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Customer service: the missing link on e-commerce blogs

How does one tempt new customers and get them to spend money? How can one create a brand image for one’s business? It’s no wonder the most frequent topics in e-commerce blogs are Search Engine Optimisation, Search Engine Marketing, and Content Marketing. Three topics that every e-commerce entrepreneur wants to live and breathe. The pillars of e-commerce!

But what if we told you there was a missing link, a fourth pillar with even more power and influence over customer acquisition and average basket values. I’ll give you a clue: it’s centered around the people that make your world go round. Customer service, the dark horse of marketing, is a force not to be reckoned with. Marketers put most of their time and money into acquiring new customers through more ‘traditional’ methods, while tending to overlook the importance and potential of retaining and satisfying their existing customers.

Take a look at the numbers: - Customers are 70% more likely to do business with you again if their complaint is resolved

Shockingly, less than 5% of content in the top five e-commerce blogs was about customer service. Shopify.com, a well-known player in the e-commerce world, have posted only three articles regarding customer service since December 2012.

If successful sites like shopify.com aren’t writing about customer service, why am I? All businesses have the same core ways to drive sales: repeat sales, customer acquisition, and a word of mouth.

Zappos is world-famous for its customer service. Here are 3 ways how this is helping them to drive sales:

1. Repeat sales

Humans instinctively resist change, so if a customer is happy with your product or service, they're likely to keep coming back. According to Bain & Company, it costs 6-7 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. That means if you’re not putting in the hard yards to keep your existing customers happy, it’s going to cost you to find a replacement.

How do you ensure your customers stay with you? Traditionally, email marketing is how businesses like to do this. Some people (like myself) can find such emails intrusive, and more often than not it’s likely to deter me from purchasing from that business. However, when I like a business, it's a different story. People can like a company due to their marketing, but also because they had an amazing personal experience with customer service.

2. Customer acquisition

Using Adwords or display advertising is a great way to poach first-time customers, but it’s also a costly endeavor. Wouldn’t it be great if customers were directed to your page by these ads, saw how good your products and services are, and then added your URL to their favorites? That’s the best case scenario. They might just remember the name of your website, or something special that caught their eye. What’s important here: give them something to remember you by! So go for great customer service, which will separate yourself from other businesses. Offer something more than just your product. Give your business that human touch that customers love.

3. Word of mouth

This is essentially where it is most important for you to treat your customers well. 67% of people spend money after getting recommendations from their friends on online communities like Facebook and Twitter. We’ve also seen that in the mobile phone market, positive and negative recommendations from person to person canincrease or decrease a company’s market share by 10-20 per cent over a 2 year period.

Although the ‘word of mouth’ effect may seem somewhat out of your control, particularly when an unhappy customer vents on social media, don’t underestimate the value of damage control. As we explained in our previous article, complaints are a great opportunity to turn angry customers into fans. Always respond to complaints no matter what, and be patient and understanding. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! Turning your customers into brand ambassadors by providing them with great customer service can reduce costs and increase conversions. A 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by 10%.

So although customer service may seem like that annoying task your business is forced to deal with, take a second look and you’ll realise what an influential marketing tool it can be. The rise of e-commerce has meant increased competition, and a greater need to differentiate your products and/or services. Let your customer service be your star attraction.

How we poodle-proofed Casengo

First things first: we like poodles, as long as their owners don’t resemble them too much. What we don’t like, however, is the Padding Oracle On Downgraded Legacy Encryption (aka POODLE) leak that the guys at Google disclosed last week; a vulnerability in the design of SSL version 3.0 (SSLv3).

How does SSL work? Web servers and web browsers rely on the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol to help users protect their data during transfer. For private communication – like a live chat conversation – a uniquely encrypted channel is used. When you want to connect to a web page that is protected by SSL, the browser will look for the most recent SSL version. Usually, that’s a recent SSL version, which is perfectly safe.

What leak are we talking about? However, if the connection fails, the browser will automatically look for other, older SSL versions to get rocking. The leak we’re talking about is found in a totally ancient version: SSL version 3.0, nearly 18 years old. Thanks to POODLE, hackers can deliberately mess up connections, and if they get access to SSLv3, they can intercept sensitive data from online stores and other websites.

Which steps did we take? Hackers are able to mess up connections so badly that even browsers with a new SSL version – ours and probably yours – will fall back on SSLv3. That’s why we decided to disable this old version and make it unavailable for web browsers.

How does this affect you or your customer service? It most probably won’t affect you at all: most of our users won’t notice a thing, and neither will their online visitors requesting support through live chat. Our developers did some research through Google Analytics; they found out that just 0,88% of people visiting our users’ websites works with an outdated browser. Unless they upgrade their browser, these unhappy few will not be able to have a live chat conversation with you (if, that is, you enforce HTTPS). If you do get a call from a (potential) customer about live chat not working, first check which browser s/he is using. Anyone using Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) – or an even older IE version –is advised to upgrade to the newest version of Internet Explorer (if that’s even possible), or switch to Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. So rest assured: this poodle will no longer bite.

How not to fall from grace through social media

Some companies still don’t get it. When you hand over your social media password to an employee, you might as well be giving him or her a full-page ad in the New York Times, or a prime time TV advertising spot. “Here you are, go for it! Just put together whatever you feel like saying about our company whenever you feel like it.” You wouldn’t dream of giving random employees free rein.

But many companies are essentially doing just that when they trust untrained employees with their social media feed. And social media never sleeps. That’s what US-based clothing company Hawke & Co, which bills itself as a ‘lifestyle brand for the modern explorer’, found out this past weekend. Presumably the company’s social media professionals (if they have any) were taking a break when Twitter user @cconti tweeted his dissatisfaction with the company’s customer service. Check out this tweet – and the reply:

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Hawke & Co obviously weren’t prepared for what happened next. In a social media storm which erupted within a matter of hours, their company was slammed by the Twitterverse as the exchange went viral. Scores of Twitter users including legendary writers Paulo Coehlo and Neil Gaiman came out in support of @cconti. The full sad saga continued on until late Sunday night when the company issued a public apology.

It’s impossible to know what was going on in the mind of this person tweeting for Hawke & Co, but it seems like s/he was trying to save face. Yet when dealing with customers, you have no face to save. These people are the reason you exist. They pay your wages, and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Make your customer happy again

The correct response to a complaint about your business is not to mock the person who made the complaint. Even if you would speak to your boss like that (and I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t), the discussion is not just about you. You’re the voice of the company. Companies make mistakes, and they’re not – or shouldn’t be – ashamed to admit it. Setting things right after a minor blunder gives you a chance to show off just how great you really are.

What can we learn from this? The most obvious point is that even today, there are still companies out there who are completely unaware of the power of social media. Hawke & Co were clearly clueless when it came to Twitter, apparently believing that a user with few followers has very few people listening in (the company was later revealed to have 19,444 fake followers and only 39 real ones).

Some people might suggest that undergoing social media training is overkill for SMEs with just a few employees. But the Hawke & Co fiasco is testament to the damage that can be wrought through incompetent social media use. It's an SME - with 20 employees in 2012 - suffering from untold damage to its brand.

The whole thing could have been avoided with a relatively small financial investment. Or you could simply try my top tip from my time as an online customer service rep: when you get that feeling that you just have to reply to an annoying message from a customer, right that minute – sit on your hands.

The risk of delivering bad customer service: a fine of over €300,000

Would your business operate differently if you knew you risked an enormous fine for failing to fully resolve customer complaints? Does the thought of having to include a link to consumer protection laws make you a little nervous? Do you even know what the consumer protection laws are for the area in which you do business?

I’m asking because UK mobile provider Three was recently hit with a £250,000 fine by Ofcom, the nation’s communications regulator. The reason? Nothing but poor customer service. Yes: Three was accused of breaching Ofcom’s Code of Practice in the way they handled complaints.

Handle customer complaints in a ‘fair and timely manner’

Ofcom has laid out specific guidelines for how problems between mobile communications providers and their customers should be addressed. The Code also specifies that all paper bills sent to mobile telephony customers must inform them of their right to escalate any disagreements to an independent ombudsman in order to find a resolution.

But the most interesting part of this particular case is that Ofcom is clearly not afraid to use its powers to ensure that its rules are respected. In many countries, consumer protection bodies are toothless tigers who are able to register complaints but can’t – or aren’t willing – to do anything much about them. This leaves wronged consumers out of pocket and law-breaking businesses free to repeat their behaviour with impunity.

In the absence of extremely strict consumer rights laws – and a regulator that isn’t afraid to back them up – it’s inevitable that there will be cowboys out there in the business world. Dodgy businesses will come and go (word gets around faster than ever in these days of online transparency) but their operators aren’t the type to read customer service blogs. You are.

DIY, with Ofcom as your example

So, in fact, the lack of strong laws covering online customer service in most industries is a tremendous opportunity for you. Why? Because you can make your own – get started by basing them on Ofcom’s guidelines if you like – and make sure you follow them to the letter. It’s the good old carrot-and-stick approach, except in this case the stick (the threat of a hefty fine) is completely imaginary. The carrot is the reward of loyal customers, with the added bonus that you’re going to win over far more customers if you apply Ofcom-style guidelines to your company’s customer service.

I’m not suggesting that you include links to the legal recourse your customers have if they’re not happy with the service they receive (apart from anything else, it probably wouldn’t create a very good impression). But you should definitely be very clear about the applicable statutory rights in your jurisdiction, for example distance selling regulations, as well as your own company’s policy if its terms are more generous than required by law.

These things, while apparently simple, are rarely done by SMEs; they’re much more common in bigger businesses. Which is a shame because as a customer, when you know exactly where you stand with a transaction, you’re more likely to take the plunge and decide to part with your hard-earned money.

Up your own customer service game

When communicating with customers, be clear, be efficient, and treat them with respect. Work hard to do that and, even if you occasionally slip up and misfile or forget a customer service email, remember the long game of customer service: you might take a hit on an individual transaction, but are likely to make up for it in the long run – thanks to the goodwill your great service generates.

Why KLM figured it needed to cutify its customer service

Did you see him? Isn’t he cute? Don’t you think KLM, the Dutch national airline, is just amazing at customer service? Chances are that Sherlock, the most adorable member of KLM’s Lost & Found Service, appeared in your Twitter feed or Facebook timeline more than once. He certainly did on mine. And I was just as enchanted by the promotional film as you probably were.

We see the little beagle going about his daily duties at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – training, socialising with KLM employees and, of course, racing through the airport to find the owners of lost property by scent alone. It’s a heartwarming video: a woman is reunited with her iPhone, a small boy gets back his teddy bear, all thanks to Sherlock.

There’s only one problem – it’s all fake.

The airline’s marketing team didn’t deliberately set out to deceive. Perhaps they simply didn’t realise just how much internet users would love the story of Sherlock and his job (they say that the video reached more than 46 million people within a week). When questioned, KLM was perfectly honest about the fact that the dog was never part of the Lost & Found team, but the truth came a bit too late for people around the world who had already been captivated by the cute story.

Some stories are sexy enough as they are

Finding out that Sherlock wasn’t real was a minor disappointment to most. The fact that Sherlock is simply a mascot, not a working member of the team, was not in itself much of a problem. After all, the general public is used to much bigger scandals, hoaxes and cover-ups. The real issue is that KLM managed to bury their own lede by making up such an appealing story, when in fact the truth behind the story is already appealing enough.

As the company explained a few days ago on its blog, Team Sherlock was proposed last year by a KLM employee who could see that the lost & found system was not working for customers. Whenever anyone contacted the airline via social media to report an item of lost property, she was required to ask them to fill out a form – not exactly good customer service. The company had a low success rate and high customer dissatisfaction.

Now, one year on from the employee’s suggestion, the company has got a team of 20 humans (not dogs!) who work to ensure that their Schiphol office is staffed from 6am to 9pm each day. Did you catch that? Most businesses seem to have – at best – a box at the back of the office somewhere, featuring a forlorn collection of old umbrellas, scarves, and lonely gloves. KLM has twenty people working to reunite lost items with their owners!

Think about it: a major airline has done something which is costing it a substantial amount of money and has no immediate financial return. And this as a result of a staff member seeing where something wasn’t working. But how many people got that takeaway from the dog ad? Not many, I shouldn’t think – it was completely upstaged by the cute story about the dog, quickly followed by the revelation that the story wasn’t true.

Learn from whatever it is your customers complain about

With the creation of Team Sherlock, KLM has pulled off a customer service coup. One which other companies should try to emulate. Not necessarily by paying attention to lost property, but by looking at the things which customers complain about. Until now, you could have been forgiven for thinking that The Onion’s airport spoof(in which the customer service rep tells passengers to “fill out complaint form, and place it in an envelope addressed to the name of the hospital in which you were born”) was based on reality.

But here’s the proof that at least one company is taking customers’ concerns and employees’ suggestions on board, and implementing practical solutions. For all that companies love to say they care about their customers, KLM is actually showing it. After all, actions speak louder than words.

A beautiful horse is amazing enough, you don't have to pretend you saw a unicorn. By trying to convince us that they are almost magic when it comes to finding lost property, KLM missed an important opportunity to show off the fact that they actually care, and are doing a good job.

Maybe facts and figures and human beings aren't as 'sexy' as a cute little dog, but as the Dutch say: “Just be normal, that's crazy enough.