Flushing it Out: Internet Customer Service

Many of us have fallen foul of ineffective, or non-existent after-sales support systems. Here the Frog expounds the virtues of the 5 As of  Internet Customer Service…

This week I’ve found myself thinking about customer service on the internet and whether offline rules apply to the online world.

A few months ago, my friend (think “Mrs Bouquet”) decided to purchase a classical French bathroom suite during one of her many flights of fancy.  Since then, we’ve all endured updates akin to the breaking news on Sky, detailing her quest to find “the one”.  It was relief all round when a few weeks ago she found her suite of dreams, located a t’interweb company with it in stock and made the purchase.  Not that my friend is one to brag, but “even their website radiated such quality, darling”.

Skip forward a fortnight and the suite was delivered by one of the “carefully selected delivery partners”; the bathroom equivalent of coffee beans hand-picked by blind nuns in the remote hills of Madagascar.  At the grand unveiling (complete with sparkling wine, M&S houmous and vol-au-vents), the mass cooing was suddenly replaced with sharp intakes of breath; the bubble wrap stripped back to reveal imperfect and marked marble.  The eyes of her husband – hollow with the exhaustion of being asked “what about this one?” every day for three months – now reflected the resignation of a man tasked with arranging the world’s quickest replacement.

Quite naturally, his first port of call was the contact number displayed on the website.  When this proved to be continually unavailable, he started to panic (you’d understand if you ever met his wife) and swiftly moved onto emails.  These too were without success.  In a move of sheer genius, he remembered the company owned a real-life shop, dialled the moustached running men and obtained a number that worked.  Phew!  The relief was short-lived when the disinterested company owner entered the equation.  After days of increasingly heated telephone calls, sharing of photographic evidence worthy of CSI and an extended philosophical debate about what constitutes marked marble, a replacement was finally arranged.  We are now at the point where they’re expecting the exchange.  No doubt from the “carefully selected delivery partners”.

So, in recognition of my friend – who happened to shout “aaaaah” when she first saw her marked marble – here are my 5As of Internet Customer Service:

  • Anticipate: Customers don’t want to contact you unless they really have to and presumably, you don’t want to be bombarded by a veritable deluge of unnecessary emails and calls.  Consider making everyone’s life easier by anticipating common and likely queries (e.g. returns policy, delivery times, what to do if a delivery hasn’t arrived etc) and answering them in a robust FAQ.
  • Accessible: Some customers WILL need to contact you, so ensure you’re accessible.  Share a telephone number (preferably one that works!), provide an answer phone facility, manage your emails and provide a postal address.  It’s never been so easy to support customer contact – you could even consider one of the many reasonably priced options to outsource a live chat support for times when you’re unavailable.
  • Acknowledge: Ensure you acknowledge your customers; whether it’s when they’ve made a purchase, made contact or you’ve just posted their order.  This doesn’t have to be resource intensive; there are options to absorb acknowledgements into order summaries and employ auto-responders.
  • Answer:  When customers contact you, dig deeper to establish what they’re actually telling you.  Intended meanings frequently go astray when discussed by emails, which can lead to unpleasant escalations of events that would have been resolved face-to-face.  Keep your communications individual – generic responses can feel impersonal and portray a lack of concern.
  • Assure:  Share your company’s guarantees with your customers and then honour them.  Whether it be your position on refunds, exchanges, warranties or delivery times, make these clear to your customers and stand by them.  Consider sharing some examples of when these have been honoured in order to strengthen the level of assurance for your potential and existing customers.

These 5 steps, used effectively and systematically will ensure that you achieve your end goal – making your customer feel confident and assured when using your company.  however unknowingly, internet customers can often feel vulnerable because they perceive the company to be some distance away, hovering deep in the digital ether.  In order to provide an excellent internet customer service therefore, you must make it your mission to ensure that they don’t feel that distance, and that the virtual gap is bridged.

Now back to the bathroom suite.  How do I tell my friend that I saw the same suite in an episode of Crossroads?


If you would like further help with improving your service systems and overall customer experience, please contact the Bright team at www.bright4impact.com

6 Responses to “Flushing it Out: Internet Customer Service”

  1. Mark

    I find myself reading your posts earlier and earlier every week!

    A huge part of this whole process is to ensure that your CRM system allows you to capture the reasons for contact and the time of contact, as these allow better anticipation of enquiries and a more personalised customer service – even by the automated system. For example:

    Some providers systems recognise your billing cycle and reflect this in your online experience. If you call or sign-in within X days of your last bill, the IVR options presented to you are different, as your provider appears to recognise that your call may be a query about your bill or payment. Automated, but ‘personal’.

    In terms of presenting telephone numbers, the smartest websites can present contact numbers only during opening hours – and those with full integration can even go as far as to highlight numbers when the lines are quiet, but take that detail down from the site if it’s horrendously busy, and adapt the online content to reflect the call centre’s poor availability.

    Some queries can be as a direct result of marketing that your company has done (Can I buy?), or indeed as a result of competitor marketing (Can I leave…?). Being able to identify this information quickly, and capture it effectively, can allow the business to present the right information to the right people at the right time, and continuously improve online content.

    Self service works for some products, but not for all. Be smart about how you provide these services as they can undermine anything else you do when they are done badly.

    Understand the marketplace, and be aware that your availability can in part drive customer behaviour. Taking the ISP example, it’s great when your ISP helpline is available 9-5 because it brands itself as a business ISP, but it then needs to understand that poor availability or limited hours across the weekend is going to result in technical support lines being flooded on a Monday when the lines open.

    Great blog again, Liz.

  2. dw

    Oh EJM, been there, got the t-shirt, why hasn’t everyone read your blog yet? Life would be so much easier! keep ’em coming!

  3. NDJ

    Well written and so very true. It’s strange how I can relate to each blog you have posted. I still stick to my previous post that you should write a book.

  4. Lau

    Ah as so many have experienced the same thing, agree completely with your comments and also agree that you should consider a writing a book. Extremely well written and witty 🙂

  5. The Sword

    Another excellent blog post, always an enjoyable read. Looking forward to the next.

  6. Kim

    I also agree to the previous comments for you to write a book. If all companies bought it the world would be a better place also you would be filthy rich! Lol


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