The Elements of Good Online Customer Service

Editor’s note: Subscriber’s to Blake’s articles will note the change in column name from CRM Strategies to Connecting With the Consumer, which is more in line with the type of ClickZ content Blake has been writing for more than a year now. And, of course, you’ve also noticed the change in publication date — from Thursdays to Tuesdays. Stay tuned for some more (pleasant) surprises. And, as always, we look forward to receiving your feedback.


Customer service. This is the wonderful thing behind such slogans as “We love to see you smile,” “We try harder,” and “Your business is important to us. Please continue to hold.” Most of us need customer service at some time or another. Online, where the customer is alone, good service is vital.

A recent study, commissioned by WorldCom and conducted by Modalis Research Technologies, took a look at customer service elements, their use, and the satisfaction they provide.

Several key lessons can be learned from this study to help achieve the service nirvana our customers deserve.

Online customer service is a must. Everyone (virtually) uses it. According to the study, 98 percent of U.S. consumers have used some element of online customer service. That is a pretty high proportion, so it would behoove any Web site to expend energy to create online customer service solutions. However, keep in mind…

People want to talk with people. Though almost all people have used online customer service, 86 percent of U.S. consumers have visited a Web site to find a company’s customer service phone number. A bit ironic, but the most popular use of online customer service is searching for offline customer service. Just because the Internet exists doesn’t mean that it is the optimal customer service venue. There are still some elements that don’t provide what customers need, which means that…

The Internet isn’t necessarily the best option, but it’s pretty good. The study found that satisfaction with various elements of Internet customer service isn’t what we hoped for. According to the respondents, only 43 percent were satisfied with email as a customer service vehicle. Thirty-four percent were satisfied with Web sites in general as a mode of customer service. These numbers, however, compare decently with the level of satisfaction with traditional means of customer service, such as by telephone and in person, which satisfied 46 percent and 49 percent, respectively. U.S. mail and fax got abysmal scores of 24 percent satisfaction. Much of the satisfaction seems to hinge on real-time connections with other human beings, which may be why…

The future could be very bright. New methods of online customer service, though still in their infancy, both in development and in use, could bring new levels of customer happiness. Online vehicles for customer service, such as instant messaging (IM) and online chat, combine the best features of offline and online customer service. Customers get the immediate, personal, human attention, with the convenience of at-home instant access (plus no infuriating phone trees to navigate). IM has been used only by 6 percent of U.S. consumers as a vehicle for customer service, but it satisfied 45 percent of the users. Online chat, used by 12 percent, satisfied 62 percent of them, the highest score of all methods studied. This is impressive, and it is the possible beginning of a new era of customer satisfaction. Which doesn’t mean we should forget that…

The simple things count. Do not abandon the relatively easy methods of satisfying customers’ need for information; this is the “low-hanging fruit” of corporatespeak. Don’t forget the 86 percent mentioned above who used Web sites to find phone numbers. Sixty-two percent of consumers used a Web site’s frequently asked questions (FAQ) or accessed online help guides. Seventy-five percent “looked for specific information to troubleshoot [the] problem.” The beauty of (good) online customer service is that it allows those who wish to do so to solve their own problems. According to the study, 56 percent of respondents think that the Internet provides “most answers,” but they sometimes have to talk to a real person. The more solutions you can provide online, the happier your customers will be.

Good online customer service is possible. You just have to want to give it. We often don’t provide enough or relevant information on our sites because we know all the answers and have a hard time imagining what our customers will need to find out (which is why the FAQ works so well: You provide the answers to the questions your customers most often ask). However bad online customer service is, though, it still beats getting caught in an endless “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize that response, please enter your account number and press pound” loop.

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