Providing Great Customer Support Online

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:17 PM EDT

With the recent explosion of online commerce, customer service has become an important component of a business Web site. For many consumers, the support they receive—or don't—is the key differentiator between the Web sites they shop at and the ones they click right past.

With advances in customer support systems, a wide range of online support options is now available, including e-mail, knowledge base systems, live chat, and phone-back. When you are designing an online support function for your organization, keep the following important considerations in mind:

  • the first step to offering your customers effective online support is a well-structured Web site with comprehensive information that's easily accessible;
  • while customers expect a prompt response to their electronic communications, many organizations have a poor record in responding to e-mail queries and form submissions from their Web sites; poor responsiveness, of course, angers customers and damages your reputation;
  • online support—available to anyone with a keyboard and the capacity to identify themselves as John Doe or Mick E. Mouse—can cause a significant increase in support messages, many of which are flippant, angry, or lacking sufficient detailed information to be of value. To make online support work, you'll require a strategy to deal with such customer communiqués so that you can effectively and efficiently sift out the important queries.
What You Need to KnowWhy should we offer online customer support?

Even the best-designed Web site in the world cannot answer every question a consumer might have. A study in 2006 found that about nine in ten (88%) of consumers shopping online experienced problems when trying to buy online.

Customers, according to the study conducted by Harris Interactive, are increasingly unwilling to tolerate lower levels of service online. Overwhelming, online shoppers—85% of adults—expect service levels online to be the same as offline, compared to 82% in 2005.

What kind of online support should we offer?

Web sites that have added support facilities have found that the number of people completing their transactions increases significantly. Chat and e-mail support options are ideal for technology-savvy customers such as those who are frequent users of e-mail. New or infrequent computer users often can barely cope with much more than basic use of their browser; asking them to use chat software—especially with any delays in responses from support personnel—might just confuse and frustrate them. For such people, the option to call a support number and leave a message so that someone will call them and talk them through the Web site can be very comforting.

In determining the type of support appropriate for your site, you'll need to work through your support options and their costs relative to benefits. For example, what is the true return on investment of a cheap support alternative that prevents sales by driving away potential customers?

How might online support deliver cost savings?

There are substantial potential cost savings from handling customer support queries online. The more customers can find out for themselves, the less their need to interact with your staff. For example, customers may be able to find the information they need on your Web site, especially if you've prepared answers to frequently asked questions and made support information searchable and easily understandable. You might employ short multimedia demonstrations to explain and show, step-by-step, complex issues. When customers do need to raise specific issues with your staff, using support forms on your Web site allow you to group pending matters by subject and they can even be held over for a few hours until someone with the appropriate expertise is available to respond to them. Telephone calls from customers, on the other hand, must always be dealt with immediately or require customers to sit idly on hold waiting for a response in real time.

Publishing high-quality material on a support Web site takes time and money but it is a one-time investment as opposed to paying people to respond to the same customer issues over and over and over again one by one. Depending on your product or service and the price-point at which you're charging customers, it may be important to ensure that the personal touch remains a part of the relationship between your company and your customers. The key is to target the best quality, most personalized support at the highest-value customers. When making your assessment, remember that requiring a customer to sit on hold or to be transferred to several people in order to receive help does not constitute personal service.

What to DoPresent Customers a Well-organized Web Site

A Web site can be thought of as a library. Libraries have two key components: a selection of well-organized content and a support center where people can ask questions and receive expert guidance. Providing person-to-person support is quite expensive, so construct your Web site to reduce unnecessary support interactions. Provide clear, well-designed content that will prevent support issues by answering as many customer questions as possible.

While the entire Web site is there to answer visitor questions, specific support functions include the following:

  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): a collection of the most frequently asked questions about a product or service. FAQs should be well written and concise. If you find you have many of them, classify them into logical groups under clear headings with links to each major grouping for easy access. Also provide customers a search function in your support area so that they can find exactly the information they need instantly.
  • Universally-accessible help: place a prominent link to your Support or Help section on every page. By clicking that link, your customer should arrive at a section containing information on all the support elements on your Web site. Whenever you require your customers to perform a complex task, such as using an advanced search function, or completing a purchase process, provide them with context-sensitive help: when they click on the Help link, display a page with the specific information they need to complete that task.
  • Knowledge-based systems: these sophisticated approaches to organizing your company's information take the FAQ model much further. The user can type in a question, rather than merely listing some keywords. The system's response to the customer's query may involve asking the person a series of questions in order to narrow down the area of interest to zero-in on the most appropriate answer.
Support Customers through E-mail

You may find that e-mail works as the main communications channel for support on your Web site. To make support by e-mail effective, you'll need to establish a response policy whereby e-mails are categorized by topic, graded for urgency where appropriate, and targeted for an ideal response time for each message you receive.

However, the ease of sending e-mails can often result in visitors to your site peppering your support function with frivolous questions. That's why some organizations receiving a high volume of e-mail and working on tight margins often make extensive use of auto-response. The auto-response e-mail, which is computer-generated without human intervention, may contain an FAQ and links to support material on the Web site. More sophisticated auto-responders may connect to a knowledge base that will search for keywords in the e-mail and send back a response based on these keywords. It is advisable for these approaches to include a list of options for your customer to reach a human so that the inquirer can talk to someone if the automated responses fail to adequately address the customer's concern.

Unfortunately, many organizations don't allocate enough resources to e-mail response, and so messages are responded to late or not at all. This frustrates customers and is self-defeating.

"Chat" with Customers Electronically

Also known as instant messaging, "live chat "allows a customer representative to exchange text messages with a Web site visitor in real time. The benefits of live chat include:

  • allowing people who connect to the Internet through their only one phone line to receive support while they are still on your site without having to disconnect from the Internet; live chat means that they can remain on your site and receive text-based support directly related to their specific questions about it;
  • support for Web transactions sometimes can be complex and may take a long time; with live chat, your customer can avoid having to spend hours on the phone, and the problem can be solved by someone who specializes in Web support issues;
  • live chat can serve international customers who do not have access to a toll-free support number;
  • an experienced customer representative can handle several chat sessions at the same time.

While live chat has many attractions, it can have drawbacks as well. Response times can be slow, depending on the customer's connection, and novice computer users may not feel comfortable using it. In addition, the quality of the live chat support depends, like all technical support, on the depth of knowledge of the support staff; furthermore, live chat requires excellent typing skills by support staff.

Return Your Customers' Calls

With the option known as "callback support," the Web site visitor is informed that if they enter their telephone number and details into a form on your site, a knowledgeable person will call them back. Given both the phone and time expense involved, this option is expensive, so it is most appropriate for high-value items. A related and popular option is to offer the customer a telephone number that they can call for free or low-cost support. Not surprisingly, charging anything for support tends to deter support calls. It also tends to have an equivalent impact on customer satisfaction.

Browse with Your Customer

Software is now available that allows a customer service representative to synchronize their browser with the person requesting support. Using live chat or the telephone, the rep can walk the customer through a process, changing their Web page as the customer changes their own. This is not appropriate for the sale of low-value items, but can be a valuable feature when you are delivering complex information or need to explain involved processes.

Guide Your Customers Through Support

If your Web site is engaged in commerce, no doubt you have as a fundamental objective to maximize profits by increasing sales while reducing the need for person-to-person interactions. If your site generates too much customer interaction, especially with low-value customers, your profits will be eaten away quickly.

Thus, it is important that your Web site be structured so that your customers are naturally guided through the lowest cost customer service components first. For example, a person seeking support should be directed to the FAQ section first; if they can't find an answer there, they should be offered the option of an e-mail, and finally the option of telephone support.

Outsourcing Support for Your Customers

Customer service and support functions such as live chat and e-mail support can now be outsourced to countries such as India and the Philippines, where well-educated English-speaking labor is available at low cost. While outsourcing support definitely reduces costs, it can have negative implications. Outsourced functions do not run themselves. They still need to be managed. As some very large high-tech companies have found, customer satisfaction can take a dive right along with those support costs. That's why some notable companies that had outsourced their support to off-shore operations have taken them back in-house. If you do choose to use support staff operating abroad, bear in mind the training and supervisory implications to maintain the in-depth knowledge required to answer complex questions and the quality control to assure satisfactory and pleasant customer interactions. After all, no matter where your customer representative sits to interact with your customers, they are still representing you to your customers.

Integrating Support Functions

When customers contact your company through a variety of support channels, the support function can become dissipated. Ensure that all your support functions—wherever they are based and whatever technologies they deploy—employ a single support knowledge base, and that all the technologies work in unison. The objective is to present a united face and consistent message to your customers.

Training Your Staff

Deploying a variety of support mechanisms requires myriad technical capabilities. To support your service and support functions, you'll need a well-qualified workforce. As technology, processes and procedures evolve, expect that training will be required to keep skill levels on par with business demands.

What to AvoidYou Ignore Customer E-mails

Surveys indicate that many organizations do a poor job in responding to e-mails sent from their Web sites. If you want to drive away your customers, just ignore the e-mails they send you.

You Don't Screen Queries

Online support makes it easier for people to communicate with the organization, and this can substantially increase the number of frivolous queries. If you are not properly prepared to handle the volume, you'll be swamped and risk missing the important communiqués.

You Don't Answer the Question

When customers ask questions, they expect answers—fast and accurate; otherwise the whole purpose is defeated. The implication is clear: customer service support depends on trained staff with the knowledge and tools to respond to customer queries timely and accurately.

You Fail to Integrate Support Functions

Online support functions must integrate with the company's overall customer support structure. Adding numerous support options increases complexity, and, unless managed smartly, this can lead to integration problems that undermine the intent of investing in customer support.

Where to Learn MoreWeb Sites:

Online Customer Support 101: www.lowter.com/article/customer-support

Customer Support Thyself: www.timeinc.net/b2/subscribers/articles/0,17863,602639–2,00.html