When it comes to doing business online, e-commerce is among the most challenging industries to be in—and e-commerce customer service is no joke, either.
The proliferation of platforms like Shopify and WooCommerce makes setting up shop virtually free, so you constantly have to battle nimble entrants trying to steal a slice of the pie.
At the same time, behemoths like Amazon and Walmart are constantly looking to make sure they don’t have to share with anyone.
In this cutthroat environment, delighting customers is the only way e-commerce businesses can carve a place for themselves. Naturally, achieving it is a feat few brands manage to accomplish.
First of all, e-commerce businesses get 3x more conversations than other digital businesses on average:
In addition, the length of each contact in e-commerce is much shorter—a customer can visit your website and decide to buy or abandon in a matter of minutes.
Compared to other industries, you have a very limited amount of time to make a lasting impression and delight a customer.
These two factors combined mean e-commerce brands have to be smarter and more strategic about how they use their resources for customer service.
However, they also create an opportunity for brands to differentiate and inspire loyal following among their customers.
E-commerce customer service as a growth engine
Looking at companies that go through periods of explosive growth, we notice that early on they find and exploit an opportunity for free marketing.
From Hotmail’s fabled Sent from Hotmail email signature to Airbnb’s exploit of Craigslist you’ll have to dig deep to find a company that went through a phase of explosive growth that didn’t profit from such a hack.
In e-commerce, delighting customers should be the first place to look for such an opportunity.
Zappos and Tony Hsieh’s unabashed ambition to make customer service the center of what the brand stands for come to mind when we’re talking about this.
It’s no coincidence that he ties customer service to marketing:
Our philosophy has been to take most of the money we would have spent on paid advertising and invest it into customer service and the customer experience instead, letting our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth.
The purpose of this guide is to give you a repeatable system that you can use to set up your e-commerce customer service program in a way that makes delighting customers a repeatable process.
At Groove, we have found out that such a system contains 4 essential elements. In the following sections, we’ll go over each of these features and discuss how they can help you put customer service at the heart of your company.
Before we get into it, I want to answer a question that keeps popping up every time we start talking about customer service for e-commerce brands.
Should you outsource e-commerce customer service?
With the competitive advantage you can get by delighting your customers, it would be crazy to leave that responsibility in the hands of an external company.
Outsourcing support means you lose control over the experience customers have.
Support is usually the first (and often the only) line of communication customers have with your brand.
Offloading it to another company that doesn’t share your focus on building a brand, can never produce the same results as if you’re running it yourself.
No matter how great they may seem, they will never care about your business as much as you do.
That’s not to say external help should never be considered. In some cases—during a holiday boom or when you’re experiencing a surge in sales—it can be the only way to make sure you scale your support.
However, it would work in those cases only if you have your processes and standards laid out and battle-tested by your own team. This will allow you to add extra capacity successfully because you won’t be ceding the responsibility for how customer service is organized and performed.
However, even in those edge cases, it should always be considered a last resort. In 99% of cases, you’d be much better served by investing in hiring, training, adopting software, and improving processes for your customer service team.
How to organize your e-commerce customer service
Whatever type of e-commerce business you’re operating, going through the following steps will allow you to make the best of your resources for supporting customers.
Start by finding the right customer support software for your online store. This can be a tough job, especially at the beginning, because there are thousands out there. And it’s not just about choosing a shared inbox and a knowledge base tool—there’s chat, bots, reporting, and more to think about. Use tools such as G2’s research hub of live chat software reviews to compare vendors and make the best choice for your company.
Give customers everything they need to solve simple problems
Most people prefer to deal with problems on their own and reach out to customer service only as a last resort:
This is a serious opportunity to lower the burden on your support staff by empowering customers to solve problems themselves.
Make sure all information they might need, such as tutorials, FAQs, a great knowledge base, etc. are available and well-organized on your website.
Building a solid knowledge base is a great investment—the time you spend doing it will be repaid manyfold in the form of hours saved for your customer reps.
Keep an eye out for questions that keep coming up in conversations with customers—these will provide ideas for more tutorials/FAQs you can create.
Another important step is to make sure that all relevant policies—deliveries, returns, etc.—are easy to find on your website and simple to understand.
There’s nothing worse than your customer reps having to explain over and over again why you can’t honor a return.
Case in Point: MantraBand
MantraBand is a brand selling stylish bracelets with inspirational quotes on them.
The brand offers a neatly organized knowledge base to help customers find their way around the website minimizing the need to reach to MantraBand’s team for help:
Notice how the topics in the knowledge base are organized around the most common questions customers ask.
That way MantraBand minimizes the chance that customers get lost looking for an answer, thus helping them solve their problems without ever needing to get in touch with the brand’s staff.
Support customers where they are
Your customers will voice their opinion about your brand in their preferred channel whether you’re present in it or not. Therefore, it’s undoubtedly better to be available and participate in such conversations.
Email, ticketing, live chat, and phone are the most popular and widespread channels you’d want to consider.
More and more customers expect to be able to connect with their favorite brands over social media.
Chat services such as Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and so on present a valuable opportunity to connect with customers in an environment which is less noisy.
The downside of this is that keeping up with a ton of different channels can be a huge challenge.
To find the right balance, make sure you understand what your audience prefers. This is about them, not you.
Track all interactions a customer has with your brand—including offline channels such as phone conversations. You’ll need solid CRM and analytics tools to do this.
This will give you a strong basis to analyze and understand the preferences of your customers and create campaigns that strengthen their relationship with your brand.
Finally, don’t think that simply answering customer complaints is enough. Research shows that for every customer who voices their concerns, there are 26 who never complain:
It is important to proactively listen to the conversations your audience is having about your brand, whether it’s on social media or in offline channels.
Case in point: Nasty Gal
Nasty Gal’s meteoric rise to over $100m in sales has often been attributed to the brand’s success with social media. The company’s prowess at using networks such as MySpace and Facebook was greatly captured in Forbes’ Victoria Barret conclusion that Nasty Gal converts likes into sales.
This success has not been lost on investors either. Danny Rimer of Index Ventures claims that Nasty Gal’s success in forming strong relationships with their customers through social media has been the driving force behind their decision to invest in the company.
Moreover, it seems that the company’s problems, that ultimately led to its bankruptcy, started when founder Sophia Amoruso moved on to work on other projects and took her social media savvy with her.
Combine personalization and automation strategically
NOT sounding like a robot is the basis of good customer service.
Sounds simple, yet, way too many brands still fail to achieve it.
Perhaps paradoxically, automation is the secret sauce of customer support that can allow your team to engage on a personal level with your customers.
Common, low-value tasks—such as emailing confirmations and invoices—can be automated, so that your support reps can focus on the cases where customers need a helping hand.
This is another instance where tracking and collecting all the interactions a customer has with your brand will pay dividends.
Providing support reps with the full information on a customer—recent purchases, previous chats/calls they had with your brand, even links to social media accounts—will allow them to start helping customers immediately, leaving a great impression not just about their personal competency, but about your brand in general.
Having all data in one place will also allow you to ensure consistency for customers across all the channels they use to communicate with your brand.
Case in point: Zappos
Zappos is famous for their dedication to making their customers happy, but in some cases the lengths they go to delight customers are astonishing.
Consider the story of a Zappos customer who forgot to pack her favorite shoes for a trip and wanted to order an extra pair from the website. She contacted customer service when she couldn’t find the model.
The service rep was able to quickly identify the model in question, but unfortunately, the company no longer offered it.
Most stories would end here and customers wouldn’t be unhappy with the brand for it. However, Zappos employees know the company can’t achieve its core value to Deliver WOW Through Service by doing the minimum.
The Zappos employee who was handling the case found that the same model of shoes was offered in a nearby mall. So they bought them and shipped them for free.
Thus, the customer not only got her favorite footwear on time but also received a memorable story to share with friends (unwittingly turning into a brand ambassador).
Zappos, in turn, generated a diehard fan and received a lot of positive PR from the story going viral.
And it all came from empowering service reps with information (being able to quickly identify the product in question) and the consistency not just to talk about customer experience, but to do everything necessary to ensure delight.
Use every opportunity to wow customers
Customer delight is important because it produces specific and tangible benefits to your business in the form of repeat customers.
In the beginning, we discussed that relationships in e-commerce tend to be fleeting with customers coming and going, often never to return.
Pouncing on the opportunity to delight a customer maximizes the chance that you turn them into loyal followers of your brand.
But what exactly does it take to delight a customer?
Many brands assume it’s speed—jumping on each email or ticket and making sure you respond as soon as possible.
And while speed is certainly important, we’ve seen over and over again that empathy matters more. For example, one Gallup survey showed that customers who perceive the treatment they get from a brand as personal, are up to 9x more likely to be fully engaged with that brand:
Often, that requires taking extra time to understand the problem the customer is having so that you can provide an adequate answer.
And while empathy is the basis for ensuring you have happy customers, that doesn’t necessarily translate into loyal customers.
In fact, in many cases, we find that customers score as happy or very happy right before they abandon a brand. The differentiator usually comes in the form of a brand that goes above and beyond what is expected and steals the customer’s heart (and their wallet along with it) as a result.
Case in point: Proposify
A customer complaint coming in the form of a mid-night Twitter rant is not what usually comes to mind when we think about delighting customers.
Still, that is exactly the opportunity that Proposify took in order to serve a customer, turn their frustration into delight, and instill loyalty.
It all started with an angry tweet:
The Proposify team immediately applied the most basic of PR techniques—move the conversation away from public channels.
They reached out by email offering help to the unhappy customer:
The direct, borderline abrasive, reference to slamming the brand on Twitter is not something you’d expect to find in most similar conversations. At least not coming from the customer service team.
Was it risky? Certainly.
But it was also authentic and it still offered explanation and help. Moreover, Proposify even gave a refund to the customer, without them even asking for it.
In a world full of brands that are Really sorry for the inconvenience while doing absolutely nothing to deal with the reason that caused the inconvenience, I’m ready to put my money on the fact that most customers prefer an authentic, even if a bit brash, response.
Proposify’s no-BS, admit our faults approach worked wonders in this case—the customer openly admitted it turned them from a detractor into a promoter.
This is also a great example that shows us that delighting customer is not always about money.
In fact, it rarely is.
By the customer’s own account, the way the team admitted the product wasn’t perfect, acknowledged some of their suggestions, and never tried to make excuses, was just as important as the offer of a free month.
Customer service is the growth engine for e-commerce brands
Recommendations from friends and families are the strongest factor that affects people when they’re making a decision to buy.
That’s why delighting customers and recruiting them to serve as promoters should be the top priority for every e-commerce brand.
To achieve that, brands need to create systems that allow them to scale the highly limited resources they have at their disposal.
We believe that any such system should have 4 critical elements in order to be successful. As we explored in the sections above, these features are:
- Enabling self-service: To free up resources to assist those customers who need help the most
- Supporting customers in their preferred channel: Making sure you’re not missing on conversations about your brand
- Automating and personalizing strategically: Allowing you to keep the human touch with your audience
- Developing a laser-sharp focus on wowing customers: In order to generate repeat buyers and promoters for your brand.
Every brand is different and so are its customers, however, they all share one trait—they like to feel special.
Making customer service part of the core of your brand is the only way to make your audience feel valued. Without doing that, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stand out.
When was the last time your brand delighted a customer? What did it lead to? Share your story in the comments section below.