Friday, March 13, 2009

Customer Service and the Online World

One of the most often neglected, but nonetheless most important factors in a successful online business is good customer service.

Why is it so often overlooked? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Many online business owners own multiple businesses, or have a job in the offline world in addition to their online business, and so are unable to keep up with a large volume of calls or e-mails from customers.

It is often also because of the idea of "online business" that online business owners sometimes fail to provide high quality customer service. Owners who view it is a type of "part-time" business simply don't include customer service in their plans.

But how important is it, really?

I can answer that with three words. Very, very important.

Want a longer answer? No problem. Here are a few major factors:

  • Better customer care increases the likelihood that you will get testimonials directly from clients, which means a more effective sales page.
  • Better customer care increases the likelihood that you will get good word of mouth for your website.
  • Better customer care increases the likelihood that you will get repeat customers.
  • Better customer care increases the likelihood that you will get links from other websites (the blogs or sites of your customers). That means a better search engine ranking.
  • Better customer care increases the likelihood that you will close sales.
So, let's look at what I just said in brief:
  • More traffic, more sales, and more profit.
If those things aren't important to you, then go dig a hole or something, because online business isn't for you. These are the most valuable things to online commerce.

So, here are a few quick tips to giving good customer service:
  • Display your contact e-mail address in a prominent location.
  • Respond to customer inquiries or complaints within 24 hours of receiving their e-mails.
  • Set up a phone to accept business calls. Either put a new message on one of your existing lines, or use a service like "Skype" to set up a new number.
  • Answer voice-mails within 2 hours whenever possible.
  • Make refunds easily for your customers. This does not mean paying for everything for them -- it means not trying to force them to not return the item, and trying to resolve their concerns as thoroughly as possible.
  • The line "the customer is always right" is both cliche and untrue. Anyone who has worked in customer service will tell you that the customer is usually wrong. But you should always approach calls and e-mails with the attitude that they are right.
Let me give a brief example of that last part. On my website, a customer tried to buy an item for about $130 with four different credit cards. They were all declined. She e-mailed me, furious that she had not received a confirmation that her order had been placed. I responded by phone, calmly explaining the situation to her, and saying that I'd be glad to take her payment over the phone, or that she could simply process the order again with a card that had at least $130 left on it.

Rather than doing this, she sent me an e-mail with her credit card information. More than that, it was one of the cards that she had already tried, and had been declined. I tried the card again for her, and called her again, to notify her that I simply could not process that card. I apologized, and asked if there were any other cards she wanted to try, or if she wanted to try a different method of payment. She said that if I couldn't accept her credit card, that she would just buy from someone else. Of course, I was tempted to tell her just how silly she was being, and that no one would accept these cards. Instead, though, I told her that I understood her concerns, but that it was not me but my bank that wouldn't accept those cards. I let her know that if she changed her mind, I would be glad to process the transaction for her.

A week later she contacted me with a new card to process the transaction. She sent a testimonial afterward as well, telling me that she'd been having a rough day, and appreciated my patience.

I spent less than twenty minutes overall in addressing her concerns, and the transaction landed me about $40 in profit. For those of you counting at home, that's about $120 per hour, if we were to calculate my "wages."

Again, let me repeat. Customer service is important to online business. How important? Very, very important.

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