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Service Quality in the Era of the Internet Published: Monday, September 14, 2009 6:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Online businesses promise lots of things, but giving customers a "total quality experience" should be the most important promise an online business makes. At QBS, we believe that building "corner store" customer relationships is essential to a successful e-business. We believe that in this age of advanced communications technologies, it's not just about technology alone. It's about applying fundamental customer service skills to new business models. It's about service delivery online. It's about meeting the needs of your customers and changing their expectations through experience. Let's take a look at how you can give your customers the unconditional support they deserve and demand.

Each customer thinks his or her question is the most important, most unique question ever asked at your site. And they are right. Many new customer interaction technologies come with the ability to use canned responses that either bypass human intervention or assist agents in responding to questions. While these efficiency tools are helpful, they can be detrimental if used incorrectly. We would suggest great caution when using technology alone when a consumer expects a human answer. Listen to your customers. Review their common questions and answers. They'll tell you what they like and dislike about your site. This valuable data can help you make constant improvements to your site and develop a knowledge base that your agents can use to become smarter with each and every interaction. 

To start things off right, your site should offer easy-to-find important information, straight forward navigation and a simple, streamlined purchasing process. Links to customer service should be easily recognized and clearly labeled -don't make your customers guess which link they need to use to get the result they desire. Once customers are at "customer service," they shouldn't have to struggle with making voice and web interaction systems work. If you are going to use the latest channels, make it easy-to-use for the consumer or your efforts may only further frustrate your visitors. Remember, e-service must be easy. Never let your customer feel confused. 

The right customer support team -especially the right agents - can make or break your business. The right agent is nothing less than an expert in the field. He/she should understand your products/services, key site navigation, common Internet technical concerns, and how to use the latest communications technologies. The right agent is personable, knowledgeable and has high-level communication skills in all media. The subtle nuance of a typed e-mail response differs greatly from the tonality that might be needed during a phone transaction. The right agent can deal with all situations appropriately.

Develop a channel for customers to "talk" with product/content experts. Live content delivered through chat helps add that all-important "stickiness" which encourages customers to spend more time, and money, on your site. As we said before, make sure it's easy to reach a customer service agent. On too many sites, the "Contact Us" button is hard to find. In many cases, this simply leads the customer to a pre-addressed e-mail screen with no information about how soon they can expect a reply and/or where else to look for information. When your customers press "contact  us", make sure your customers really can contact you.

Give your customers what they want immediately. Delays in customer service can be deadly and can transform an interaction to a cost center as opposed to a selling opportunity. Exceed expectations whenever possible. Customers who come to your site are ready to buy now. Make each interaction an opportunity. Don't let e-mail queues pile up. Be careful using auto-acknowledgement emails and don't count them in service level measurements. Email service levels cannot be measured in days. Chat service levels should be more aggressive than your core phone queue.

Again, you need to respond fast. "Internet speed" has real meaning. Once a customer has been isappointed by how slowly their question has been addressed, they are unlikely to try again, let alone recommend your site to a friend. Think of it this way: one little click is all it takes for your customers to visit "www-the-next-online-store.com." Don't let your customers go there.

Stay focused on the customer. Prioritize their inquiries. Not just by channel or medium, but by need. If possible, anticipate those needs. Build "human" relationships with your customer base. If customers are experiencing problems on your site, get proactive and intervene. Proactive chat is a promising twist to live help, but you don't want to "spook" your customers, so implement it carefully. Make the wait time for your customers as short as possible in order to make their experience as satisfying as it can be. Invest in retention. Some new interaction technologies can "sense" difficulties and track buying behavior. This can help with future transactions. Pay special attention to follow-up. Answer all of your customers' post-sale service questions in real time.

Prospective customers visit your site because they want to buy something. Many online retailers spend millions trying to attract visitors to a site, but often fail to address those elements that transform browsers into buyers. One of the most common obstacles to purchase completion is a lack of information. In some cases, the information is just too buried on a site, or it may not exist at all. Consumers moving at "Internet speed" won't take the time to look for information. This offers you an ideal opportunity for a live communication channel. As we mentioned earlier, provide live help whenever it's appropriate. Collect and redistribute information that will keep your agents informed and help them during all live interactions. The more they know about your site, your products and your customers, the more they can help you embrace every opportunity to interact with visitors on your site. And the more they can help customers, the more those customers will keep coming back.

The combined efforts of good old human touch and customer service technologies are enabling merchants to realize benefits, including increased brand preference among customers, greater conversion rates on sales, increased learning through interaction with customers and cost reduction through automation. It is absolutely critical to have effective tools and staff to meet rising demands. It's unfortunate, but true, that success has spoiled many sites. And it usually happens because the volume of customer contacts exceeds the resources dedicated to support the responses to those contacts.

Every customer contact with your company - and your company's employees - has a positive or negative impact on your business proposition. Every customer contact is a great opportunity. Every time a customer contacts, or attempts to contact, your company, that customer develops an opinion. One bad contact experience can be enough to diminish all of your brand-building efforts. It is extremely important to ensure a consistently satisfying quality experience that enhances your brand and the future of your company. Relationships with your customers are great assets and those relationships, in the era of the Internet, are only as good as your last contact.

Copyright 2009 QBS, Inc.
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