An introduction to customer service channels for ecommerce businesses

The support you offer your customers both during and after purchase is a vital part of your ecommerce business. In this guide we outline the role of different customer service channels to help you determine which could work well for your business and help you deliver the best service.

Guide

12 min read

1. Why is customer service important for ecommerce?

It’s easier to retain customers than find new ones so great customer service can help grow your business by building loyalty from your customers and encouraging return sales.

According to research by Salesforce, almost 90% of consumers are more likely to purchase again from a company after a good customer service experience, and it has been shown that increasing customer retention by just 5% can boost profits by over 20%.

However, on the flip side of this, bad customer support experiences can not only hurt your customer retention (by putting off those lucrative returning customers) but can also impact your customer acquisition by generating negative reviews online, which can cripple ecommerce businesses.

It is therefore vital that you invest the appropriate time and budget to support your customers, and that you select the most appropriate channels to do this.

2. What is customer service?

Customer service is how you support customers to purchase from your online shop, and use your products or services.

This includes:

  • Facilitating sales. Guiding your customers through the actual process of purchasing, receiving, and returning your products or services.
  • Answering queries. Supporting your customers with any specific queries they have regarding your product or service.
  • Providing after-sales care. This ensures your customers are actually able to use your product or service once they receive it.
  • Resolving problems. Successfully dealing with issues and complaints as quickly and efficiently as possible, for example problems with damaged or missing items, issues with late delivery, or dissatisfaction with the product or service.

There are three main methods for providing that support:

  • Self-service support. Providing resources for customers to find answers to questions themselves.
  • Proactive support. Automatically providing information at specific times to pre-empt customer needs, perhaps triggered at a certain point in the order process or by a customer’s action.
  • 1-2-1 support. Ensuring customers can liaise directly with a member of staff when they want to or need to.

There is a place for each of these in any business.

3. Self-service support

Most people are happy - or even prefer - to try to find information or resolve an issue themselves first. For some, if they can’t do that, they will “bounce” to a competitor where they can.

Start by mapping out all of the information customers will need to know about your business and your products to be able to make a decision to buy, what information they need once they receive the product, and how you can direct them to get help if there is a problem. To help get you started, review the types of questions that already come in from customers.

Then work out how you are going to structure, create and present that information. Remember that different types of information may be best provided in different formats. For example technical information could be best delivered in downloadable format, whereas instructional information could work best in video. So, consider if it may be appropriate to provide your content in different formats.

Website content

Your customers will expect to find all essential information on your website and that it is easily accessible.

Your web analytics may show a split between people who use traditional navigation to find information and those who jump straight to the search box on your site. You need to cater for both, making sure there is a logical structure to how you present information and link between it.

The types of help content you need to provide could include:

  • Facilitating sales. There will be lots of standard information that almost all of your customers will want to know (product dimensions, delivery options, lead times, etc.) and so it makes sense to cover these off on your website. Create a standard approach for listing all your products to ensure you never forget to include key information.
  • Answering queries. Presenting information in an FAQ format can make it more engaging and reassure customers that others have similar questions.
  • Providing after sales care. Provide links to assembly instructions or maintenance guides for your product directly from the product page. For more complex products like software, you may even want to create a knowledge base. If you discontinue products, ensure you have a place on your site where customers can still find that information.
  • Resolving problems. There should always be easy to access contact details for how customers can get in touch directly if they need to.

Chatbot

Fast growing businesses may find it difficult to have enough people to answer incoming customer queries, especially if customers need support at all hours of the day, 24/7. If many of those queries are standard, then a chatbot could be a useful way of signposting users to key information.

Chatbots are computer programmes that allow businesses to interact with their customers digitally but using a chat interface or messaging service bot to do this in a “humanlike” or conversational way. Many customers are happy to use these on a business’s own website or app or even via third-party channels such as Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.

There’s a range of levels of sophistication for developing chatbots:

  • auto-responses on Facebook Messenger
  • an off-the-shelf software where you can automate your own questions and answers on a rule-based chatbot
  • artificial intelligence chatbots that use machine learning to understand the context of a question, and apply that in an answer and even generate their own answers and use more natural language.

The more sophisticated bots are still quite expensive for small businesses, especially as they can’t fully replace real people to deliver proper customer service. However, even small ecommerce businesses could benefit from basic rule-based chatbots.

To decide if it could be worth investigating for your business, you need to see if there could be improved customer service standards and cost savings.

Analyse all the incoming queries you receive from your direct response channels at the moment.

  • Establish how many of these were standard queries where the answer is always the same, compared with those where a person had to provide more bespoke information.
  • Review how long it takes until customers receive an initial response and have their query concluded.
  • Monitor how much time it takes to handle the standard queries and, therefore, how much that costs in staff time over a year.

From there you can look at whether the cost of setting up and using a service from an eCommerce chatbot provider could be worthwhile.

Before deciding, it’s worth remembering:

  • For standard queries, you could also look at improving your website content to answer these better or in different ways such as video first
  • You will never eliminate all standard queries as sometimes people just want to engage with a real member of your staff.
  • You will need to set it up to refer customers to a human if customers are having to repeat questions or the same answer is repeatedly generated.

4. Proactive support

With this type of support you proactively provide the information customers need at the time they are likely to need it, purely through technology or through an automatic process which brings in a customer service agent at the best time.

Automated email and SMS

Automated emails and SMS (text messages) are a very valuable customer support tool, used by most ecommerce businesses to support customers throughout the purchase process. These keep customers informed of their purchase status, which in turn can help reduce inbound queries on delivery. Furthermore, these messages are often delivered by your ecommerce software.

These automated messages can help you:

  • Facilitate sales. Auto-generated notifications of order confirmations and invoices, dispatch notes and delivery information, labels or next steps for returns are the types of transactional emails that most customers expect as standard.
  • Answer queries. Pre-empting any questions about deliveries and returns processes by including this in an email can be helpful.
  • Provide after-sales care. A well-timed email around time of delivery can help customers make the most of their purchase and find it easy to use and assemble, as any information they received at time of order may have been forgotten or lost by this point. This might include automatically emailing information (such as installation guides or technical documentation for software downloads, assembly instructions for furniture items, etc.) or how to access ongoing support (such as 1-2-1 sessions with course purchases).
  • Resolve problems. Generally automated emails are “no-reply” as they are not intended to be a platform for a dialogue. But you can ensure that every email you send has clear instructions on how customers can reach you directly, which saves customers having to navigate your website to find that information.

This article on how to choose an email marketing platform outlines some of the things to look for when choosing a platform to send automated transactional emails and text messages to support great customer service.

Proactive outbound phone calls

Some ecommerce businesses sell a particularly complex offering, very high end or bespoke items, or products which require considerable delivery effort. For these businesses, proactively calling customers after they have placed an order or right before a scheduled delivery can act as a “stitch-in-time” approach to prevent issues which will later require far more time-consuming customer service support or costly returns.

For example, one company selling household appliances calls customers to double check the online order they have placed is exactly what they intended to order, to discuss delivery details, and clarify the customer’s situation and requirements. This means they can collect details that are hard to capture on online forms or are easily missed (e.g. if the customer needs help to install the appliance, they check if the customer remembered to request that). The customer services agent will also note down any unusual circumstances which could hold up delivery drivers, causing knock-on delays to other deliveries.

When you consider how costly returns of these items would be for an incorrect order, or how long an unexpectedly complex installation could take, then it is clear the value that is provided by a proactive phone call.

Outbound calls can also be used to proactively follow up sales to gather feedback, although this has to be done carefully to avoid customers perceiving it as a nuisance call.

5. 1-2-1 support

It is essential to provide one or more 1-2-1 direct response channels for your customers to contact you directly. This is important to customers when it comes to developing a relationship and building trust, particularly with digital businesses.

As this is the most resource intensive support option for your business, there are a few considerations to take before determining the best channels to provide this.

  • Start by identifying which channels your customers are likely to want to use. For example, older audiences will often expect to be able to speak to someone on the phone whereas younger people are sometimes more comfortable engaging through digital channels.
  • Balance this by considering which channels your business can realistically commit to. There’s no point offering several different communication options, and then finding that you can’t manage them all. If you are a small shop or just starting out, select the channels you know you can manage and take the time to get these right, then consider adding more or upgrading as you grow or as the need arises. Much better to offer a good service on fewer channels, than overstretch and offer a poor service on many.
  • Set realistic expectations on response times. People want issues resolved quickly so response time is key, however don’t overpromise. It’s better to be honest rather than saying you guarantee a response within one hour if you can’t meet this.
  • Gather feedback. Direct response channels are a great way to get feedback. For example, if most complaints are about one area of your business you know where to focus more effort. If you get the same queries again and again, add more information to your site. If people are requesting specific things, consider if this could be a new product or service.
  • Monitor your response performance. Whatever systems you use, keep track of how long it takes for you to provide the first response e.g. answering the phone, responding to chat or replying to an email. Look at how many queries come in and understand the length of time to resolve problems. Consider this alongside general customer satisfaction levels with your business as a whole through feedback surveys or monitoring your Net Promoter Score.

Inbound phone calls

Many businesses will have self-service and automated information in place to reduce the resource needed to service unnecessary inbound calls.

But inevitably, customers sometimes need or want to speak to another person, and from a business perspective, this is not always a bad thing as 1-2-1 conversations with customers can generate very valuable insights and feedback.

Whether you are a small shop or a larger operation, processes and systems must be in place so it is a positive experience for your customers and any staff. For example queries and issues need to be logged correctly to ensure that they can be resolved, and you must be able to access your customers’ orders quickly to help them during the call.

To get the most from this channel, remember:

  • Long wait times can exacerbate issues, but this can be minimised if a caller knows where they are in the call queue and/or is able to request a call back rather than wait.
  • Staff training and product knowledge is very important - no customer wants to be transferred from person to person, having to repeat their story because they are speaking to someone who doesn’t know how to help.

Social media

Over the last decade or so - with the boom in brands having a presence on social platforms - social media has become a go-to customer service channel for customers looking for answers to their queries or resolution to issues. This is because customers generally believe they will get a quicker response via social media, due to its public nature. In fact, many big companies have dedicated social media accounts just for customer support (often on Twitter).

This means, if you have a social presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., chances are your customers will get in touch with you on these platforms. The types of support you are likely to support on social media include:

  • Answering queries - where you can provide short answers to specific questions and point to more information on your site.
  • Resolving problems - many users turn to social media when they have an issue or grievance they want resolved. Providing prompt, professional and helpful responses here is key.

It is therefore important that you factor your social platforms into your customer service offering. Make sure that you:

  • Set notifications and regularly check your social platforms for any customer communications.
  • Respond promptly and politely, remember this is a public forum and the responses you give will be seen by potential customers.
  • Remember that you should not be sharing personal data or asking for personal data in public forums so if queries are specific, you will need to take the conversation offline.
  • Deal with negative comments and complaints fairly, promptly and professionally without being defensive. Develop a policy to deal with social complaints so that the issues get resolved as much as possible and future customers can trust that you will provide a quality service. With overly negative comments try and take the conversation offline where you can.
  • Create a template of responses to common queries.
  • Create social media guidelines for anyone in your business who responds online, to help ensure the support is always professional and on-brand.
  • To find out more about how to manage social customer services, see our guide on responding to customers online.

Live chat

More people, especially younger generations, now feel that live chat is a good alternative to phone calls.

It’s quite simple for your customers to use and enables real-time online chats to take place in a chat box on your website. Your customers simply type a short query in the window, and press send. Then your agent replies. In contrast with a chatbot, your visitors communicate directly with a human customer service agent.

With this software, you can have a chat window on any web page, so as soon as a customer can’t find the information they need, they can reach out for help more quickly than phoning or emailing and this can mean they are less tempted to switch to a competitor’s site. Your customers do not need to install anything on their own devices to use it.

You can automate the chat window with a pre-populated message so it appears at points you know a customer may need help, e.g. when they have been spending a long time selecting a product or choosing delivery options.

From a business perspective, live chat can enable one customer service agent to be in dialogue with several customers at the same time (not possible on a phone call), and they can use pre-planned answers to standard queries to speed up response times.

There is scope for more sophistication when it comes to personalisation. You can request a customers’ name and email address up front, and then the customer service agent can see previous order history, or use it to follow up with additional information following a live chat. You can encourage sign up for newsletters and integrate this data with your CRM system.

But as always with more data-led options, don’t forget the basics.

  • Customers expect a very quick response with live chat and if you cannot deliver that, they will be frustrated.
  • Also some customers will not be happy sharing too much personal information and may find attempts to be too personal are intrusive. It’s all about balance.

Email

Studies consistently show email as the preferred option of around 25% of users. It is equally relevant to both small and large ecommerce businesses and often provides a cost-effective, manageable way to service your customers.

Email is an accepted and effective channel for answering incoming customer queries related to facilitating sales, right through to providing after-sales care and responding to problems.

There are two main benefits to using email:

  • Technical simplicity. For small companies and those starting out, it can often be easier to use than other digital channels as it is a tool almost everyone is familiar with. For you as a business, it has a low barrier to entry, as all you need to start this channel is an inbox.
  • Less immediacy and more depth. Also email affords you or your team a little more time to get back as it is not an ‘immediate response’ channel like phone calls and live chat. It is also easier to provide more in-depth information via email than short text messages and chat.

Customer service management tools

It may be worthwhile for larger businesses to use more sophisticated tools to manage and ticket a larger number of incoming email queries as well as live chat or social media interactions.

Features and benefits vary across different systems but the following capabilities may be available:

  • Manage a queue or requests, prioritise and track responses.
  • Help several customer service agents collaborate if information needs to be gathered across the team for a single response.
  • Prevent duplication of effort with people accidently responding to the same person at the same time.
  • At peak times divert customers from live chat to email.
  • Tagging options to help categorise enquiries to trigger specific workflows and assist with reporting.
  • Customer data can be pulled through so agents can understand the history of any previous interactions whether positive or negative.

Examples of customer service management tools include:

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