I prefer to shop online so I’ve been on the receiving end of many customer support scenarios. I’ve never once dealt with a small business that wouldn’t bend over backwards to make me happy, not only to get that particular sale but also to ensure future sales. It works every time. I’ll gladly pay a few dollars more for a product when it comes with good customer service and I’m not alone. I apply the same level of support when dealing with customers.
Conversely, large companies almost invariably frustrate me when I have a customer support issue. Most of their customer support is provided by large call/email centres that only care about one thing: volume. Having worked in a call center years ago and knowing many other call center survivors, I can honestly say that I would never, ever, give one a customer service contract. They pressure employees to meet quotas, which results in hastily pasted “standard outgoing messages” (SOM’s) that frequently do not resolve the issue. The staff are usually underpaid, the work environment is horrendous, and the management rarely has any understanding of the “happy employees work harder for you” concept.
I recently had a problem completing an order with Tiger Direct. When I tried to process the order, their system told me PayPal didn’t authorize the charge. I logged into PayPal and discovered the charge had indeed been authorized and was status “pending”. I sent an email to Tiger Direct about the issue and included the authorization number. I was told that since the order was not authorized on their end, there was no record of it. If the preauthorization wasn’t dropped within the week, I should contact my financial institution. They lost a sale of just over a hundred dollars but didn’t seem to be in the least concerned about that.
In phase two of this issue, the preauthorization hadn’t been dropped so I sent an email to online payment giant, PayPal. They “cancelled” the order, but the funds that had been held via preauthorization were not reinstated. Customer Support tried to place the blame on several issues, from a credit card (which I didn’t use) to not being able to use American funds. They eventually called me, but when the rep clearly couldn’t find an explanation we suddenly “lost our connection” (probably the oldest call centre trick in the book). The end result? She refused to acknowledge that any amount had been preauthorized and I lost $100.97. Lesson learned: Never order from someone using PayPal if they do preauthorization because PayPal does not believe they make mistakes. Business owners that preauthorize would be well-advised to not use PayPal to receive payments.
Chances are, the executives running these companies have no idea their customers are being treated this way or that they’re losing money because of it. They’ve lost all direct connection with their customer base other than the occasional statistical report. Other large businesses feel they can afford to lose sales, but it has been proven time and time again that even the biggest empires can come crashing down. It’s customer loyalty that provides a safety net. Small businesses value my hundred dollar orders and it shows.
There is a serious competitive advantage that can be had by businesses willing to provide excellent email and social media customer service. Allowing your staff to address issues in a friendly, personalized manner is well worth the time involved. Statistics show that customers can be forgiving and will order from you again if the occasional problem is rectified to their satisfaction. It’s easier (and less expensive) to keep a customer than it is to acquire a new one. Turn that customer into a brand advocate and their worth is immeasurable. Treat them poorly and, thanks to the Internet, your brand can take a very public beating.
14 Ways to Provide Exceptional Online Customer Support
- If you want customer service excellence, hire excellent staff. Pay them a decent wage and treat them well. They need to be happy in their job to defend your company and work enthusiastically to please your customers. If you must go with a call centre, try to find one with happy staff.
- Listen to your customer support team. They’re the front line contact with your customers and they know what works and what doesn’t.
- Provide clear and specific guidelines to customer support staff, based in part on their feedback and experiences.
- Equip customer support staff with the tools and authority they need to retain customers and make the sale. Coupons, refunds, etc., will all pay off in the long run. Give them some wiggle room so they can make customers happy on a case-by-case basis.
- Social media is often used as a redirection point but that isn’t always best. For example, if I send you a note on Twitter, don’t tell me to call your customer support line. If you can’t provide support within the medium, at least offer to initiate contact by asking for a phone number or email address via private message. Include company contact information in case the customer doesn’t want to reveal their information.
- Standard outgoing messages (SOM’s) are great for frequently asked questions, but they should not replace personalized service. Scattering placating phrases throughout the communication doesn’t fool anyone either, they want you to listen to them and you should.
- Sincere empathy has always been my superpower in customer service situations. Call/email centres will have you believe that adding “we understand your frustration” is all you need to convey empathy, but the key to empathy is sincerity. I know how frustrated I get when my Internet service is down, for example. If I were providing customer support for an ISP, simply saying “I’m lost without my internet connection too, so let’s get to the bottom of this…” automatically puts us on the same side. Customer Service Representatives must always remember what it’s like to be the customer.
- Volume should only be a consideration to the point where an employee isn’t doing his job. Studies (and common sense) indicate customers would rather wait longer for great service than have their time wasted with inadequate responses.
- Include a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on your website for those who prefer to resolve their own issues.
- Provide an easily accessible contact page that includes all contact options (email, social media, phone, live digital support, and so on).
- Encourage feedback, not only about the customer service experience but also invite suggestions. Feedback should be organized and passed on to the appropriate department. Make sure there’s a status page that employees can access when applicable.
- Ensure communication through every step of the process by using customer support software that facilitates it. This can be as simple as including notes. For example, an order note added for the shipping department could suggest adding a small freebie with a card thanking the customer for their patience with the order. Include your customer support phone number on the card should there be any further concerns. Printed cards can be available in the shipping department, along with a box of company swag, samples, etc. to go with them.
- Follow up to ensure everything is going smoothly for the customer, even if the issue has been resolved. A short, friendly note shows the customer they really are important to your company. Supposing an order was completed, personalize the note by asking if what they bought was satisfactory. No selling is allowed in this communication, it’s all about the customer.
- Utilize tools that provide data and feedback so you can constantly tweak policies and procedures. Most customer support software comes with reporting features and they can be enhanced by stand-alone software like Hively (free for up to three team members).
Make sure your excellent customer support policies are broadcast on your website. They’re what sets you apart and you want shoppers to factor it into their buying decision. Free support, guarantees, and even making it clear that you’re based in Canada can convince Canadian shoppers to click “check out”. Testimonials are also a critical addition to your website.
Exceptional customer support will help you compete and grow your business. Don’t forget its importance when you become big.
What lessons have you learned about superior customer support as a seller or buyer? Please share your experience in the comments below.
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