E-commerce mantra this holiday season: customer service

As published in Interactive PR & Marketing News, 9.17.99

By Paul Entin

I’m amazed that article after e-commerce article continues to focus on secure transactions as the critical stumbling block to unleashing consumer buying power over the Internet. Online retailers relying on secure servers and encryption codes to instill confidence in their shoppers are missing the boat. In fact, that boat set sail last year when e-commerce sales totaled $37.6 billion, according to eStats. Clearly, consumers are secure in online security. But 1999 e-commerce totals may fail to approach eStats’ projections of $98.4 billion unless online retailers pay close attention to their customers, not as entries in their databases, but as people.

Getting Personal

That’s the approach Nordstrom’s made famous as the undisputed leader in retail customer service. Yet many online retailers have scrapped decades of retail research and experience in favor of creating obstacles that aggravate their customers, damage company image and prevent the long-term relationships that drive sales from being established. It’s mind-boggling that many e-commerce companies routinely keep customers on hold for 20 minutes or longer. And that many e-commerce Web sites fail to include even a phone number! Or require line after line of personal information simply to provide feedback by email. It’s no wonder that 13% of online shoppers in a recent study by e-BuyersGuide.com said they would not revisit the e-commerce sites where they had shopped. I can’t think of too many businesses that can survive while discarding 13% of its customers as standard procedure.

Raising the Bar

It is safe to say that during the 1998 holiday season, many online retailers underestimated the rate at which consumers would embrace online shopping. Many consumers expected Nordstrom’s-quality service online and were furious when the service they received more closely resembled the service in their banks: slow, uncaring, arrogant and/or nonexistent. In the rush towards automation and efficiency, many retailers became so enraptured with how easily they could setup shop online that they forgot to consider making it easy on their customers. Many forgot about forging the connections among people that promote goodwill, create positive word of mouth and spark repeat traffic. If anything is to be learned from the 1998 holiday season, it’s that access to a live person frequently instills the final measure of comfort and confidence needed to close an online purchase. Imagine how many shopping carts en route to the cash register were emptied and discarded simply for lack of access to a person able to respond to a quick question.

Going the Distance

Seth Levy, president of EBWorld.com, the Internet division of global software retailer Electronics Boutique, did imagine that and swore his company would not only improve its ability to respond quickly to online questions, but its customer service staff would deliver the same expertise for which its traditional retail staff had become recognized. After missing out on a chunk of holiday season sales, the company invested in a bricks-mortar e-commerce customer service center. Featuring an array of high-tech equipment linking the Internet with service personnel and fulfillment, the facility is actually a tool for bringing its people closer to its worldwide customer base. Its staff is comprised of people who feel passionately about playing video games. They are available by phone or by instant messaging 24 hours per day, every day.

An Unfair Comparison?

Maybe it isn’t fair for consumers to expect this type of service from every online retailer in the world. But it isn’t unreasonable to walk into Home Depot and expect to find someone to point you towards the paintbrushes and someone else to ring up your purchases during the store’s hours of operation. For better or for worse, this level of service is expected – certainly in the United States. But many online retailers were originally attracted to the Internet by the lure of this low overhead, service-free business model that conducted transactions at virtually no cost. And many still cling to this fantasy in the face of its resounding rejection by consumers. Many will not survive through the holiday season of 1999.

E-commerce in today’s cutthroat environment is a 24/7 proposition. Online retailers that commit the resources to creating a pleasant shopping experience for the customer, from the home page to home delivery, and provide a range of value-added services, will be well positioned to thrive as premier online shopping destinations.

–Paul Entin is president of epr, a full service marketing and PR firm based in Hunterdon County, NJ.

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