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E-Service: Retaining Your Customers in the Internet Age

  |  September 13, 2000   |  Comments

Brick-and-mortar retail faces increasing competition, razor-thin margins, and finicky customers. Online retail faces all of these challenges, too, but how can a good web site set itself apart? The answer, or at least one of them, is service. Chris tells you his rules for e-service.

Last time I was at CVS, I went in to buy some Advil. I came out with two magazines, a bag of candy, two cans of soda, some contact lens solution - and a bottle of generic Advil. What does this prove? Either I'm an easy sell, or online retail faces a real uphill battle. I prefer to think it's the latter, but it is more likely both.

Brick-and-mortar retail faces increasing competition, razor-thin margins, and finicky customers. Online retail faces all of these challenges, too. But if I'm at a CVS, chances are that I'm not going to drive to a Walgreens to compare prices on cotton balls. If I'm online, that is exactly what I'll do.

All of this spells big trouble for the online retail segment. Where will the differentiation occur? Price? Forget about it. Product offering? Try again. Brand? Maybe. All of these are important, but how can a good web site set itself apart?

The answer, or at least one of them, is service. Smart people want to buy from smart businesses. We all have at least one story of a company treating us like garbage, and of our personal boycott of that company. What many people don't realize is that we also have our own brand loyalty, and this extends online more than we may realize. Online loyalty is a powerful, but amazingly fragile, force.

If there is one thing to know about me, it is that I can be easily bribed. Last year, Amazon.com sent me a coffee mug, and I haven't bought a book or DVD from any other web site since. Of course, this doesn't mean Amazon has me forever. If it treats me badly, I can click on over to Barnesandnoble.com and be very happy. For the online consumer, this is great news... instant boycott power! For the online retailer that doesn't take its e-service seriously, this is a problem.

Keeping this in mind, here are my rules for e-service:

  1. However long it takes you to get back to your customers, it's too long. When I send you an email about my order, I want to hear back from you in hours, not days.

  2. If you made a mistake, admitting it only goes so far. Falling all over yourself to make up for it by acting fast and giving me free stuff (see the bribery part, above) goes further.

  3. Think "Disney World" when you hire your customer service reps. Have you ever seen unhappy, unfriendly customer service people there?

  4. If there is a problem with your web site, post a message on your web site. Don't make me call.

  5. If you ignore rule number 4, don't make me wait for a representative before I find out that the entire site is down.

  6. Empower your service reps. If they can't make simple decisions, you won't be working at Internet speed.

  7. Build out your infrastructure. If you haven't made self-service easy, start there.

  8. Get outside help. You might think your service is great; too bad you aren't the customer.

E-service is one of the most important things you can do to make sure that your expensive customer-acquisition costs aren't thrown out the window as soon as a simple problem arises. It's important, but not easy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christopher Balfe

Christopher J. Balfe is a Consultant with Accenture in their Communications and High Tech practice. He has helped dozens of companies create and refine their e-business strategies to ensure they are taking advantage of the Internet effectively.

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