|The Small Business Library|
September 11, 2000
Customer Service: Your Advantage
You might wonder how a small company can hope to give better customer service than these heavily staffed, heavily funded e-giants. Believe it or not, it may be your lack of size, that just might give you the edge.
Think about your average customer service experience in an off-line setting. Where do you usually have the kinds of customer service experiences that are so positive, you come away raving to your friends and co-workers? While I can't answer for you, I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of my experiences of this nature have come with small businesses, often very small.
Conversely, I can also say that as a rule, my biggest CS (customer service) nightmares have come with the biggest companies. Of course, there are always exceptions, but this theory has proven to be surprisingly consistent for me. I would bet that if you compile a quick mental list of your best and worst experiences as a customer, you might find this to be true for you as well.
The problem with large companies is usually a volume issue. Many of these businesses have such a large volume of CS inquiries, that they simply don't have the manpower to adequately provide timely and efficient service. Often, it is difficult to even find the proper channel for which to take your CS issue.
Large e-commerce companies aren't immune to these kinds of issues. In fact, they are often even less prepared to handle the flow of questions and comments that come in from their site on a daily basis. Many of these companies experience massive volume of traffic to their sites. A nice problem to have, but a problem that can often leave the customer out in the cold.
A recent Gartner study surveyed 50 top-rated internet retail sites on their customer service readiness and effectiveness. The results were very telling. Not one of these 50 sites ranked as excellent with regards to customer service readiness. 23% graded out as average, and 73% were rated below average, and 4% rated poor.
CNet quoted another recent study by Resource Marketing which showed similar results. "Wal-Mart online is a maze, Williams-Sonoma makes customers fill out applications every time they shop, and KBkids.com automatically sends new customers its electronic newsletter, whether they ask for it or not." Caroline Cofer, a spokesperson for Resource Marketing added that many of these large merchants are "making some scary mistakes."
Now, with many of these large e-tailers streamlining operations in order to stay afloat, it is difficult to imagine customer service improving. In fact, customer service issues on-line have become such an issue, that an entire sector has evolved to deal with the problems. Companies such as Egain Communications and Kana Communications offer automated, CRM (customer relation management) solutions. Many of these automated services are ASP (application service provider) models that feature multi-channel response e-mail systems. In other words, software that attempts to emulate a real human.
On one hand, these companies should be admired for their vision, and will probably be rewarded with booming sales. On the other hand, the technology has a way to go before it is a replacement for human interaction. Have you ever sent a question to a site's customer service center, and received the answer to the wrong question? More than likely, this was the result of automated CRM software that was unable to properly interpret your question and send the correct response.
This is where your advantage as a small company comes into play. While you may not enjoy the volume of these sites, you can create a higher percentage of repeat visitors/buyers with superior CS. Generally, when you hear people talk about improving CS, you hear things like: "make yourself available" and "give good contact information." This is true, but it goes beyond that.
What people really want is speed. People want their questions answered now. People want their CS issue resolved in a hurry. Providing a phone number is a must, but chances are, people don't want to go off-line and call you for the answers to their questions unless it is a last resort. In the e-world, people want an i-response: Immediate, internet response.
Of course, you can't be everywhere at once. Managing a small business or website is already a full-time job. But making CS a focal point of your website can pay immense dividends for your traffic and or profit. Think of it this way, if you can respond to a customer's question within 24 hours, you are beating about 50% of the large e-companies already. If you can respond within 12 hours, I would estimate that you would be beating somewhere around 80%. If you can respond within 6 hours, you are providing customer service that most e-commerce giants only dream about.
A quick list of ways to improve your customer service:
Take the work out of it for your visitors. Encourage them to ask questions and reward them with quick, friendly responses. Your customers and visitors are the most important asset you have. Make them feel that way.