The Internet has raised consumer’s expectations for fast and reliable service. Today, merchants not only have to concentrate on carrying the products their customers want and need — and at competitive prices — they also have to offer superior customer service, including lightning fast order fulfillment. In fact, it can be argued that customer service is now a more important differentiator than product.
So what are the key things a merchant must do in order to deliver “world-class” customer service? Here are a few takeaways:
Keep accurate inventory
Inventory accuracy is critical to customer satisfaction as it is what enables merchants to fulfill orders in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. To keep accurate inventory and maintain fast order fill rates, merchants are implementing computer inventory systems, many of which give call center agents and other order processors instant access to highly accurate information on what inventory is available to ship.
Remember that incorrect inventory information can cost you much more than the immediate sale – it can cost you your customer – for life. For this reason you must strive for 99%-plus accuracy. In many cases, parts and supplies can be ordered in such a manner as to not require extraordinary or “heroic” actions. But there are those circumstances where the ability to respond quickly is a key element in overall customer satisfaction and a significant area where customer loyalty can be fostered or lost.
Be flexible on shipping
Once an order is filled, you must offer appropriate shipping options to the customer — complete with cost and time to delivery forecasts. The Internet has led to an “instant gratification” syndrome that affects both industrial purchasers and consumers. The customer must always be allowed select the option that best serves their requirements.
Offer order tracking
Real time order and shipment tracking is essential. Today, all the major carriers offer real time tracking and tracing via the Web, allowing customers to track their shipments themselves. Of course, the risk you run in offering order tracking is that it can expose any mistakes you make on the fulfillment side — such as a missed ship date.
Make sure invoices are accurate
Timely and accurate invoicing is also a customer expectation — and failure here could undo all your previous hard work. Billing errors complicate the transaction, take time to correct, and can lead to a lasting bad impression.
Accept returns with a smile
Make it as easy as possible for customers to return products. Many firms include return instructions, labels and other items in the original shipment. Given carrier choices available today, using the return option that imposes the least burden on your customer is always the best choice.
Also, your computer system must be able to quickly process returns, particularly if there is a credit or refund to be issued to the customer. If an item is returned for repair, you must provide your customer with all pertinent details, such as when the repair will be made and when the customer can expect the item to be reshipped.
Always follow up
Every world-class merchant uses some form of post-sale follow up to measure or guarantee customer satisfaction. Whether conducting a brief customer satisfaction survey by telephone, e-mail or surface mail, or pointing your customers to a comments section on your Website, this last step lets your customer know you care about how the transaction was viewed from their perspective.
Remember, aftermarket support can be as critical, if not more so, than the factors that led to original selection. Repeat business may well rest on the post sale support, whether at the industrial or consumer level.
Tie it all together
Finally, it is important to keep a high-level view of how all of these service elements come together to create the overall customer experience. This is where software and systems can play a key role. Good systems not only give you instant access to the information you need to wow your customers and improve service, they also perform analytics that help you quickly and accurately identify where you need improvement in each phase of the order cycle.
Such systems become all the more powerful when combined with a highly motivated workforce that wants to see your company succeed.
Walter Weart is a freelance writer with more than 40 years experience in logistics and transportation.