How to offer the best customer experience through online customer service

By: Gavin Masters


It’s 2018. There are now a generation of people entering the workforce who were born in the 21st century, completely unfamiliar with living in a world without the internet and mobile technology.

It is more important than ever that businesses understand the expectations set for them by their customers, and how those expectations are evolving as the customer base changes to the younger generation.

This article explains how to make your customer service as simple and effective online as it is offline.

Woman waiting by computer

Customer Service in 2018

More than ever, we are looking at customers who demand an immediate response to online interactions (not waiting 48 hours for a response to an email), real-time information about the status of the order, and for supporting staff and the businesses they work for to be as technically savvy as they are.

Customer service (or, at least effective customer service) is something many business shy away from attempting online. There are two distinct schools of thought around why customer service doesn’t translate well to the digital medium – the first assumes it is too tricky and not worth the effort, whilst the second worries about making things too easy for the customer to achieve their goals. Both philosophies are true in their own way, but they’re wrong in many others.

The key to online customer service, is, as with offline, to ensure the customer ends their interaction with your business feeling that their issue has been resolved satisfactorily. Ruby Newell-Legner states in her book “Understanding Customers” that it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for an unresolved negative one, so the importance of getting things right first time cannot be understated.

Two phones


It’s Too Complicated!...

Taking the first argument – that effective customer service is too nuanced and based on customer context to be recreated online. The simplest response to that is to not use the web to solve your customer’s problems, but to triage them, and to ensure that everyone is fully appraised of the situation when they speak to someone.

However, in Coversocial’s 2017 “The State of Social Customer Service” report, 32% of customers actually stated that the telephone was the most frustrating channel through which to engage with customer service in a business.

Many of you may think that this is obvious stuff, but there are huge numbers of large (and small) retailers who still fail to get this fundamental approach completely wrong. I have dealt with countless retailers, banks, travel companies and other services who have no visibility whatsoever of what I have been trying to do online to resolve my issues.

Even eBay, the bastion of all things online retail, pushed me to phone them to resolve an issue I had with an order I placed with them – and when I spoke to the person on the phone (after waiting in a queue for 2 hours!), I was told there was nothing they could do to help me. The result? I’ll never use eBay again.

So, if the biggest online retailers struggle to make it work, how can smaller retailer expect to succeed? Fundamentally, it’s all about agility. By choosing to move certain customer service operations online, this does not preclude you from keeping others handled by human intervention where appropriate.

Picking the quickest wins to digitise will meet enough of your customer demands that the load of your existing customer service operations will lessen, increasing their level of service (or reducing budget, if you are that way inclined) without causing disruption to existing operations.

Order Tracking

Consider one of the most common calls to the retail call centre – “Where is my order?”. Most (not all!) retailers have order tracking online, or even SMS notifications for customers when orders are in transit, but this information is commonly tucked away within the My Account section of a site, behind logins, several clicks and lists of past orders.

By using personalisation, and an element of clever user journey management, it’s totally feasible to have a banner appear on your site when a customer visits within a week of having placed an order, either showing them the status of their latest order (if they’re logged in) or prompting them to click straight through to get that information.

To reduce clicks even further, you could offer to send the updates straight through to SMS, Facebook Messenger or any other messaging system. Linking the customer to live chat and call back facilities in the event that the information isn’t what they expected closes to loop and allows the customer to complete their journey feeling that their problem/enquiry has been addressed satisfactorily.


A second example, which may raise some eyebrows, is customer returns. Traditionally complex and difficult to manage even over the phone (or in person, for retail bricks & mortar), the prospect of completely recreating your company’s return process online may be a daunting one. However, by adhering to the agile principle, even something as simple as the initiation of returns online, or the logging of returns reasons online could have far-reaching impact on your long-term returns effectiveness.

As it stands, a vast majority of retailers wait until a product has been returned and processed before logging a return reason (if at all). Consider the effect on your business if a fault with a product, and inaccurate description or a quality control issue could be raised weeks earlier, simply by prompting customers to select a return reason on an online form before showing them the contact information for your customer service team.

You could go a step further and generate an RMA online in real-time with customer-provided information which could be picked up by the representative on the phone when contact is made. It isn’t technically complex to achieve and the time savings to the call centre would be immense.

Indeed, a report by Forrester made in 2008, indicated that returns were down to faults with the retailer and not the customer in 65% of cases.

Coin flip

It can’t be too Simple!...

The flipside of the coin is the argument that making something too simple for the customer will mean they will use it when they “shouldn’t”. Allowing a customer to return an item or cancel an order will mean that all your customers will cancel everything, and anything they don’t cancel, they’ll just return anyway, causing chaos and rendering the company insolvent.

There are genuinely retailers out there who feel this way, and if you are one, I urge you to take a long, hard look at your business, the products it sells and the service it offers, as your issues likely lay much deeper than simply enabling your customer to exercise their statutory rights.

Returns (redux)

If we return to the “returns” issue, I find there are retailers who a reticent to allow customers to return products online. Common excuses are that customers frequently return things when they can’t use them properly, or they are not what they expected. This is not a problem with your returns process!

This is a problem with your product, and its descriptions online. By forcing the customer to call customer service to have their return “intercepted” by a human being who can instruct them on how to correctly use your widget, or to explain why it’s a slightly different spec to the one advertised on your site is the problem, and it’s resolution is one of the simplest things available to any retailer online – communication.

Better documentation, better imagery, better descriptions and, if needs be, links through to manufacturer downloads, training videos and installation guides – all of these things are far more effective in the long term than an unhappy customer, an overwrought call centre and a tarnished brand. The number of buyers who have ever called to complain there was too much information about their new product could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Order updates & cancellation

The same is true for cancellations and other order updates as it is for returns – make it simple, unless there is a compelling practical reason not to. My ideal approach is to allow the customer to do anything with an order themselves that they can ask a customer service representative to do for them over the phone, but that may be too much for many.

Too many businesses have taken to catering for the lowest common denominator when it comes to customer service – it’s more about avoiding the very rare fraudulent order, or the “repeat returner”, the customer who never buys anything for more than 7 days. In reality, it is probably costing your business more in lost sales, frustrated customers and rejected false positives that it is saving you in prevented attacks – especially as the procedures and reporting in place to catch these people can still be in place, behind the scenes.

Thumbs up

The How

Effective recreation of back office tasks, especially those driven by human input, is heavily reliant on the availability of information between your business systems.

Awareness of an order’s status (it’s on a conveyor belt waiting to be scanned onto a trailer), a customer’s behavioural history (the part you’ve bought isn’t appropriate for your model) and the context of a customer’s order within the wider business ecosystem (our orders are delayed due to snow on the M60) all adds to the effectiveness and accuracy of the customer service model, and these things are much easier for a person to find out than a machine, but that isn’t to say it’s insurmountable.

It’s also true to say that this is a desirable end-state and not something which should be the expectation from day one.

Any integration opportunities available to expose appropriate information to the customer should be embraced, but waiting for the perfect arrangement of all integrations and all associated systems is a little like waiting for the planets to align – it’s not likely to happen quickly, and when it does, it will be a purely transitory event anyway.

The important thing is to act quickly, decisively and to ensure that all the changes are measurable. Understanding what has impacted the customer, and your operations, and doing more of it, is the key to developing a truly world-class online customer service offering.


By: Gavin Masters, eCommerce Industrial Principal, Maginus

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