10 Customer Service Secrets


The web is a great place to do customer service. It is where people go to find answers fast. It provides a way for customers to navigate their way through lots of content to find the particular piece of information they need. It is open seven days a weeks, 24 hours a day. In fact, according to industry observers, web-based customer service (also known as "eService") is one of the biggest business opportunities on the web.

Unfortunately, most companies fail to effectively exploit the web's full potential as a customer service vehicle. Some fail because they do not recognize just how powerful of a business tool web-based customer service can be. Some fail because they never develop a practical process for capturing the information their customers want and quickly getting it onto their site - or they fail to keep such information properly updated. Others fail to adequately integrate web self-service with their email and call center channels. Others leave out some of the key functions that make web customer service really "click" - such as store locators or remote web session control.

There is a cost for such failure. Companies that do not develop effective Internet customer service wind up spending far more on customer support than their competitors - as much as 20 times more per incident. That is because, without effective customer service, companies must rely on their over-burdened, high-cost call centers to answer even the most routine and repetitive customer inquiries. Companies with poor service also lose customers, since web users get frustrated quickly and head elsewhere.

Web-based customer service is a great way to habituate customers to using your web site, thereby creating other opportunities to lower transaction costs, execute cross- and up-selling strategies, and otherwise leverage the Internet as a business tool. And, because it is so scalable, web-based customer service offers an extremely cost-effective solution for dealing with the inevitable peaks and valleys in your service incident volume. That is why web-based service has become such a hot topic for business and technology managers alike.

This white paper distills the experience and best practices of successful web-based service implementers from a wide range of industries. It also provides a simple test for determining your company's Service Quotient, or "SQ". With this insider information, you will be able to plan and implement your own customer service strategy - and join the ranks of successful Internet service pioneers who have significantly lowered their per-incident customer support costs while consistently delighting their customers and strengthening their Internet presence.

Why Web-based Customer Service?

As it becomes increasingly popular and well traveled, the web is rapidly changing. Just a few short years ago, it was enough for a business to put up a site that had a modest amount of information on its products or services, with a phone number to contact if the visitor wanted to order something or ask questions. This static "brochureware" content treated the web as an online Yellow Pages, where the main idea was to make sure you were properly listed.

Things have really changed. Now, the web is an intensively interactive medium and an online extension of the business itself. Companies use the web to buy, sell, recruit staff, solicit bids and make referrals. It is also a great place to support customers and forge closer relationships with them.

That means it is also a great place to lose customers, too.

How do you lose customers on the web? The same way you lose them in the "real" world: you do not respond to their needs. Unfortunately, many executives who would have a heart attack if their sales and service staffs were unresponsive or ignorant about the company's products do not show the same concern about having an unresponsive or ignorant web site. Their web sites cannot answer customers' questions. They take too long to reply to customer emails - or they fail to reply at all.

Keep in mind that a fundamental aspect of the web's appeal is the immediate gratification it offers. When someone comes to your web site, they want to quickly find the information they need to make a buying decision or solve a problem. So web visitors are very sensitive to delays. It may be only a matter of seconds before a visitor gives up his or her search, and tries looking elsewhere.

This puts tremendous pressure on the two groups who develop web content: marketing and customer service. They must somehow anticipate the possible needs of all types of visitors, from clueless newcomers to long-time customers. This is clearly a tough job, and in today's resource-constrained business environment, it is not a job that anyone wants to spend a lot of time doing.

Fortunately, you do not have to. Internet customer service innovators have proven that you can answer a tremendous percentage of customers' questions online without spending money and time you do not have.

But before we look at how they accomplished this, let us look at who they are and what they have been able to do.

Ten Secrets for Successful Web-Based Customer Service

As these companies and others prove, effective customer service is actually a very achievable goal - even for companies with relatively limited resources. It simply requires the right principles, practices and tools.

  • Make sure your web site can "listen" to customers - Every successful salesperson knows the most important part of their job is listening - both for explicit and implicit messages from the customer. Web sites should do the same. Explicit messages are clear requests for specific information. Implicit messages are patterns of queries or usage that imply a difficulty in finding some type of content. Effective customer service requires mechanisms and/or practices that ensure an attentive ear to both types of messages from customers.
  • Give customers what they want - quickly - Once you have "heard" what kind of information customers want, you have to give it to them - quickly. The web is all about immediacy. So whether it is getting new information posted onto your site or responding to incoming emails, your service solution must enhance your ability to respond quickly. Do not confuse this with the rapid posting of information marketers want to put on your site. Quality customer service requires the rapid posting of customer-driven content.
  • Make customer service resources easy-to-find and easy-to-use - Great content is not much use if customers cannot find it easily. That is why content has to be well-organized into hierarchical "containers" that reflect the way users actually think about and search for content - not how a web site manager guesses they might. It is also important to always give customers the ability to turn to email, live chat or a live operator.
  • Integrate all your communications channels - Different customers will use different communications channels at different times. So it is important to be able to leverage your knowledge base across all channels and to be able to track incidents across all channels as well. That way, when customers call you after exchanging emails with you, they won't have to repeat everything they explained in their emails - and vice versa. The result: happier customers and faster problem resolution.
  • The "80/20" rule - Successful customer service does not require the ability to answer every conceivable customer question online. More than 80% of all customer questions are usually answered by just 20% of a support knowledge base. In fact, studies show that web-based customer service implementers have been able to answer 86% of all customer queries online with a relatively small, focused set of knowledge items. It is more important to get started with a web-based customer service solution than it is to develop the "perfect" service/support knowledge base. Smart companies get the most important information up first, and then add to it over time.
  • Let your customers rate you - You cannot improve what you do not measure. That is why it is important to let users rate the effectiveness of the knowledge items they find on your web site as well as any email replies received in response to their requests for help. Using this feedback, you quickly weed out content that is not helpful - thereby improving your site's effectiveness as a service/support resource for customers.
  • Leverage your knowledge base - It is worth creating a knowledge base just for web-based service; but you can achieve even greater return on investment (ROI) by leveraging that knowledge base across all your customer interaction channels (i.e. web, email, chat and phone). For example, the same knowledge base customers use to get their questions answered online can also be used by new call center operators as an information resource - helping them become more productive more quickly.
  • Connect the online world to the real world - One of the most important strategic imperatives for retailers, companies that sell through distributors and many others, is to link online operations with real-world facilities. After all, many customers come to a web site as a prelude to visiting a store or service center. And one of the best ways to do this is to include a searchable database of real-world locations in your online service resources. It is also important to supplement street addresses with maps and driving directions to ensure that your customers can get where they want to go without getting lost!
  • Consider hosted applications - At a time when companies have a limited ability to buy, implement and manage new technologies, many successful web-based service implementers are turning to a hosted model. This approach eliminates the capital cost of software and hardware as well as the staffing requirements associated with implementing and maintaining a web-based customer service solution. Hosted systems let companies rapidly reap the benefits of web-based service without disrupting their existing IT operations.
  • Buy experience along with your technology - Online customer service technologies can be very powerful. But you have to know what you are doing to get the most out of them. That is why the smart web-based service implementers look for a source of substantial customer service experience to complement the technologies they acquire. Best practices like those listed here are extraordinarily valuable. So it makes sense to partner with someone who can apply those best practices to your company's online/offline customer service initiatives.
  • These ten simple principles can make the difference between successful, high-ROI customer service and a failure to take full advantage of the Internet as a medium for superior customer service. In a market climate where every competitive advantage counts, few companies can afford to miss out on the outstanding bottom line benefits that effective web-based customer service offers.

    Bottom Line Benefits of Web-Based Customer Service

    Companies that implement effective web-based customer service solutions find they benefit in numerous ways - many of them totally unexpected. The bottom line rewards they have experienced include:

  • Reduced cost of customer service - When customers help themselves at a web site instead of having to call a conventional help desk, savings can range from $10-$45 per incident. By continuously adding customer-driven content to the site, the percentage of customers who can help themselves online also increases, dramatically reducing overall customer support costs.
  • Faster customer service and increased satisfaction - People hate to sit on "hold." When they can help themselves on a web site, they can get faster answers to their most pressing questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also develop the perception that the company site they are visiting has a good handle on its customers' needs - thereby strengthening their overall confidence in that company.
  • Increased use of lower cost online transaction channels - For most companies, sales over the web provide lower transaction costs than those made over the phone or in a retail location. Good customer service encourages customers to use the web site more often, which means they become more likely to use it for transaction and support. Web-based service thus lowers your company's cost of sales.
  • The ability to scale to meet peak seasonal volumes - A big problem many companies with seasonal patterns of buying often face is ramping up to support peak seasonal volumes. Usually, this means adding call center operators temporarily. But how many do you add? If you add too many, you will waste money on excess capacity. If you add too few, you will not be able to respond in a timely manner to your customers. An effective customer service solution - especially a hosted one-can easily scale as needed to meet any volume of traffic, without requiring guesswork or potential over-spending on additional infrastructure.
  • Freeing up staff - One of the main constraints on most companies' online efforts is the limited number of staff members who understand the business and the Internet. By automating the generation and management of online support resources, web-based customers service relieves these precious employees of having to perform many repetitive - yet critical tasks time-sensitive tasks - thereby freeing them to support other strategic projects.
  • The bottom line? Responsive, automated, service delivers concrete business advantages, day in and day out. Online customer service is also rapidly becoming a competitive necessity, as more and more companies make their web sites a primary channel for low-cost, customer-pleasing service and support.

    What is Your Company's SQ?

    Because web-based service effectiveness has become an important factor in every company's overall business strategy, now is a good time to assess the quality of your own company's Service Quotient, or SQ. This simple test will help you determine just how healthy your company's service strategy really is, and allow you to pinpoint where it could use improvement.

    SQ Evaluation Questions Yes No Don't Know
    Can your customers quickly find answers to their most frequently asked questions on your web site?   
    Can they easily check on the status of the response they previously requested?   
    Do you respond to all customer emails within one business day?   
    Does the content on your site change automatically based on customer input?   
    Are the most useful and/or commonly requested knowledge items presented first?   
    Do customers have an easy way to get to a human support staffer?   
    Do your customers consistently return to your site to get information?   
    Do you have any way of determining whether or not they do?   
    Are you tracking the activity that has taken place on your site on a week-by-week basis?   
    Do those reports help you determine the ROI of the site?   
    Do you give visitors the option to have updates sent to them automatically by email?   
    Are you consistently using your web site to capture and publish useful information that is currently only in the heads of your best staff?   
    Have you off-loaded telephone calls to your call center that could be handled without human intervention on your web site?   
    Do customers ever praise your company because they found your site especially helpful?   
    Can customers find local retailers or distributors on your site - complete with maps and/or directions?   
    Can you view both the email and call history of any given incident from a single interface?   
    Are the answers you give your customers on the phone the same as the ones you give them on your web site?   

    If you were able to answer "Yes" to ten or more of the questions above, congratulations. You are well on your way to becoming another success story. If not, then it is probably time to re-evaluate how you are using the web to support and service your customers - before your competition gets too far ahead of you!