Web customer service

Jul 08, 2008

Sometime back, I wanted to get a subscription to Mercury News (www.mercurynews.com) and like a true Silicon Valley techie, went to the website to subscribe online. My only worry was that I shouldn't get caught in a web of forms and do get a chance to decline the 'email offers'. Pleasantly, the process was simple and done in less than 2 minutes. I received a confirmation which directed me to call a representative if I don't get a paper within 5 days. A week went by and still no paper, so I called their office. The customer service took my details and informed me that my order does NOT exist !! When I mentioned the confirmation, he said that he does not find anything in the system and that I should try to place the order again.

There are multiple problems with the Mercury News ordering process, if one can call it a process at all. Which shows, that even the best businesses sometimes flounder over basic issues when dealing with web orders.

Online ordering process typically falls under the following two models:

Registration model : This model suits businesses which expect the user to visit the site again and again. Most businesses that sell products online would fall under this category. The registration process gets the customer data one time and just needs the username and password going further, making it convenient for the customer.

Guest Model : Ordering a paper subscription would probably fall under this category, or at least could be a choice for the customer. Ideally, since the business has greater benefit with registered users, it makes sense to provide an incentive to the customer to register. For a news agency, the incentive could be as simple as allowing access to privileged articles online or allow them to search archived news. However, the guest model does help customers who do not want to give their email (to avoid spam) or want a quick checkout sans registration.

Here are some basic tenets to follow for an online ordering process:

1. Make the ordering process very simple. Ask for information that is really required for processing the order. The most important data would be one that allows a feedback loop back to the customer (an email address is the de-facto standard for this today). This is important because you potentially have a way to contact the customer for additional information or clarification. If you go to amazon.com, it asks you one simple question: what it your e-mail address? Simple and efficient, because now it can identify you AND contact you anytime.

2. Create a tracking model. Provide a confirmation number to the customer, on the order confirmation page as well as in an email. This is important to reduce customer support issues, since it becomes easy to track and lookup the order. Ideally the order number could be linked to a support system/service like Kayako, which would maintain a history for the customer issues.

3. Encourage self-service. Allow the customer to view the order details anytime he/she wants. Some customers are paranoid, so it helps to feed updated information. If you can update the page dynamically with ordering and shipping information, it reduces the support costs further. For example, I have never spoken to a Fedex support person, since ALL the information I need is available to me instantly on their website. Allow the customer to update personal details like address, phone number etc. This helps in reducing costs while keeping their information current.

4. Identify your customer. If you are shipping a physical item to the user, and card transaction is involved, you need to have a way to verify the customer information. Email verification is typically done by sending an email with a unique token in the content. Address verification could be done using third party merchant services, along with card verification (e.g. Authorize.net)

6. Integrate the customer data. If possible, funnel the data into the back-end ERP/SCM systems. This would apply mostly to the big businesses, but there are cost-efficient ways even for mid-size companies to transfer data back and forth between the web-front and the back-end systems using some kind of a home-grown enterprise application integration (EAI).

Back to the Mercury News. I received an email in about 2 weeks soliciting me to a subscription to the paper. Looks like they did save my email address but only with the marketing department. There is nothing funnier than trying to subscribe to a process and in turn getting an offer for the same subscription. Which brings up another scenario of poor service. How many times have you received an offer from a business, where you are already a customer (even using the same physical address)? I have received quite a few.

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