but does your customer really need to know that they have been allocated ticket number X. There’s a real risk that this gives them the impression they are in a pile of issues waiting to be resolved and that no human is really taking care of their concern.

Generally people don’t mind automation when it comes to simple things like checking order status. But if it’s a genuine customer support issue they need to feel that they’re dealing with a person, not a machine.



And finally the most basic requirement of all – making sure support staff are skilled and valued. Phoning a support line and getting passed between several people before finding someone who can answer the question is a frustrating and all-too-familiar experience.

Training should encompass customer handling and listening skills as well as product and technical knowledge. Finding an expert who talks to you like you’re an idiot or doesn’t seem to be paying attention is usually not much better than somebody who can’t help at all.  It won’t be an experience people will be keen to repeat.

A simple and sincere apology can go a long way. Learning the skill of changing a customer’s mind on what they want is much more effective than just saying no to their request. Learning how to exude confidence without appearing arrogant is a vital skill.

Ideally, support staff should have a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to create happy customers and must always understand just how critical this is to your business. If you have somebody sitting on the end of your support line feeling even slightly resentful, and that their role is to take the flak for other people’s mistakes, that’s a very dangerous state of mind.

A very basic point is to make sure support staff are interested in and actually like the products or service you are selling.

And, of course, that’s the real point of it. Because eCommerce is so competitive it’s often difficult to beat the competition on price. But with customer service you have a great opportunity to shine out from the mediocrity of your competitors – if you invest in the right people, processes and systems.