Providing Internet Services

Last Updated Jun 19, 2007 7:29 PM EDT

What You Need to Know

How can I offer services online without weakening my customer relationships?

It's natural to be concerned that offering Internet services will damage your company's reputation for offering high-quality and personal service. Remember, though, that offering simple Internet services will free your staff to offer other, more complex and personal service where required. In addition, it could be argued that companies need to provide Internet services in today's market, since customers expect and demand to find information online. If your Web site is of high quality and provides beneficial information, it should enhance, not hurt, your customer relationships.

How can I minimize my liability if a customer makes a mistake using Web site information?

First, assess the risk you face. Liability can be a concern if your organization provides advice or guidance through the Internet. You can minimize your risk by including a warning or disclosure on your site that says something like: "You should seek professional advice before taking any action."

Should I provide all service through the Internet?

While providing customers with Internet services is often beneficial, there are areas where it falls short. It is recommended to offer telephone back-up service or another personal service option for customers who can't (or don't want to) find information online. If necessary, you can charge a fee for personal service to discourage overuse.

What to Do

Consider Which Internet Services to Provide

Some areas where providing Internet services may be beneficial include information delivery, direct sales, sales administration, and customer or technical support. Consider which services would offer more convenience for customers if they were offered online, or free up staff to work on more complex projects.

Offer Online Ordering

Online ordering allows customers to instantly obtain information on products online, place an order at their convenience, and then track their order status through a Web site. Customers appreciate the value of this service and report substantial time savings when ordering products in this manner. Companies also recognize cost and other advantages, including improved customer satisfaction. A good, secure, and efficient online ordering system can strengthen customer relationships and offer a point of differentiation from other suppliers.

Provide Customized Services

Finding ways to customize the user experience and provide tailored information based on a customer's interests can be important for fostering a rewarding customer experience online. You might, for instance, customize information for individual user profiles, making service delivery more convenient and cost-effective for the customer. Many companies offer business customers with personalized web pages that contain order information and technical support for the products they use.

You also can use information that customers provide through their use of your site to recommend other products or services that might be of interest to them. For instance, sites such as Amazon.com offer product recommendations based on past orders or pages viewed.

Maximize Customer Convenience

Customers expect Web sites to be easy to use and navigate. They expect a range of services, personalized to their needs. And they expect service to be available at all times of day or night. Providing a convenient, comprehensive, and easy-to-use Web site that is well supported will provide your company with a unique point of differentiation and strengthen your customer relationships. Customers will be likely to return to your site for information again and again.

Provide Automated Tools

Some Web sites offer useful, automated tools that anyone can use to estimate mortgage payments, get insurance quotes, or compare product offerings. These types of tools can provide a valuable service and, in the process, link customers with products that may be of interest to them. Though a person might come to the site only to find information, they may end up making a purchase.

Offer Customer Support Services

Customer support is critical to good customer relationships, but many companies see it as expensive and time consuming. Offering customer support online can help reduce costs and free up staff to work on other projects. Online support also can increase the speed and convenience in which customers receive support and reduce long telephone wait times. When offering online support, it is recommended to offer choices for customers in how they access information. For instance, you might allow customers to ask questions through text messaging, voiceover IP, e-mail, fax, or Web forms. You should also have a telephone line for back-up support for more complex problems.

Speed Up Troubleshooting

Online customer support can also be useful for speeding up troubleshooting, reducing supplier costs and saving customers' time. Some simple ways to improve troubleshooting are to include a frequently asked questions (FAQs) section or online service database on your Web site to resolve common issues. Going farther, the latest support tools use powerful data mining and knowledge management to make troubleshooting even more efficient. All support knowledge and experience is captured, managed, and continuously updated in a central database, ensuring rapid access to the latest information. These tools also distinguish trends, identify emerging or recurring problems, and provide alternative resources for support.

Encourage Customer Community

Many technology support Web sites allow customers to form discussion groups or view forums to help each other solve problems. Customers answer other customers' technical questions and help each other out publicly on the company's Web site. Facilitating customer community in this way can further reduce support costs and increase the base of knowledge from which to resolve issues or complaints. It may also increase customer loyalty by creating virtual communities of product users, who are more likely to become product advocates.

Deliver Superior Service

Though it is great to offer online services, they will be of little value to you or your customers if they are not of high quality. Your Web site should be comprehensive, easy to use, technically accessible, and continuously available. It is also important to offer a back-up support system for customers in case they are not able to find what they need online. For this reason, a telephone support line is recommended.

What to Avoid

You Fail to Enhance Online Services Using Customer Information

Online services can provide loads of information on customer information requirements, support needs, and purchasing habits. Be sure you use this information to continuously improve your customers' online experience and develop new, useful, and more personalized services. Failing to analyze customer data gathered through online activity represents a missed opportunity and could result in your Web site becoming outdated.

You Don't Offer a Variety of Choices

Before developing any online services, you should ask your customers how they prefer to receive support or order products from you. Likely, you will need to offer a variety of service and support options to meet different customer needs. In some cases, you might choose to offer some services for free and charge for others. Online services would be just one of many support options, enabling customers to select a support method that works best for them.

Your Service Is Inferior or Unreliable

Customers expect online services to be of high quality, easy to use, comprehensive, and continuously available. Be sure that your Web site is well supported and maintained. Inferior quality services will only hurt your company's reputation.

You Address Complex Issues Online

Generally, simple issues are best suited to online support systems. Common problems can easily be resolved through updates, news briefs, and FAQs sections. Complex issues, however, are more effectively handled through in-person or telephone support.

Where to Learn More

Books:

Fleischer, Joe, and Brendan Read. The Complete Guide to Customer Support: How to Turn Technical Assistance into a Profitable Relationship. New York: CMP Books, 2002.

Seybold, Patricia. Customers.com: How to Create a Profitable Business Strategy for the Internet and Beyond. New York: Crown Business, 1998.

Web Site:

Patricia Seybold Group: www.psgroup.com