By Dee Roche
The Christmas trading period represents 50-70% of a retailer’s annual revenue, and with predictions that UK consumers will spend an additional £1.2bn online this year – bringing the total to £8.1bn - maximising revenue from the web will be critical. But any potential sales uplift will only be realised if ecommerce sites are easy to navigate and consumers can simply find any information they require.
The challenge facing all retailers is that despite the increasing popularity of online shopping - ecommerce grew by 24% in September 2010 alone - only seven per cent of potential customers that visit a shop’s website actually complete their purchase. With the current pressures of a poorly-performing high street, online portals have never been so important to retailers.
Online customer service is an area sometimes overlooked by retailers and represents a significant missed opportunity. Making a number of enhancements to a shop's website can actually have a direct impact on the bottom line and increase online conversion rates. Research amongst Eptica’s own customer base of more than 280 organisations, has shown that by using self-service technology to more efficiently respond to customers’ enquiries at peak times, retailers can increase sales on top of their peak figures by an additional five per cent. This is achieved by simply eliminating basic frequently asked questions to the contact centre.
There are a number of guiding principles that retailers should embrace in order to deliver best practice web customer service.
Make self-service simple
Customers decide in the first couple of seconds of loading a website, whether they like the layout and want to engage with the site further. Retailers can make a good first impression by having a clean and uncluttered design that makes the web customer service look easy to use and inviting. Ecommerce sites can avoid putting customers off by overloading self-service pages with too much information.
Analyse the language that your customers use and the tone of your brand to ensure that self-service matches them seamlessly. This will attract customers to use your system by making asking a question obvious and straightforward. Look at tailoring it to the area of the site they are in, so that the relevant content area is presented automatically before customers even need to type in a query to save more time and improve customer experience.
By having a highly prominent and user-friendly customer self-service function on your website, which allows users to ask any question they may have in their own words, retailers can dramatically reduce inbound contact levels and avoid customer service peaks.
Use the wisdom of crowds
Where self-service really helps is in answering straightforward questions, freeing up your customer service staff to deliver personalised answers to more complex and higher-value queries. On average, at least 80 per cent of questions asked to a retailer on any given week are all about a similar topic. Use a solution that dynamically displays your most popular questions and answers visibly at the front of your self-service pages, so customers can access them with a single click without needing to type a single word.
By displaying the most frequently asked questions in a clear format, at the front of your self-service pages, customers are able to ascertain the answer in a quick and effective way. Analysing the most popular questions asked also gives you an unparalleled awareness of what your total customer base wants to know, meaning you can tailor content, products and services to their changing needs quickly and effectively.
Embrace social customer service
In today’s digital age it is vital that retailers engage on all of the different platforms that their customers use. Social media is fast becoming a key channel for customer service, so make it part of your overall strategy.
Retailers must engage with their audiences on social media and ensure that they are providing the same level of fast, accurate information that is available through online self-service and traditional channels. Making information available to customer service staff across the organisation is key to delivering consistent messages.
Social media also provides retailers with a supplementary way to monitor emerging issues or trends. Resolve the issue quickly, and ensure your community managers have a process for adding the same information quickly to your self-service knowledgebase for other customers to easily find.
Adopting a proactive approach will enable you to keep control of the customer relationship.
Make navigation visual and use multimedia
A website full of text can put off users. Retailers should not just tell people about a product or how something works, but actually show them using illustrations or how-to videos.
As well as bringing the answers to life and making the website more visually appealing, including video demonstrations helps build engagement with customers, whilst also deflecting calls from the contact centre.
For retailers that sell to an international audience, pictures of products are universal and offer an easy way to make site navigation universal.
Build customer service into the purchasing journey
One of the key ways that retailers can better organise and manage their websites is from learning about its strengths and weaknesses. Incorporating web analytics on the self-service pages enables retailers to get unparalleled insights on customer habits at the point of purchase.
People ask questions as they move through the customer journey, so make sure self-service is a central part of the process. Don’t force people to detour to ask questions and then have to start again when they have the answer – adding extra twists and turns will cause customers to give up and leave your site. Understand where people are in the customer journey and make sure your answers are relevant, accurate and help them move onto the next stage. Keep momentum up by signposting ways of moving forward.
The time is now
Customer experience on the web really is all if you want to achieve the most important business goals of retaining customers, containing costs and increasing your sales – particularly as your website is increasingly your customers’ main point of contact with your brand.
With uncertainty in the economy continuing to rumble on, it is more important than ever that retailers maximise sales around Christmas. For firms wanting to capitalise on sales that will come from customers wanting to purchase ahead of the increase in VAT next year, there is an added incentive to act now and enhance their online customer service.
1] Verdict researchers 2010
 IMRG, October 2010
Dee Roche is European marketing director at Eptica.