biz ladies: 5 customer service tips for your web-based business


Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from Liesl Gibson, founder and chief designer of Oliver + S and Lisette sewing patterns and fabric. She also authored the recently published Oliver + S Little Things to Sew: 20 Classic Accessories and Toys for Children. Today she shares some tips and tricks for providing the best customer service in your online business. Thanks, Liesl, for this great post! — Stephanie

The full post continues after the jump . . .

If you’re a designer or other creative type using the Internet to market and sell a product you create, customer service is probably one of the last things you want to devote your time to. Customer service is often considered a necessary evil by many creative professionals who would much rather spend their time on product development and marketing. After all, if we were passionate about customer service, we would have gone into that line of work.

But providing excellent customer service is essential to growing your business. Happy customers become repeat customers. Satisfied customers refer their friends. If you can’t deliver solid customer service, you’ll be missing out on two of the easiest, and least expensive, ways of generating future sales.

My mantra when thinking about customer service is this: “Most customers are reasonable people. Reasonable people expect and deserve reasonable treatment.” (I’ll talk about the .1% that aren’t reasonable later.)

If you’re selling handcrafted items through an Etsy shop, your customers will know that they are dealing with a single person, not a large company. Most Etsy shoppers expect that you will return their message when they contact you. If there is a problem with their order, they expect that you’ll make it right. That’s reasonable.

If you have a small business that manufactures a product and sells it via your own e-commerce site, most customers will not expect Zappos-level service. Again, they are reasonable. They’ll expect a response to their inquiry in a reasonable amount of time and that you’ll take reasonable steps to resolve any issues.

So, really, customer service is easy. Reasonable people expect reasonable responses within a reasonable time when they face an issue. If you provide a reasonable response, their expectations will be met and everyone (you and your customer) will be satisfied with the result.

Following my “reasonableness” approach to customer service, here are five tips you can use to provide service that will satisfy your customers without requiring customer service to take undue time away from the creative side of your business.

1. Provide a single, clear way for people to contact you. Don’t make your customers guess how to reach you if they face an issue. Give them a single, clear mechanism by which they can contact you with customer service inquiries.

And, equally important, make sure it’s the way you want to be contacted. Don’t make your contact mechanism your home phone number or a personal cell phone number. If you give that out, people will call you at 10PM on a Saturday. Anyone buying a product from your website will have an email address. So consider making email your primary contact mechanism. Create a dedicated customer service email address and include it on each of your customer touch points — website, emails, sales receipts, packing slips, newsletters, etc.

2. Be disciplined and reply to every customer service inquiry within one business day. Don’t let emails — if that’s your preferred contact method — pile up unanswered in an inbox that gets checked every other week. Make a point of checking your customer service queue and replying to any messages there at least once a day.

One way to make sure this happens is to schedule a little bit of customer service into your day. Make a point of checking and responding to customer service messages first thing every morning or right after you finish lunch. Responses can be short and sweet. They don’t have to take a lot of time. But it’s important to let a customer know within a reasonable amount of time that her inquiry has been received and that you’re working to resolve her issue.

3. Provide a mechanism that allows customers to answer each other’s questions. If your product allows it, provide a forum for customers to ask each other questions about your product. This frees you up from having to field all the inquiries, and it helps make your brand sticky, as people return to your website to check in.

When we added the Discussion Forums section to the Oliver + S website a few years ago, we found that the number of customer service inquiries we received dropped significantly, as people started using the forum to ask and answer each other’s questions. The forums also, over time, have developed into a rich and valuable archive of questions and answers that other people can mine when they face an issue.

4. Ship all orders in a reasonable amount of time via a traceable delivery method. Set a policy for how often you ship orders. Tell your customers what it is. And then stick to your promise. Ship every order using a method that allows the customer to track the delivery, and then let your customers know when the order has shipped and how they can track it.

Proactively providing your customers with information that allows them to answer their own questions about when their order shipped and when they will receive it frees you from having to answer questions about shipping and delivery status.

5. Finally, understand that the customer is NOT always right. No matter how good you are at customer service, you will always come across a customer who just isn’t reasonable and won’t be satisfied no matter what you do. I’ve found over the years that only about one out of every 1,000 customers is just not reasonable. There is no way that you will be able to satisfy these people.

What do I mean by an unreasonable customer? For example, this is the customer who sends a curt email two weeks after you shipped her order asking where it is. You check the tracking number you gave her and respond that a delivery attempt was made a few days after the order shipped. Tracking status shows that the item was too large to fit into her mailbox and is being held for pick up at her local post office. She responds angrily that she’s too busy to pick it up and demands that you immediately ship a replacement order to a different address instead, making no mention of what will happen to the order you already shipped. You provide a reasonable response: If she can’t pick up the package or schedule a redelivery, you will reship the order (at your expense) to a different address when the package is returned to you as undeliverable. She then responds with a hostile diatribe about how awful your customer service is and tells you that you should know that the customer is always right. That’s the final confirmation that you have an unreasonable customer. In my experience, only unreasonable customers tell you that the customer is always right.

When you come across an unreasonable customer like this, you need to cut your losses and move on. If you can’t win her over with a reasonable response to remedy the situation, you need to make the situation go away as quickly as possible. Find a solution that’s fair to you and to her and resolve the situation as equitably as possible. You probably won’t be happy with the result and neither will the customer, but that’s the best you can do. Remember, you’re better off losing an occasional unreasonable customer than letting her become a drain on you and your business.

Anni

Great tips! The awesome customers definitely make up for those not-so-great ones, but it’s still good to have a plan in place for how to deal with unreasonable people.

And I so agree about reasonable response time. After dealing with a vendor for my own wedding who doesn’t email me for months at a time (their work is lovely, but customer service not so much) I’m really committed to making sure I respond as quickly as possible.

julie @ tractorgirl

Thanks! My biz being in its infancy on its new site, I was keen to include all methods of contact possible, but now I see that’s just not wise… ! And besides good customer service creating repeat customers, it also creates fabulous word of mouth referrals :)

kate

Wonderful post! I’m an account manager for a commercial furniture dealer and about 90% of my job is customer service. I completely agree that the majority of customers out there are reasonable and just want reasonable things.

A few other things:
– Set expectations. If you say, “I’ll get back to you on this,” and don’t follow up for a week, customers will be upset. If you say, “I’ll investigate this and get back to you by Monday” (and then you do just that), they’re less likely to complain.
– Always ask, “were you happy with our service?” and “is there anything else I can do?” Those two little questions go a long way!

Laura

Wow, thank you for these service tips! Biz Ladies always seems to arrive at the right time, (when I need help!) I love the idea of adding a forum for your customers to answer each others questions, so great. I think they’d rather hear advice from someone else than the face of the business, I know I would!

Heather

thanks for the advice! I try to respond to customers as soon as they email, but I can see it getting harder and harder as business picks up ( a good problem to have!). You are kind to share your knowledge.

Hannah

Great advice! I am slowly building up a wed based store and taking on all advice! It’s so valuable.

Jessica

I have worked in customer service for the last several years and I cannot agree more with this post. Unfortunately there is always that .1% that no matter what you do it will never be good enough, I think a lot of people have experienced that first hand. Thankfully most people are reasonable. To all the up-and-coming businesses out there: good luck! Thank you so much for the great article!

Erin

“Only unreasonable customers tell you that the customer is always right.” Ha! So true!

Great advice with a premise we’ve been taught since we were children: treat others the way you would like to be treated. Same goes for your customers. Thanks, Liesl.

Kellie | Safari Fusion

Good post! Customer service is my number 1 with my business – you have no business if you have no customers.

I also agree with Erin’s comment; ‘treat others the way you would like to be treated’ common courtesy and manners go a long way.

Rebecca

Yesyes, this is a great post- I find all the Biz Ladies posts so useful!

One more thing I’d like to add, that I’ve found is that, well, you mess up every now and then. I mean, I do, or have done, and all I could do was explain and expect to lose a customer with my dignity intact for being honest. For the most part (one person was not) people are surprisingly understanding and have still been repeat clients. It’s a humbling experience, one that I really don’t like to experience much but, being a scatty-brained business owner, it happens :). Honesty. It’s been a huge part of my customer-service-skills learning experience.

Rachel

Good advise. It helps to take a breath and try to remember that usually the customer is coming from a good place and is as invested as you are in a happy resolution. There will occasionally be trouble makers, but I tend to assume they are like that in every area in their lives and not take it personally, and as you say- move on.

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