Thursday, September 23, 2010

eCommerce Rule #5: It’s the service, stupid

In Rule #1, we discussed the importance of building a brand penny by penny with direct response advertising.   Embedded in this rule was the assumption that your offering "works."  Paying Google and other media companies to drive new users to your site is only the first step. To build a brand and a sustainable, profitable business, you want those customers to come back to you again and again – without your having to pay for them again and again! To get customers coming back, knock their socks off with an extraordinary customer experience.

This orientation is a commitment that needs to permeate everything you do in your company.  As Jeff Bezos said, "Start with the customer, and work backwards."  In addition to offering low-cost products and getting them out the door quickly, you should bend over backwards to offer friendly customer service throughout the entire fulfillment process. Train your sales reps as if they’re working at the Four Seasons hotel chain. Don’t rush customers off the phone. In general, always empower your reps to please customers first and save costs later. At Zappos, for instance, a rep once fielded an eight-hour customer service phone call, while another delivered fresh flowers to cheer up a customer. These examples are extreme, but they’re the inspirational stories that help define company culture and drive powerful word-of-mouth promotion among consumers. This type of culture needs to be instilled throughout your entire company; every senior executive should spend some time every month taking customer service calls.

Another good idea: Creating fabulous surprises for your customers, such as unsolicited coupons, refunds or credits, gifts, or even just patience, apologies and empathy. Across most industries today (think banking, travel, cable TV), the average telephone- or email-based customer-service experience is so bad that it’s actually pretty easy to be surprisingly fabulous. Other surprises can be baked into your core offering. Zappos, to praise the company again, has a 365-day return policy with free return shipping. Consumers take full advantage by returning almost 40% of the things they purchase on the site.

You should carefully monitor customer-service metrics such as average wait time (email and phone); abandon rate; average call length; and number of calls needed to resolve an issue. There is a significant increase in abandon rates after 90 seconds of wait time. If you can answer 90% of calls in 120 seconds from when the customer first dials your number, you’re well on your way to becoming a best-practices, customer-service organization.

And, finally, while you should always work hard to delight your customers, don’t be afraid to fire the perennially annoying ones who waste your time and cost you money. When a consumer calls to complain about a product or claims she never received it, check to see if she’s a first-time caller. If so, give her the benefit of the doubt (a full refund, express shipping, etc.). If this isn’t the first time, don’t be afraid to give her some tough love. Try to understand what marketing channels or products drive these less desired customers and make appropriate adjustments to reduce them or at least make them more profitable.

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