Going up against behemoths like Amazon and Walmart can leave you feeling outclassed, outgunned, and outfunded. But, good news. E-commerce customer service is one of the last bastions where small absolutely crushes big.
Competition is fierce in the e-commerce world. You don’t need me to tell you that.
In the US, 10 companies now control 60.3% of all online retail sales. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of product searches begin on Amazon. And by 2021, fully 70.1% of all digital shoppers are expected to join the Amazon Prime parade.
With trillions in their war chests, the big names have conditioned customers to expect one- to two-day turnarounds, unlimited inventory, and rock-bottom prices.
But, expectations are meant to be exceeded. Especially when it comes to e-commerce customer service.
Are the behemoths really that good at catering to the customer? Do they provide personal support at scale? Are they innovating with the customer in mind?
Simply put: No. In fact, according to this year’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, “There is no improvement in the online shopping experience compared to a year ago—and most aspects have gotten worse.”
Every major online retailer tracked year-over-year declined. And take one guess which category ranks second to last. Yep, “helpfulness of customer support.”
The truth is going up against the big names as a “small” name can be a huge advantage.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to creatively offload customer support requests, without offloading your customers or support itself. You’ll learn how to automate and integrate support using your current resources.
And we’ll show you how using the right tools — combined with five best practices — can make your business more personal, not less. While still getting more done.
What is e-commerce customer service?
E-commerce customer service provides the framework for supporting shoppers via e-commerce platforms and throughout their life cycles. Support for online businesses must account for the unique challenges involved with serving digital consumers:
- High volumes of service and support requests
- Common questions related to products, fulfillment, and returns
- As well as the need to monitor multiple channels with fast response times
Amidst those concerns, customer experience reigns supreme. Your service team is tasked (quite literally) with being the voice of your brand—the one human touchpoint in an otherwise transaction and digital world.
For early stage companies, the fear of disjointed voices may not be as pressing. Likely because the people talking to customers are the same people who started the business. And that’s what customers love about small businesses.
But you will outgrow—or burnout from—the demanding job of customer support.
Your brand’s central voice will dissipate away from the core stakeholders. And this is where the big e-commerce stores fail. They accept this as an inevitability and focus on process rather than emotion. Because it’s easier to scale.
It’s possible to do both. Moreover, it’s necessary.
5 e-commerce customer service best practices
“Best practices” tend to veer into hypotheticals. Lots of general advice that leaves you thinking, “Isn’t this common sense?”
Instead, we’ve paired it down to five tangible action items, each including examples and next steps, so you’ll know exactly how to move forward.
1. Pick an inbox that integrates with your e-commerce platform
Choose the best customer support software for your online store to create a solid foundation for customer service. Start by evaluating the tool agents use the most: The inbox.
A shared inbox allows your team to keep up with customer requests and stay organized.
For e-commerce specifically, make sure your inbox offers an integration with your store’s platform to streamline your workflow. Tracking and collecting all the interactions a customer has with your brand in one place will pay dividends.
An integration with your e-commerce platform allows support reps to see a total customer breakdown: Recent purchases, previous chats or calls, links to social media accounts, etc.
Moreover, your software should allow you to respond not just within the inbox, but through whatever service channel your customer initiated contact. Agents can respond quicker, and with more context, to every inquiry.
Other helpful help-desk features include:
- Personalized folders for agents or teams
- Priority folders sorted by severity of the request
- Channel-based folders to separate submission sources
- Folders for starred conversations you want to pay attention to
- Time-based folders so nothing, and nobody, falls through the cracks
Even though I’m showing off Groove in this article—which is understandable, right?—I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. Naturally, we think Groove is the best. 😉
But there’s always a chance it won’t be the right fit for your company.
For a tool-by-tool comparison, check out A Better Lemonade Stand’s 7 Customer Service Helpdesks for Ecommerce Stores: How Do They Compare?
2. Make self-service (knowledge base) your e-commerce frontline
A knowledge base empowers prospective customers to make informed purchases by providing detailed answers to common questions. After they make a purchase, self-service reduces support volume and increases customer satisfaction.
Why? Because online shoppers genuinely want to help themselves…
To do this, the first step is ensuring you have a knowledge base. If you don’t, we put together a practical guide on how to create one. Then, keep your help center well organized—with clear sections and tutorials—so customers can easily find what they’re looking for.
Building a solid knowledge base saves both your customers’ and your customer service team’s time.
Make sure that all relevant information (faqs, deliveries, return policy, etc.) is easy to find through Google too. Eliminate yet another step in providing answers to your customers’ questions.
3. Measure and optimize what matters through smart reporting
From a business-wide perspective, there’s plenty to measure in e-commerce.
In fact, I’ve written extensively about both SaaS and e-commerce customer experience metrics: A guide that (to be honest) almost murdered me during the creation process!
The good news is—if I can master e-commerce customer analytics—anyone can. There you’ll find 10 metrics and step-by-step instructions for each…
The even better news here is we can boil all that down to a handful of customer-related key-performance indicators (KPIs) within your helpdesk.
For e-commerce, you’ll want to track metrics like customer happiness, total conversations per day, and tag insights.
Aim to reduce total conversations with a comprehensive knowledge base and website. See if you can improve customer happiness by personalizing responses or reducing response time. And encourage your team to tag trending topics as they see them, so you can alter the product or create a new knowledge base article.
Lastly, combine and monitor bottom-line metrics—like retention, repeat orders, and onsite reviews and rating—alongside your service-specific reporting.
4. Automate everything you can, without losing the personal touch
How? Most likely, you already automate a host of transaction messages: Order confirmations, receipts, and shipping notifications.
What you might not be automating are all the one-off or recurring conversations your customers send when they hit a snag. Common, low-value tasks—like “Where’s my order?” or “How do I return this?”—should likewise be automated so that your support reps can focus on more challenging cases.
But don’t overlook the obvious: Letting customers know you got their request and that you’re on it. During a recent study of ~1,000 small, medium, and large companies across the globe:
The easiest way to avoid those pitfalls is to set-up a personalized auto-reply that, instead of reading like bot-inspired gobbledygook…
Reads like one human talking to another, while still being honest that it’s an “automatic reply”…
You can even set up automations to target specific customers with specific needs.
From that auto-reply foundation, you should also leverage what we at Groove call canned replies. Saved templates for common conversations you can add, edit, and send with just a few clicks:
Keep these replies creative, thoughtful, and in your brand’s voice. Just because it’s automated doesn’t mean it needs to sound like a robot.
5. Meet your e-commerce customers on the channels they prefer
Today’s customers have certain assumptions when it comes to communication. Online shoppers expect to be able to connect with their favorite brands over social media, email, real-time messaging, offline support channels, and phone calls.
But keeping up with a ton of different channels can be a huge challenge and hurt your team’s response time.
Unless you know how to connect it all through your helpdesk…
For example, here’s how we integrate Twitter within the Groove inbox for our own customer service:
Rather than force an agent to stop what they’re doing and check social media every day (or hour), funnel all your communications through the inbox with integrations.
That same simple process also applies to Facebook:
As for live chat and phone support? Absolutely. Both of those sources should likewise be integrated into your centralized help desk software—along with any other communication channels you know your customers care about and use:
No missed messages. And no wasted time moving between platforms.
When you proactively listen to your customers’ conversations, whether they happen within your own inbox or through offline channels, you can better serve their needs.
Two bonus e-commerce best practices
6. Outsource e-commerce customer service cautiously
Support is usually the first (and often the only) line of communication customers have with your brand. Offloading it to another company is a big risk.
However, that doesn’t mean outsourcing support is a nonstarter. In some cases (during a holiday boom or when you’re experiencing a surge in sales), it may be the only way to quickly scale your support.
“When businesses grow past $10M-$20M in revenue—larger than five customer service representatives—leaders often find it challenging to maintain quality and keep costs within budget.
“By $50M in revenue, scaling the same level of customer experience in-house as when they were a smaller company is very challenging.
“Here’s how Gavin Storey from Tipsy Elves described scaling internally as at a recent virtual summit for the CXLife community:
It was well-intended, but it turns into the blind leading the blind. You have a new, temporary supervisory team leading a new, temporary staffing team and all you’re doing is managing. You’re putting out fires. You’re being reactionary. You can’t be responsive.
“This is where it may start to make sense to look at a third-party partner (often called a call center or business process outsourcer BPO). Outsourcing customer service can provide a brand with resources to handle much higher volumes with consistent execution by leveraging their playbook. This also can save a company between 20-50% in customer service costs while also expanding hours of operations to cover more hours and days.”
What were the outsourcing results for Gavin?
“Our CSAT rating is higher than it has ever been historically. It’s consistently maintaining that pace and we would never have been able to do that, taking it on our own.”
If you’re considering this, have your own team test and finalize your processes first. Then, clearly lay out your standards to the third party. Directives and priorities should still come from you.
For business below ~$10 million in annual sales, the right move is to hire, train, adopt software, and improve processes for your own customer service team. Only into eight figures should you begin looking for a trusted partner who you can thoroughly vet by…
- Visiting their facilities
- Test driving the experience without their knowledge
- And interviewing existing clients with similar needs and customers
7. Take every opportunity to ‘wow’ customers, cause the big names don’t
With customers quickly coming and going, relationships in e-commerce tend to be fleeting. If you can provide an absolutely spectacular customer experience though, you maximize the chance of them remaining loyal.
But what exactly does it take to delight a potential customer?
Many companies assume it’s speed. When you prioritize response time above all else though, other factors fall to the wayside.
Often, these expectations require taking extra time to fully understand the problem and respond with empathy. Give your team the time and creative space to wow customers whenever they see an opportunity.
Excellent customer service is the growth engine for e-commerce brands
Without a doubt, great customer service offers a competitive advantage. It’s one of the few present and future e-commerce trends that endures no matter how crowded the marketplace becomes. Everyone acknowledges this, but few understand how to properly implement it.
Start with the right tools to set up a strong foundation. Then, create systems to allow your support team to scale their resources.
The most important of those resources being your brand’s unique voice and ability to form personal connections.