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For many businesses, the internet is one of the most important channels. Every day, millions upon millions of companies interact with their customers on the web and through internet-connected devices.

But despite the internet’s importance, online customer service often leaves a lot to be desired. Why is that? There are a number of reasons, all of which can be dealt with.

Here are some tips for improving online customer service...

Online customer service is asynchronous

When customers interact with customer service representatives, they often do so in the context of an urgent matter that needs to be resolved.

Yet many digital customer service channels, including email and social media, are asynchronous. This requires customer to wait (im)patiently, and is not always efficient when the problem the customer describes is complex.

How to fix the problem: Segment your customer service channels. For instance, encourage customers facing an emergency to reach out to you via phone for instant gratification.

The written word is difficult

To provide quality online customer service, a company must build a customer service team staffed by individuals capable of writing clearly, concisely and quickly.

Make no mistake: this is often a very difficult task. After all, for a variety of reasons, ‘Customer Service Representative’ probably isn’t the dream job for individuals who love to write.

This means many companies place online customer service in the hands of individuals who, in some instances, may not be capable of communicating effectively with the customers they’re tasked with serving.

How to fix the problem: Recognise that staff members providing customer service online need to be capable writers.

That means assessing the writing capabilities of candidates before they’re hired and assigning the best writers to online customer service roles.

Audiovisual cues are missing

In many cases, the difference between a happy customer and an angry customer is a smile or a word stated kindly. Unfortunately, demonstrating emotion (and empathy) in an email or online chat can be difficult.

This increases the likelihood that an online customer service representative will ‘misread’ a customer, or write something that is easily misread by the customer.

How to fix the problem: Make sure customer service representatives understand the limitations of online customer service.

Through training, make sure online customer representatives recognise that the written word has a tone of its own and that they understand email etiquette basics.

The computer produces keyboard warriors

Let’s face it: customer service is often a thankless job. Customers can be rude and in the worst cases, unfathomably abusive.

One of the reasons for this is that it’s far easier to say nasty things when you’re doing so in the comfort of your home staring into a computer monitor.

But this regrettable dynamic cuts both ways. Because online customer service representatives aren’t dealing with customers in a face-to-face environment, it’s just as easy for them to treat customers poorly when customers treat them poorly, or when they’re simply having a bad day.

How to fix the problem: Know your customer service representatives. Assigning those who are most experienced, empathetic and patient will usually reduce the likelihood that you grow an army of keyboard warriors.

Popular channels are often the wrong channels

Should companies use Twitter and Facebook for customer service? Of the companies that are, some, not surprisingly, are more successful than others.

There’s a reason for that. Popular channels are often attractive but they’re not always appropriate.

Twitter, for instance, seems like a natural customer service channel, but it has a number of significant limitations that perhaps make it less-than-ideal.

Companies may be able to address some of these issues, but many won’t. In fact, many won’t even identify – much less respect – the limitations.

At the end of the day, the rush to popular channels often results in customer service experiences that are lacking.

How to fix the problem: Don’t rush to provide customer service in every popular channel, at least until you are ready to provide the kind of service that customers expect. 

A multichannel customer service strategy requires that you offer customer service across multiple channels, not all channels. Pick the ones that work best and forget the rest.

Companies lack the tools of the trade

There are plenty of tools available to companies that can help improve the quality of their online customer service. Help desk software, for instance, is quite popular and there are many vendors selling various flavours of it.

CRM software can often contribute to better customer service experiences and outcomes as well.

Yet many companies, particularly smaller ones, haven’t equipped themselves with these basic customer service tools. In many cases, they’re using the customer service equivalent of the horse-and-buggy, manually tracking and responding to emails using an email client like Outlook.

How to fix the problem: Invest. There are plenty of affordable customer service tools for companies on a budget, so there’s no excuse for not having digital tools to help with digital customer service.

Companies under-invest in self-help content

Every customer service request carries with it both cost and risk. Obviously, it takes time to deal with a request, and if a request isn’t handled to the customer’s satisfaction, a customer could become a former customer.

Understandably, most companies hope they won’t have to provide more customer service than they absolutely have to. In other words, they hope to do such a good job that the customer’s need for hand holding is minimal.

Online, companies have a unique opportunity to help customers help themselves. From FAQs to online video tutorials, the web lends itself to the distribution of self-help content that can minimise inbound customer service requests.

Unfortunately, many companies under-invest in the creation of self-help content, if they invest in it at all, making it more difficult for customers to resolve minor issues without taking the time to fire off an email or make a phone call.

How to fix the problem: Help yourself by helping your customers to help themselves. There are few excuses today for not offering self-help content, such as FAQs.

It’s also important to remember that this content should be dynamic. As you learn what ails your customers, make sure your self-help content is updated accordingly.

Online customer service is often understaffed

When it comes to determining how many customer service representatives you need to handle incoming requests through online channels, it’s really easy to underestimate.

As noted, online customer service is usually asynchronous, so it’s easy to assume that one person can handle a significant volume of requests.

Of course, there are limits. If you’re receiving 200 customer service emails each day, for instance, it’s probably going to be pretty difficult to deal with them all efficiently and effectively if you have a single person manning the fort.

But that doesn’t mean many companies don't try to do just that.

How to fix the problem: Be realistic about how many online requests a single customer service representative can handle.

Remember that dealing with a single online request can often take more time than dealing with several phone calls, particularly when addressing a complex problem.

Companies don’t know how badly they need it

Why is online customer service so horrible? In many cases, there’s an interesting answer to that question: companies don’t know how desperately they need it.

Online, if you’re not looking, it can be quite easy not to notice all of the signals that indicate customer service is lagging.

Online retailers, for instance, that don’t closely monitor shopping cart abandonment may never know that they have problems related in some part to customer service, or for which customer service has a role in solving.

As a result, they never up their customer service games.

How to fix the problem: Understand that online customer service isn’t a silo. The information gleaned from analytics data, for instance, often has significant implications for customer service strategy.

Graham Charlton

Published 5 October, 2011 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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Lucy

Bad customer service comes down to one thing: someone, somewhere, has forgotten that the ONLY point of going into business is to part the customer from their money. Everything has to go into making this process as easy and pain-free as possible. It's amazing how many companies seem to have forgotten that if someone wants to give you money for your goods or services, you should let them.

almost 5 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

"‘Customer Service Representative’ probably isn’t the dream job for individuals who love to write. "

I never looked at it like that before, but you raise a good point. You might have a great customer service representative who does fantastic on the phone, but isn't good at using Twitter as a way to address issues. I think you could use Twitter to initiate contact and then pull the customer into a form of communication the customer service rep. is more confident with.

almost 5 years ago

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Paul Luxon

Interesting article that raises a number of issues/questions. One of the other fundamental reasons though that on-line customer service is poor is that the 'customer service' element of a Brand's on-line presence is simply overlooked. Lots of businesses are so busy looking to drag you in to the on-line shop that they have not spent the time and energy (and often investment) on defining an appropriate strategy for providing outstanding 'customer experience' regardless of the channel a customer chooses to use. Too often businesses 'fire fight' these challenges rather than build and implement longer-term stategic solutions - let's hope that changes!

almost 5 years ago

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verygoodservice

Very comprehensive post. Interestingly, some companies manage to integrate the channels very well and we have seen a case of Twitter + email + phone + letter to solve a problem very efficiently over a 48h period - possible if one person follows the case as opposed to passing it around. It is not the case all around unfortunately...

almost 5 years ago

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Romero Cavalcanti

Great post. As a consultant I get frustrated by companies and their efforts to not speak to the customer. Online customer service is definitely the name of the game. I am interested in create new metrics for companies. Because I have thought about it... Like all good metrics, the SMCS (Social Media Customer Service) isn't about the numbers alone, is about new perceptions, behaviors and strategies to continuously create trust for customers. The new metrics has important implications for strategy. Where to Begin: First, companies can’t assess social media performance as if it existed in a vacuum. Second, the new metrics makes it possible to craft strategies that directly affect companies performance and then measure the impact on social media. Greetings from Brazil.

almost 5 years ago

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Clare O'Brien, Senior Industry Programmes Manager at IAB

I think all the above are important and relevant tools and techniques for improving the delivery of customer service via digital channels. So thanks - this is a really useful checklist.

However, implementing digital customer service delivery at these levels simply won't happen until (as a few have noted) customer service - the post sales, not insignificant portion of the customer life-cycle - is represented as completely as marketing in the digital thinking process. But CS will never have an equal voice as long as organisations continue to place their digital budget with marketing - the part of the business tasked and rewarded to acquire customers... marketing has no interest in keeping customers. I just don't understand why digital channels are not commonly managed across the customer life-cycle.

I was always taught that 70% of my revenues would come from existing customers. Now that customers have much more power to walk away, I wonder what that % is these days?

Clare

almost 5 years ago

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Innes

One of the issues behind this that I see is the fact businesses today look at seo and being on the 1st page of google as being most important. They don't quite grasp the fact their website has to be able to communicate well and engage well with whoever is on and visiting their website.

almost 5 years ago

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