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Best practices for online customer service

6 min read
Joanne Kaldy

Nearly 80 percent of consumers have decided not to complete a transaction or make an intended purchase because of a “poor service experience.” So if you have an online component to your business — website, email and/or social media — you need a way to ensure effective online customer service.

We live in an online world. “I’m not working on my own personal island,” says Julie Painter, vice president of constituency affairs and governance at the American Health Care Association.“We are all a team and trying to reach the same goal.” Whether you have one employee or 1,000, every online interaction is an opportunity for customer service. A combination of innovative technology and old-fashioned communication can help ensure your success.

Related: Customer service survival guide for small businesses

Time is money

Just recently, I tried to change a hotel reservation by calling the booking company. The agent who took my call made a mistake, and instead of changing my reservation, he cancelled it. It took me two more phone calls and an hour of my time to address the situation; and the solution still wasn’t satisfactory — I had to book a more expensive hotel farther away from my destination. The booking company offered me a $100 credit, but this didn’t really make up for my time and trouble. My point?

Your customers expect you to value their time and resolve issues quickly and to their satisfaction.

Julie described her association’s online customer service process: “We have an online option where anyone can click on and ask a question. Our webmaster then figures out who on staff can best provide an answer. He might even send it to a few people. Our policy is to get back to the person right away to acknowledge their inquiry and resolve the issue within 24 hours.”

Julie notes that the webmaster will follow up to ensure that the issue was handled and find out how it was resolved. She stresses that inquiries that come from other sources (such as conversations with members about other issues) also are handled quickly. She says:

“If someone is contacting us with a concern or challenge, they want the person on the other side to acknowledge their frustration. We try to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what they are dealing with and feeling.”

Everyone on staff, even those who don’t routinely handle customer service, should be trained to be empathetic and patient.

Related: The small business owner’s guide to smart customer responses

24/7 online customer service made easy

Online Customer Service Clocks

One of the challenges of online customer service, especially for small businesses, is the ability to serve customers in a 24-hour world. One innovative solution more companies are exploring is the chatbot, a computer program that mimics conversation with people using artificial intelligence.

Chatbots can answer customers’ inquiries cheaply and quickly; and since they don’t need sleep or require overtime pay, they can efficiently respond to customer inquiries 24/7.

Plus, chatbots can handle a high volume of requests consistently and easily, so you don’t have to worry about customers having to wait during busy times. They also can be used for handling frequently asked questions and simple transactions such as payments, money transfers, bookings and more. This can both reduce service time and operating costs.

Chatbots can direct customers to a live service representative if they can’t resolve the issue. However, this enables your reps to be more efficient because, ideally, the bot has already started the conversation and answered basic questions.

This frees the human rep to focus on the most challenging issues and creatively problem solve.

There are a wide variety of online customer service chatbots. Do some research to find one that is right for you. You should have a clear idea of how you will use the chatbot and what scale, technology and intelligence they need to handle necessary tasks.

Do you need simple automated responses? Then a lower tech bot might be enough for your needs. If you need more than automated responses, you might need a messaging platform that leverages automation, analytics, and integration.

Remember that the best customer service solution appropriately combines automation with human interaction.

Bots can enhance the online customer service experience but they do not replace human interactions.

Take advantage of A-plus apps

Mobile apps are increasingly being used to give people a way to interact with your company wherever they go.

The best customer service apps include the following features:

  • Integrated knowledge bases
  • Real-time reporting
  • The ability to simplify fielding requests via email
  • Social media, phone and online chats
  • Gmail filter-style workflows to automate responses to inquiries

Again, do your due diligence to find the best option for your business.

Related: Customer service performance metrics you need to track

Customize your customer service approach when possible

Online Customer Service Happy

Not all of your customers are alike — they come to you for different products and services — so a one-size-fits-all approach to customer service isn’t the answer. Julie says, “It’s important to know your customers and how they communicate with each other.” For instance, “Some customers still want that voice-to-voice interaction. Especially older customers want a call-in option.” At the same time, she says, “I hear millennials say, ‘Stop with the phone stuff.’ They tend to prefer options such as live chats.”

You need to understand that millennials grew up with the internet and are comfortable doing their own research, so it’s important to have a Frequently Asked Questions page, self-help tools such as troubleshooting guides and links to useful, relevant information.

Younger customers also tend to want a hybrid customer service experience that includes mobile-friendly assistance (apps), 24/7 service (chatbots) and instant access to information (FAQs). They want human contact as an option; however, they don’t want to have to interact with operators when technology is more efficient.

Related: Best practices for professional email support

Remember the basics

However innovative your online customer service is, don’t forget the basics. Julie says, “Have a key gatekeeper, and have a protocol and system for managing inquiries and requests.” Never ignore a request, she urges, or assume that someone else has handled it. “Get back to people with some kind of response.”

Don’t just track and document all customer inquiries and customer service interaction. Analyze these for opportunities — issues that can be added to your FAQs; new apps or others tools that might be helpful; systems, services, or processes that don’t work and need to be changed; and customer demographics and trends that might require a customer service overhaul.