five ways to ruin your e-commerce program

Legions of Websites are falling prey to five common customer service mistakes. Here’s how to make sure your site isn’t one of them

The world is fascinated by the Web, and Web-based transactions are soaring. More and more people are anxious to tell you how they’ve bought something over the ‘Net, and they announce it with the same pride as a little kid who jumped into the deep end of the pool for the first time.

That analogy has a striking degree of truth to it, in fact: Most online merchants have also jumped into the deep end – without really knowing how to swim. Alarmingly, many e-marketers fail to recognize the significance of core functions such as customer service, distribution, and returns. Many boast of their commitment to world-class customer service for their Wall Street audience but don’t have a clue about what it takes to actually deliver it.

Not enough merchants realize there is a specific science and craftsmanship required to deliver today’s expected level of service and efficiency. Similarly, many Web merchants are surprised by the difficulty and cost of delivering efficient operations.

They may be making one (or more) of the five most common service-related mistakes – but you don’t have to.

Mistake #1: Convince yourself that you know all there is about customer convenience on the Web.

For all the marketing savvy and technological innovations of the Web, few e-merchants have really made the effort to streamline the e-commerce process from the customers’ standpoint. A recent survey by Internet consulting firm NetSmart indicated that 83% of surfers have left sites in frustration over poor navigation, slow downloads, and other inconveniences. What’s more, my company’s testing has shown that the average Web order takes 8-12 minutes if you know what you want, compared to about 3 minutes for a traditional phone order.

In a nutshell, Web shoppers want the same thing traditional catalog shoppers want: easy, quick shopping. They also want features that enhance the purchasing process. (Of course, offering “extras” is where most Websites get into trouble. Only a small percentage provide online order inquiry capabilities, for instance.)


– Give customers easy, intuitive navigation with the shortest route possible to the desired items.

– Allow online shoppers to check inventory availability and the costs of shipping upgrade options.

– Make sure your Website provides basic options, such as the ability to cancel orders that haven’t yet shipped.

– Offer some “extras,” such as giving buyers the ability to send items to multiple addresses. And send e-mail reminders of specific gift-giving dates.

– And perhaps most important, offer real, live humans with appropriate training for customers to turn to when there is some sort of question or problem.

Mistake #2: Insist that handling e-mail is no big deal.

Customer service departments are reeling from a deluge of e-mail. Some of our clients report receiving more than 100 e-mails for every 100 online orders. And e-mail generally requires considerably more time and effort to resolve than a typical service call, since inbound e-mails are usually text messages that must be read, interpreted, and then manually routed to the appropriate party for research and resolution.

The e-mail problem is compounded when customers fail to provide basic contact and order data in their messages. One client has to return nearly 50% of incoming e-mails to the senders with a request for more information so that the customers and their supporting history can be found on the system. This wildly inflates the volume of e-mail.

Most service centers are responding to the onslaught by throwing more people and time at the problem. While that may help somewhat, it’s a small bandage on a big wound.


– Ship on a timely basis. E-mail increases geometrically as orders are delayed.

– Provide other means for a customer to contact you, such as a telephone number or scheduled callbacks.

– Maintain thorough FAQs and service policies on your site. Periodically survey the inquiries you receive and modify your FAQs to address the most common queries.

– Provide online order inquiry through the Website, allowing customers to review their order status independently.

– Implement an e-mail template with specific fields for basic contact information (name, zip, phone, address, order number), “check here” fields where the customers can indicate the basic inquiry type, and a text area for the details. Setting up that sort of template is pretty simple – it can usually be done through HTML coding.

– Purchase automated e-mail handling systems to ensure that e-mails are sent to the proper person or department. They organize and route e-mail to the appropriate parties based on keywords in the inbound message. Some systems can even generate automated responses based on the nature of the inquiry. (But many marketers who use automated systems to prepare responses for cancellations and information requests always manually check the response before sending it, given the diversity of inquiries.) Automated systems run in price from around $20,000 to well over $100,000. Considerably less expensive are automatic acknowledgement systems, which immediately let customers know that their message was received and indicate when they might expect a reply.

– Integrate e-mail handling and correspondence into your order management and processing systems. As archaic as it seems, a majority of online marketers are still printing e-mails off the e-mail server so that they can be researched on a separate order processing system. The customer service rep (CSR) must then return to the e-mail server to send a response. In an integrated system, the e-mail could be received, read, and responded to directly through the inquiry function on the host system.

Mistake #3: Underestimate the importance of effectively servicing phone orders and inquiries.

Even many companies that do not promote phone ordering on their Websites are finding that up to 40% of their Web-generated orders are actually being placed by telephone. While this percentage may drop somewhat as convenience improves on the Web and customers grow more confident in this medium, the telephone and even mail and fax will remain important elements of your ordering and service channel. What’s more, there will always be situations where customers need some adjustment, experience a problem, or have questions that fall outside the information available on the Website. In these cases there is no acceptable substitute for a human representative capable of understanding a situation and providing a prompt, suitable response.


– Expand the training of your CSRs to include familiarity with your Website’s content and organization. Reps must also be proficient in technical issues so that they can respond to the inevitable questions about browsers, shopping carts, and other Web-specific features.

– Consider implementing scheduled callbacks. Callback software allows customers to indicate when they are available for a return call and forwards to the CSR the e-mail of the inquiry with relevant data such as pages visited. Again, implementing this is just a matter of programming your existing systems or buying a software package.

Mistake #4: Don’t measure service performance.

Many e-merchants have no idea how they are doing in terms of customer service – nor do they know how to find out. But good service doesn’t happen by accident.


– Create and maintain a strict program of standards for every activity, and an up-to-the-minute reporting structure to monitor performance for each standard. Critical indicators and typical service expectations include:

– total time to ship: 90% shipped within 24 hours

– fulfillment accuracy: more than 99.5% error-free

– e-mail response time: same day/next morning

– telephone speed of answer: 80% answered in 20 seconds

– telephone abandonment rate: less than 2.5% abandoned

– Publish daily operating status reports that track workload, production, and carryover for each activity. Diligent use of status reports allows management to identify potential backlogs as they emerge rather than after it’s too late, and to reallocate resources accordingly.

Mistake #5: Rest on your laurels.

Low volume is forgiving: Homegrown methods and processes that seem to work now may well fall apart as Web ordering volume and service expectations increase. And if there is a single thing that is expected from the Web, it is explosive growth.

As your online business grows, you may find yourself crunched for warehouse space. Other pinch points may include inefficient order picking and shipping methods, overtaxed call centers, serious e-mail backlogs, and poor inventory control. The results: high operating costs, wicked order processing backlogs, and worst of all, deteriorating service levels.


– Frequent operation reviews, with a focus on process improvement.

– Workload management and production planning.

– Benchmarking against standards and against similar operations.

– Fulfillment status and service level reporting.

– Proactive systems management.

World-class customer service doesn’t come from spending big money or building jazzy Websites. It comes only from understanding what customers expect, defining specific service standards, and fine-tuning every aspect of the fulfillment process to stay ahead of the pitch.

Spaide, Kuipers & Co., has been evaluating the effectiveness of e-commerce sites based on customer convenience rather than technology or marketing pizzazz. The company assigns each site a score for each of about a dozen convenience factors, which are weighted and summarized into a final Customer Convenience Index (CCI) rating. Factors include navigation, availability of relevant information, ordering options, and handling of e-mail. So far, the highest CCI score is a mere 84 on a scale of 100. The biggest problem is that although most sites score well in some areas, none provide all of the features included in the evaluation.

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