If you have ever paid for anything online you will know that web customer service sucks.

As soon as anything goes wrong and you need support, the quality of service almost always takes a turn for the worse.

It’s hardly surprising that, according to this post, 80% of consumers have quit a transaction part way through and 60% have lost their temper with a customer service representative.

This infographic published on Econsultancy last year drive home the problem with customer service.

This infographic published on Econsultancy last year drive home the problem with customer service.

Before we look at the cause of this horrendous state of affairs, lets first look at the symptoms.

Common issues

I am constantly surprised at the imaginative ways companies screw up customer service. Only today I worked from home so I could receive a package that I purchased online. When the package hadn’t been delivered I checked the site only to discover I had been given a tracking number for somebody else’s package.

There are certain reoccurring problems that really should have been address by now. These include:

Limited contact

So many online retailers and web services seem determined to make it nearly impossible to contact them. At worse there is no contact information at all, while others rely solely on email.

The problem is that email means waiting for the customer service agent to reply. When you have had something go wrong with your transaction, waiting is the last thing you want. You want instant reassurance that the problem will be fixed. Waiting just causes more frustration.

If you are only able to provide email support, at least let the user know how quickly they will get a response. This will help limit their expectations.

Basecamp customer support is lightening fast, available through a variety of methods and they tell you exactly how long before they will reply.

Basecamp customer support is lightening fast, available through a variety of methods and they tell you exactly how long before they will reply.

Mixed messages

Even when you do get to speak to somebody, you often get contradictory information. The information you receive on Twitter could quite easily be different to that received via email support.

Also if a problem cannot be solved instantly, you can often find that advice varies on subsequent communications with the company.

This problem seems to stem from inconsistent communication across the organisation and poorly implemented backend ticketing systems.

Useless FAQs

One of my biggest personal bugbears is FAQs. Many believe that the entire idea of a FAQ section is fundamentally flawed, but I wouldn’t go that far.

However, what is frustrating are FAQ sections that actually do not contain any FAQs!

Too often FAQ sections are stuffed with fictional questions like “How can you deliver such excellent products at such a low price?” These are more to do with promoting the products than answering user questions.

There are also sites that force you to laboriously navigate a FAQ section before being able to send an email. I understand that companies want to reduce workload, but how much hassle is it to point a user to an FAQ if they email you?

Apple force users to navigate their FAQ before allowing you to contact a human being.

Apple forces users to navigate their FAQ before allowing you to contact a human being.

Hidden catches

While some sites provide poor customer service out of ignorance, others seem intent on purposely deceiving the consumer.

Take for example sites that make you go all the way through the checkout process before confessing they are going to slap you with a big delivery charge? I am sure they believe that if they make users complete the checkout process they will be less likely to drop out when they discover the delivery cost. In reality they just annoy people.

Other examples of this practice are sites that make you hand over personal information to view a demo, or automatically tweet advertisements the moment they get access to your twitter account.

Only after filling in their registration form does Twenty Feet tell you that you cannot try their service unless they can tweet to your account.

Only after filling in their registration form does Twenty Feet tell you that you cannot try their service unless they can tweet to your account.

This kind of behaviour does nothing but alienate users and undermine the reputation of your website.

Painful returns

Probably the biggest drawback of purchasing online is that you are buying sight unseen. Because you haven’t actually handled the product there is a higher chance you may wish to return it. Unfortunately that is not easy online.

Many organisations seem determined to make returning items as difficult as possible. Not only are you expected to pay for return postage, but you also have to jump through numerous hoops with customer services first.

Zappos recognise that returning items bought online is painful and have done their best to improve the customer experience.

Zappos recognise that returning items bought online is painful and have done their best to improve the customer experience.

This is in stark contrast with a company like Zappos that makes returning items easy. They pay packaging both ways and give you ample time (up to a year) to decide whether you want to keep an item.

The heart of the problem

The chances are that if you read Econsultancy you are all too aware of these kinds of issues. However being aware of something, and solving it are different things.

These problems have complex and deeply routed causes. There are two areas that are particularly challenging; management and legacy.

The way websites are managed

Part of the problem is that the majority of websites are seen as a marketing tool. They are therefore managed by the marketing team.

Although there is no denying that most websites have a substantial role as a marketing tool, that is not the only thing they do. Among other things they are also a customer support tool.

Marketing are great at what they do but they can’t do everything. They do not have a customer services mindset, which is why FAQ sections read more like sales copy than answering real issues.

In truth a website does not fit nicely into existing departmental structures. Providing a great user experience from the beginning to the end of the purchase process involves all kinds of people from every department across the organisation.

A user requires all the following departments to work seamlessly together in order for them to have a good experience:

  • Marketing to explain the product and how it meets their needs.
  • IT to ensure the website ties in with stock control systems and is working when the user wishes to purchase.
  • Accounts to process their payment and invoice if necessary.
  • Fulfilment to send the item out.
  • Customer support to answer any queries along the way.

If the website is solely owned by one of these departments it is naturally going to be stronger in that area and weaker in others.

The reason that the site does end up being managed by marketing is as much to do with legacy as anything else.

Overcoming the legacy of the past

The web is still a young medium and many of the organisations who trade on it pre-date it by a number of years. These companies were formed in a pre-web world.

This means that the way they are structured, work and think just aren’t compatible with a web driven world.

When they were first faced with the web they tried to fit it into their traditional thinking. That is why early websites were often referred to as online brochures.

Although times have changed and organisations don’t think like that anymore, the legacy still remains. Websites are still often owned by Marketing. Departments still work primarily in isolated silos, despite the fact that an effective website requires otherwise.

So where does this leave us? How do we ensure better customer service and a more effective website?

A painful conclusion

Unfortunately, looking at the subject of online customer service just highlights a bigger issue; many companies are not designed for the web. The web is too multi-disciplinary and requires a different business structure.

The problem is that you are fighting a company culture that probably predates the web. For a website to work effectively and customers to get good support means rethinking the whole structure of your business. This is something that involves a lot of challenges, not least getting senior management to recognise the need.

If you are looking for easy answers I have none. The truth is that as I work with organisations over this issue it is a long and hard road. For some organisations it is just too big a cultural shift.

But despite that we need to try. If we do not, new younger companies that were born in the internet era and put the web at the heart of their business will surpass us.