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Ecommerce is becoming the fuel that powers the retail industry.

The US Department of Commerce actually attributed most of the retail industry's growth to ecommerce, saying that it was the driving force when automobile and gas purchases weren't factored into the equation. 

As ecommerce grows, so should technological advances.

We've seen close to instant gratification for customers thanks to Dash Buttons, Google Shopping Express, and pizza delivery apps, just to name a few.

While these are without a doubt impressive advancements, retailers are still struggling in important areas, namely customer service.

 

In a survey done by SDL, a British software company, research shows that 76% of consumers have actually had their worst customer experience with a business in the past two years.

So while the ecommerce industry is expanding rapidly, retailers seem to be having a hard time keeping up in the customer service department.

This sentiment was echoed in a recent letter from Restoration Hardware CEO, Gary Friedman.

After Restoration Hardware posted sub-par Q4 results, he wrote a scathing letter highlighting customer service issues to his employees.

The letter was full of colorful language and metaphors, with many saying he went too far. However, he brought up a really good point.

Customer service is important as it builds loyalty and has a direct effect on your brand value.

There are a couple of ways you can deliver awesome customer service that would cool down Friedman's fiery letter, and it comes in three different forms.

1. Accommodate the shopper digitally & in-person

One of the best ways to please your customers is to improve your omnichannel experience.

That means using your digital and physical channels hand-in-hand to provide a seamless experience for your customer.

Why? Because 73% of customers browse digital channels before visiting a store.

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This means they enter your store with expectations. Let's say they found a pair of black shoes they liked online, so they visit your brick-and-mortar location to try them on and see how they fit.

They discover your store doesn't have the pair in black, but brown.

This consumer decides to try on the brown just to see how they fit, but now there's a major obstacle: they can't get the black ones right then and there. 

Nordstrom solved this problem by developing a mobile POS system that allows the salesperson to check inventory at nearby stores or online, and make a purchase at that very moment.

In this situation, the shopper can either go to another store or make the purchase right then and there, and that's exactly what happens.

By equipping your store with free WiFi, you can even have the shopper make the purchase themselves.

Nordstrom knows that 90% of their customer base uses smartphones regularly, and this is just one way they perfectly blend their mobile and brick-and-mortar channels.

2. Live chat and beyond 

If you're a pure play online retailer, you are obviously missing a key part of that story.

While many have chosen to open brick-and-mortar locations to foster those situations, some retailers may not be ready to invest in physical spaces just yet.

However, it's still possible to improve your online services to rival that of a brick and mortar store's.

One retailer who has driven home brick-and-mortar benefits in an ecommerce store is Zappos.

The company has become synonymous with customer service, and for good reasons.

It was offering live chat, free shipping, and a long return window, among other things, before most retailers even considered it.

Zappos set the bar for pure play retailers, but some have exceeded it by changing the game entirely.

Warby Parker and Trunk Club succeed by giving shoppers the ability to try items on in their homes and then choosing to return for free or keep them.

By using personal stylists, shoppers get the experience of shopping at a department store like Nordstrom without ever leaving their house. 

3. Policies that just make sense

If a shopper is not happy with a purchase they made online, why should they have to be stuck with it?

That's what went through the mind of REI as they assembled arguably the most lenient return policy of all time: hassle-free returns on any item in any condition purchased however long ago.

Their logic was that they make some of the best equipment in the outdoor world, and the customer should always be satisfied with a purchase.

This gave REI the nickname "return every item", and in 2013 they limited the return period to one year after purchase.

But there are still retailers with return policies dictated by their brand image, like Patagonia.

The branded retailer is a certified B-corporation, meaning they exist to benefit a cause.

In Patagonia's case the cause is environmentalism. For this reason, it has offered a recycling and repair program for damaged clothing.

Patagonia encourages shoppers to ship damaged products back to the company where it will repair the item at a "fair price", and return it back to the customer.

If a shopper is just unhappy with a purchase, they can return the item to any Patagonia store for a replacement, credit, or refund.

These policies are perfectly in-line with Patagonia's brand, and is just one reason why it is one of the biggest names in outdoor retail.

Using customer service to help your branding efforts is a great way to get ahead of the competition.

Gary Friedman has brought an extremely important issue into the limelight. Companies are often so preoccupied with developing new technologies that they forget their fuel: the customer.

Don't get me wrong, developing innovative technologies is important.

But finding innovative ways to improve the online user experience can help you keep up with the rapidly expanding world of ecommerce.

Arie Shpanya

Published 10 March, 2016 by Arie Shpanya

Arie is the founder and executive chairman of Wiser and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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