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GUEST COMMENT How to be a star at customer service

Customer service has been called the X Factor of online retailing. Way back in 2011 an eRetail Benchmark survey conducted by eDigitalResearch found that ‘Exceptional’ customer service was the key factor in making an ecommerce website a top performer. Since then, customer expectations of the online experience have only got higher. Exceptional customer service is generally expected and any online retailer considered to fall short may find themselves exposed to a barrage of public customer outrage, sometimes across multiple platforms.

So how can retailers ensure their customer service is more Leona Lewis than Jedward?

First up, let’s look at the options.


The most pre-basic (or is that BASIC?) form of customer service is the FAQ.  Back in the day, the FAQ would simply be a long list of predicted questions and answers. In terms of customer service, the FAQ is about as low maintenance as it gets and feels like a term from a different age to some. Arguably though, it can still have its place. If your product is, for instance, a B2B technical product, quite well known for having common variables, an FAQ might actually be the preferred way your customers would like to get their questions answered. A busy engineer doesn’t need the strokes and pampering expected by general consumers. They just want fast facts and might find a more complex and interactive customer service system quite frustrating. So understanding your customers is the first step to getting customer service right – don’t overdo if you don’t have to (especially if your customers really are engineers, who would quite correctly tell you that the more moving parts you have, the bigger your chances of failure!).


While many consumers may think the FAQ is dead, the truth is it has simply evolved. While doing nothing more than providing a list of predictable questions and answers would rightly seem archaic to many, FAQs have actually developed in most cases into bots. The principle is the same – predict what your customers are going to ask and provide them with a system to find the answer. Bots offer the same benefits to the retailer as FAQs of being entirely hands-off but, if done properly, provide customers with a more user-friendly way of getting to the answer.  The fully automated system allows you, as a retailer, to get on with your day, while the bot answers all the customers most likely questions.  Sounds great in theory. But the problems can still arise from the fact that humans are humans and bots are bots.  When using bots, proceed with caution. You need to really, really know your audience to be able to predict what they will ask every time. Bad bot use will just leave customers feeling dehumanised, demoralised, and of a strong mind to shop elsewhere.


For smaller retailers, email is usually the default setting. Email enquiries allow the retailer to multi-task, answering enquiries in between other duties. When a customer knows they are dealing with a small or boutique retailer, that can be fine, so long as you reply as promptly as possible. But for larger retailers, faster moving goods or where expectations are just generally higher, email can be too slow for many customers. If you’ve got a lot of competition, you simply have to up your game.


Okay, so now we’re talking. Well almost. At least it’s human to human. Customer experience just took a quantum leap upwards. The downside is, so did your resource requirement. Once an FAQ is written or a bot is programmed, you can just leave them to it, with the odd tinker as required. Providing a Webchat service is a whole different game. Suddenly you’re talking about recruitment, training, salaries.  The upside of Webchat, compared to telephone (which we’ll come to) is it does allow greater return from your actual human resource as it can allow customer service advisors to multitask between callers. Many consumers actually prefer it to telephone as you can use it on the bus, in the office, while waiting at the dentist and nobody gets to listen in. That said, nothing is more frustrating than a Webchat service that isn’t available when they need it – which could be any time. Be clear about available hours (in different time zones) and ensure you have the resources to maintain excellence before making the leap.


Sometimes, it really is good to talk. If you want your customers to feel truly loved nothing beats talking to them. Again though, your resource requirement just went up. Not only do you have recruitment, training and salaries, but your employees can only deal with one enquiry at a time. If phone service is handled well it can represent the top end of the customer service experience. The downside is that if it’s handled badly, it’s one of the things that can anger customers more than any other system. Being presented with an FAQ might prompt a customer to shop elsewhere, but it won’t fill them with hate in the same way a bad phone experience can. If you’re going to use the phone, ensure you have the skills, experience and budget to get it right.


Social is the ultimate double-edged sword. It provides all the tools you need. It’s where your customers are. You can spot enquiries before they become enquiries and deal with them. But, and it’s a big but. Your customer service performance just went into the public domain. If you drop the ball, you will know about it, and so will all your other customers. Before going social with customer service, ensure your behind-the-scenes set-up is red hot. Failure is a life lesson. But failing publicly is not something you should choose to do.


Key lessons for giving your customer service the X Factor are … (Dermot O’Leary pause)…

Know your customers. Understand what type of customer service system would work best for them.  Considerations should include demographics, location and being able to predict most common and uncommon enquiries.

Roll things out. Do not rush into unknown territory for fear of short-term customer losses. Start with low maintenance systems and gradually introduce higher maintenance ones to get the balance right.

Ensure your behind-the-scenes set-up is robust enough before going live. Constantly seek improvement. You can always get better.

Rachel Smith is digital marketing executive at

Image: Fotolia

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