A Step-by-step Guide for E-commerce Customer Service Strategy

If you wish to win, first do what everyone else is already doing.  Then move to something that many can’t do. Then work on something that would give you an edge over the others. To succeed as a company doing business online, you need an effective e-commerce service strategy to guide your engagement with customers throughout their many interactions with you.  

We developed this step-by-step guide as a starting point to help you understand the basics of what other companies are doing so you can identify the table-stakes for doing business and identify where your strategic opportunities are for competitive advantage.

Understand the Scope of Customer Interactions

Engaging in electronic commerce is a lot different from traditional brick-and-mortar retail and services delivered in-person.  There is no such thing as “business hours” when you are doing business online. Your business is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and your customers expect you to interact with them whatever time is convenient for them. Digital businesses are also global businesses that often cross political, cultural and language boundaries.  Your customers expect you to understand and be sensitive to their unique needs in the way you interact with them.

Modern e-commerce is a lot more than sales and taking orders on a website—it is the holistic set of interactions you have with your customers.  The best way to figure out the scope of your customer interactions is by asking a set of questions about the various times that a customer might need to engage with you.

  • How do your customers learn about your company and your products and services?  
  • How do they engage with you to ask questions and then to place an order?  
  • What happens after the order is placed (how do they receive products and services)?
  • How do they interact with you if they have a problem or question after the sale?  
  • What is their billing experience?  

These are all the types of interactions that your e-commerce service strategy needs to support.  You may enable these interactions through self-help capabilities and automation or you may use technology to enable customers to interact with your employees.  Those are decisions that should be based on your unique company culture and business strategy as you seek to both meet customer needs and gain the edge over your competitors.

Develop a Multi-channel Engagement Strategy

E-Commerce doesn’t just mean having customers to do things on a website—it means using technology to help you interact and engage with them in a variety of different ways.  Technology may take many forms including: websites, email, phone, chat, mobile apps, online marketplaces and social media. Each of these enables you to interact with customers in a different way and it is important to choose the right tools and techniques to match your communication needs

One-way vs. 2-way interaction—Are you trying to share information with customers?  Do they need to communicate with you? The nature of the interaction is important to determine whether you need a capability for sending/receiving information or whether you need a capability to carry on a conversation with the customer.

Real-time or delayed responses—When your customer asks you a question, do they need a response right now or can they wait to get an answer?  Increasingly, customers are seeking real-time interactions with companies they do business with, meaning you will need both technical capabilities and staffing to engage with them effectively.

Voice, text or picture-based communication—how do your customers want to interact with you?  Do the questions involve a set of complex steps or a lot of details that is best accomplished in writing?  Do you need to express empathy for customer frustrations that are best done with words? Do you need to show the customer how to do something where pictures and video are appropriate?  Using the right communication tools for communication not only helps you engage effectively, it can improve customer perceptions of the ease of doing business with you.

One-to-one vs. interacting with a group—Do you need to communicate with a single customer, or are you trying to communicate with a group?  Group communication may include things like email marketing, announcing new offering, answering common questions and engaging in discussions on social media.  Group communication is often less personal and more suited for one-way communication or common topics that others might be interested in.

There are a lot of different options that you could choose from to support these communication approaches and the choices might seem overwhelming both in time and cost.   As your company matures, you might consider some targeted and specific approaches, but here are five e-commerce service capabilities that every online company should offer:

  1. FAQs and self-help—Most customers don’t want to talk to a person.  They see human interaction as slow and frustrating.  They would much rather solve problems on their own. Frequently asked questions (FAQs) and self-help capabilities for common tasks like getting a price quote, placing orders, checking status, providing feedback and requesting return/warrantee service are all things that customers expect to do via self-service tools.  Providing self-service capabilities may require some up-front investment but will generate benefits both in customer satisfaction and lower customer service staffing costs.
  2. Mobile interactions—Over the past few years, customer preference for digital interaction has shifted from desktop (and laptop) computers to mobile devices like tablets and smart phones.  It is imperative that your company’s e-commerce capabilities work well on these smaller format devices. Responsive technologies (web pages that change format based on screen size) are no longer a “nice to have”, they are an expectation by modern customers.
  3. Live chat—If customers can’t get the answers they need on their own, they expect the ability to engage with one of your staff… right now.  They don’t want to submit a web-form or send an email and wait for a response tomorrow. Providing live chat functions can have a big impact on customer satisfaction and may mean the difference between winning the customer’s business or losing it to a competitor. You got their attention and their engagement on your website, don’t let them walk away because they can’t get the engagement they expect. Providing live chat functions requires planning staffing and ensuring that your employees respond to the new engagement request (just like answering the phone).
  4. Proactive customer service – Don’t wait for customers to ask for help to engage with them.  Has your customer been browsing product pages for a few minutes but not yet added an item to their shopping cart?  Have they been searching your FAQs and support documentation looking for answers? Do they have a shopping cart they have filled up but not ordered?  These are all indicators that your customers need help. Your e-commerce systems should monitor for these and other common situations and proactively offering the customer the chance to engage with you via chat or receive a telephone call.
  5. 24 hour/day phone support—One of the big benefits for customers doing business with online companies is that they can interact at times of the day that fit their busy schedules.  Increasingly, that means engaging with you outside of “normal business hours”. Doing business online also means that your customers may be outside your local area—potentially on the other side of the earth and many time-zones removed from your staff.  Customers expect that you will have phone-based support 24 hrs/day if you are doing business online. Staffing for phone-based support is like staffing for your live chat functions with one big exception. Chat support staff can manage multiple conversations at one time.  Phone support staff can only engage with one customer at a time and must provide undivided attention. Planning your phone support staffing requires monitoring call volumes and trends to ensure that you can answer the phone without leaving customers on hold for long periods.

Interactions After the Sale is Made

Your company’s online interactions with customers shouldn’t end when an order is placed, and the sale is made.  Customers expect their e-commerce service experience to be consistent throughout all the interactions they have with your company, not just pre-sales.  Focusing on post-sales customer service makes sense for your company too.  After all, you are seeking to establish and nurture a relationship with the customer, not just win a one-time sale.  The experience they have interacting with you after the sale is made will play a big role in determining whether they give your company their future business.  From an e-commerce service strategy perspective, this means ensuring you get a few key interactions right:

Optimize and automate order fulfillment—When customers order things online, they expect them to be delivered quickly.  If the product or service is delivered electronically, they expect to access/download it immediately after submitting payment.  If they are purchasing a physical product, they expect the order to be processed and the product to ship within a couple of days. Providing this level of service requires you to automate and optimize your order fulfillment processes—removing as many manual activities as possible.  As transactions progress through the fulfillment process, customers expect updates on when their order will ship, when they can expect to receive it and tracking information to know where it is at along the way.

Give customers access to order and billing history—You may have sent your customer an invoice or sales receipt via email when they placed an order, but they will probably have misplaced it by the time they need the information.  Order and billing history are some of the most common sets of data that customers look for with e-commerce businesses. Almost every company provides it and the few that don’t are likely to attract (negative) attention.  Providing this information in a self-service format not only avoids unhappy customers, it also helps your company reduce administrative (overhead) costs. Having a staff member re-send an invoice doesn’t lead to more sales, and it doesn’t help deliver your products and services more efficiently.  

Make warrantee service and returns easy—No company will have happy customers all the time.  Products may have defects or they may not meet the customer’s needs for whatever reason.  When this happens, customers want to know you will address their needs and concerns without a lot of hassle.  This starts with writing an easy to understand and easy to execute returns policy. Customers should know what to expect with a returns experience before they place an order.  Honor your warrantees—if you said “we will guarantee this item for a year”, you need to be prepared to support that product for a year. If you offered a “30 day, no questions asked” return policy, you need to provide customers with an easy, no hassle, a means of returning the product.  Treating the warrantee and/or return transaction like a sale, making sure that customers receive accurate status communications and timely action from your staff will help customers feel like they are being treated in a fair way and make them more likely to give you more business in the future.   

Resource Planning for Digital Businesses

Operating an online or digital business may seem like an easy way to expand your market footprint to reach more customers without the costs of physical expansion (opening new offices or new retail outlets).  While that is true, digital businesses have their own resourcing needs and resource planning challenges that need to be carefully managed including providing 24×7 customer support and planning your resources for seasonal demand.

24×7 customer support

Customers expect that online businesses are backed by real-people who are available to answer their questions and help address issues and needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  They don’t care about what time-zone or country you are in. From their perspective, because your products and services are available in their local region, your staff should be available to engage in their local time-zone.  Meeting this expectation can be very difficult for many online businesses—particularly those that are new or lack the size/scale to support a round-the-clock customer service function. Fortunately, there are many outsourced options that can enable digital businesses to gain access to customer service call-center staff that can help support their customer needs.  Modern customer service software and helpdesk systems enable outsourced teams to work as a virtual-extension of your company to provide the front-line of customer interaction with seamless mechanisms for engaging subject matter experts if needed.

Managing seasonal demand

Seasonality is an issue for online businesses both in fulfilling orders and in providing customer service.  Most industries have peak periods and they have slow periods in their normal business cycles. For example: companies that sell products to consumers are often busiest in the 6 weeks before the Christmas holiday while many home services companies see peak business in warm-weather seasons.  Whatever the cycles are for your business, you will need to plan your resources to scale up for peak demand and scale back resources for slow periods. Your e-commerce service strategy can help you do this by identifying automation investments to support resource intensive activities.  It can also help you schedule activities such as follow-up service calls and marketing campaigns to increase resource utilization during slow periods

Put Your Customer Data to Use

Running an online business means using technology to not only facilitate customer interactions but also to help you operate more effectively and make better business decisions.  Your e-commerce service strategy should include tools and capabilities to support internal operations and decision making. Your customer service and sales staff can be more effective in managing customer interactions if they have accurate and complete information available to guide them.

Use helpdesk tools or other customer service software to capture all customer interaction data.  With each interaction you have with customers, you learn valuable information about who they are, what their challenges and needs are, how they feel about your company (and your competitors), and what the potential sales opportunities are.  Customer service software (sometimes called helpdesk software or CRM software) is a powerful tool to help your company manage all the customer-related data you collect—whether it’s a sales call, search history on your website, chat transcripts, or a warrantee request.  By putting all your customer interaction data in one consistent place, you can make it accessible to all your employees, enabling them to be better informed advisors to your customers.

Develop a knowledge base to drive efficiency.  It is very expensive to solve every problem from scratch each time your staff encounters it.  Customer questions, product features and defects, and operational processes are encountered multiple times. By implementing a knowledge base solution, recurring questions and common information can be captured and made available across your team. Often customer responses can be re-used to ensure situations are addressed consistently, regardless of which of your staff members is interacting with the customer.  Knowledge base data is also helpful to management teams seeking to understand opportunities for making products better and improve the efficiencies of operations.

Measure customer satisfaction to look for trends and take action. Customer satisfaction surveys that capture data about both specific interactions and general sentiment about your company and products are essential tools for any company doing business online.  Technology enabled interactions and self-service capabilities can often obscure visibility to how your customers are feeling and mask opportunities for improvement. Conducting regular satisfaction surveys to ask customers how they feel is important to letting them know you care about them and value their opinions.  Once you’ve collected customer satisfaction data, it is important to measure how well your company is doing, look for trends and underlying issues and use this information for decision making that leads to action. Customers appreciate seeing their feedback resulting in meaningful changes to your offerings and their experiences doing business with you.  If you aren’t measuring customer satisfaction today, you are missing out on valuable business insights.

Putting Your E-commerce Service Strategy Together

The key to success in operating a digital business is to have an e-commerce service strategy that covers the full-breadth of interactions, throughout the customer life cycle.  This includes self-service and other solutions for facilitating customer interaction and the internal systems you use to manage customer data, plan resources and make business decisions.  There are countless options for how your company can implement these digital capabilities, but if you want to be competitive, you first need to ensure that you offer the basic capabilities that customers can get from your competitors.  Then you need to find and implement those capabilities you can excel at and those that will give you a competitive edge.