Ecommerce customer service – why is it important?

By 7th April 2014January 20th, 2015Ecommerce

We advise our customers every month about how to make a difference to their business, and their online ecommerce presence. How to edge ahead of competitors in a crowded marketplace, how to stengthen brand loyalty, how to increase average order value, or how to shift the bottom line. Customer service has a huge role to play. And despite involving websites and technology, the delivery of good customer service is pretty simple.

Why is good ecommerce customer service important?

Your unique selling point – it may get you that initial sale and convert a browser into a customer. Online sales in 2014 across Europe average at just over 7% per country.  However, the UK and Germany are way out ahead – in the UK, sales online will account for over 13% of all retail sales.

So that’s nearly 9 out of every 10 purchases are still taking place in a store. And a good percentage of those purchasing in a bricks and mortar store will be doing so for the customer service experience. Putting their choice down to trust, understanding, ability to talk immediately to a salesperson face to face, or thinking they’ll get much better product knowledge, support and care from an in-store experience.

Take a lead from the market leaders in ecommerce in the UK – Amazon, John Lewis, ASOS, Marks and Spencer – they all have something in common. Their customer service is hands down superb.

Recommendations and referrals – I know which companies I trust immensely in the UK. And I go to great lengths to extol their virtues to anyone who asks for recommendations – citing stories of how they went the extra mile, how their delivery service cannot be surpassed or the helpfulness of the staff on email or the phone.

Customer loyalty – great customer service turns one-time customers to loyal brand followers and brand ambassadors. That may even be despite one of the other key indicators being poor – at the point of buying, the price may be higher than competitors, delivery a day later, or the spec not quite what you want – but the amazing customer service from the company wins.

Hard for competitors to copy – your competitors can match your delivery timescales, your stock quantities and variety, your pricing … but copying customer service takes something pretty special.

What can you do to improve ecommerce customer service?

Customer service for startups is often considered a “reactive” response system – something that’s done when someone needs help or, more often than not, has a time-dependent request or complaint to make. The very best customer service solutions are “all pervasive” across all channels.

A clear way to contact you

Econsultancy’s “E-commerce Best Practice Compendium” states that of 2,000 UK consumers surveyed, nearly half (46%) stated that the second most important factor on whether to trust a website when shopping online was “the site displays a clear contact number and address details”.

Remember – you may like to use your website a certain way, but your customers may be coming from many different channels. How about a few variations to mix it up a bit?

  • An office worker, mid-morning, looking to purchase, no phone on their desk and can’t really chat but want to ask a quick question before making a fast purchase this morning;
  • Sat at home on the sofa, phone in hand, with a small-screen device trying to find someone to talk to, to get the perfect product for their needs but struggling to find it worded clearly on any websites;
  • Someone who has been sat on a customer service issue for a few days and finally plucked up courage or found time to put pen to paper to air their grievance and make a request of you.

That’s textual and visual signposts throughout the website – the top header navigation or even higher in the header of the site showing “Contact Us”, “Customer Service”, “Help” or some other wording. The footer showing different ways to contact you.

Add your telephone number clearly in the header or footer.

Add the ability to fill in a contact form, with a clear indication of which department you want to contact, and why.

Introduce live chat

For immediate responses where you have a manned support team or personnel, this can pay for itself in ONE communique from a potential customer. “Hey there, I’m thinking of buying X but I don’t know if …. ” – not only an opportunity to answer off their immediate query, but an ability to guide them through the purchase process and possibly even upsell. Cheap as chips and really effective.

Stats from the new eDigital Customer Service Benchmark report show live chat out in front in terms of customer satisfaction levels with 73% of consumers saying they were happy with their live chat experience. In comparison, email had a 61% satisfaction rate, social media had a 48% satisfaction rate, and phone came in at just 44%.

Shipping options

Provide shipping options that are expected in your market and industry. If you’re a high-end fashion brand in London, then your audience probably expects next day service and probably without charge. If you’re a book company with customers around the UK, then their expectations are probably free delivery in 2-3 days … or an expedited next day service for a sensible charge. Providing overpriced deliveries within 3-5 days, with no breakpoint to get “free” these days will not cut it – your potential customers will think about your competitors first or bricks and mortar local to them.

And use a shipping company that is commensurate with the products you are shipping. DPD have set themselves apart and ahead of their shipping competitors by providing text and email messages for ONE HOUR delivery slots, even when the initial delivery from the supplier could’ve been all day. Their logistics systems are so accurate, they are confident to provide these slots – I still laugh when I get a delivery from them, and in the morning will be a text telling me I’ll get a delivery between “11:27 and 12:27” – crazy accurate.

The number one reason online shoppers abandon ecommerce carts is due to high shipping costs, according to Internet Retailer. 46% of shoppers who jump ship before the transaction is complete cite the cost of shipping as their reason.


If you look at most of the top 50 online retailers in the UK, you’ll notice that most have a very clear approach to returns – most provide free returns service, and they’re “no quibble” returns. Take a look at Amazon’s return service if you’re not familiar with it. Not only is it VERY CLEAR how to return items, it’s EXTREMELY SIMPLE to do so, and it DOESN’T COST THE CUSTOMER. Look at their returns policy on timing and condition of items. If you buy an electrical item, play around with it for a good few days, keep it in good condition, then decide you don’t like, just return it.

I actually went as far as to say that “returning to Amazon is pleasurable” – how crazy is that? An item was delivered that was exactly as it had been described, but I just didn’t like it – so I returned the item, taking about 60 seconds of my time, and ordered a more expensive item from them as a replacement, which arrived the next day. Amazing.

So for the best returns experience:

  • Make sure your returns process is EASY to use – ready printed sticky labels in the delivery packaging, use the Collect+ or post office services to return, or even better, a courier who pickup directly from the customer.
  • Make sure it’s clear what can be returned, in what condition and what the customer’s rights are (PCWorld have got this SO WRONG – you even open the packaging of a product, and you cannot return it unless it’s faulty, or you face a hefty 20-30% re-stocking fee – buy a laptop you don’t like? Hard luck. I’ve stopped shopping there for this ONE REASON and now buy the items I would’ve bought from PCWorld at my local store from Amazon, online).
  • Make sure the price to return is either FREE or really clear for customers to understand, and is not at a penalty price for the customer – if the returns price is high, potential customers will see it as too risky to purchase from you.
  • Understand why your customer is returning an item – did they not like it? was it faulty? wrong size? not as described on the site? Learn from your customers with a really simple question when they return items.

Product pages and product descriptions

What separates a “box shifter” from a company that cares? How do you know it’s a company that lives and breathes the products they offer and their passion shines throughout? It’s often on the product pages.

Provide simple, then further detailed descriptions. If you’re selling clothes then describe how the sizing works beyond a size chart – it fits “true to size” or “recommend buying one size larger”. Always show a customer the product in real life. I spent months looking for a new laptop bag – showing me one picture shot in a studio on a white table, then telling me it’s width, height and depth is just useless – show me it on some guy’s back, tell me if I’ll fit just an iPad in it, or I’ll get a 17″ laptop in it.

Staff Picks - HMV

If your staff buy your own products, then add your own notes to the products – editors favourites, staff picks, recommended by us. You’ll probably find those items sell a lot more than others. Look at the one from HMV here – staff have clearly taken time to enjoy the new music on offer from their own site and write personal reviews of the products.

Saying sorry – knowing when you’ve not provided good customer service

When asked what were the key drivers for a customer to spend more with a company 40% said improvement in the overall customer experience and 35% said provide quick access to information and make it easier for customers to answer questions.  (Source: Oracle Report: Why Customer Satisfaction is No Longer Good Enough)

If as a provider of a service you don’t meet the expectations of the customer, then go out of your way to fix it up. If you know you’re going to deliver late or cannot fulfil on an order, contact the customer and check if they are happy to wait, want an alternate product, or want a refund immediately. To do that, you need many things in place – accurate stock records (so very clear warehousing and stock movement systems), despatch updating systems immediately, an automatically updated stock status online. This is putting the customer and your customer service first – without it, you’re having to be reactive when a customer calls you to tell you you’re service is shocking.

John Lews

I regularly shop at John Lewis – I just love their customer service. Before Christmas 2013 we ordered a new washer/dryer. The machine was delivered and installed but when it was turned on, it was broken – not sure where between manufacturer and us had been the issue but the drain pipe was severed and when it was turned on, it flooded water. They took away the broken machine next day and because it was just before Christmas, we couldn’t get another delivery until we were back in the New Year. Various other problems ensued on the delivery, the sizing on the website of John Lewis and the manufacturer was incorrect (they have both since admitted this – it was out by many centimetres), and a machine was eventually delivered and installed correctly and is beautiful after countless emails and phone calls to get it sorted.

About 10 days later I received a call from John Lewis Customer Care. I forget the name of the department but a gentle, softly spoken, older chap called and explained the small team he worked in – pretty much to apologise and restore faith in fed up customer. He EMPATHISED with me immediately. He had read all the call notes and emails and said the service had been very poor indeed and he asked what I would like them to do about it. I was a bit stunned by the call and wasn’t sure … he suggested some money back as a way to apologise – he said he knew it didn’t go anywhere close to correcting all the mistakes but hoped it would help. He asked me HOW MUCH MONEY I WANTED to which I nervously laughed and said I’ve no idea. He offered me an amount and he then added on the installation charge and some more and I wasn’t really happy with it (so I must have had an amount in my head but didn’t realise). He said how about £X and I agreed. He said the money would be added to my account by him personally immediately and thanked me for choosing John Lewis. He had refunded me over 20% of the price of the washer/dryer to me.

They were ALREADY THE CHEAPEST on the market – beating Currys, Amazon and everyone else. They cannot have made money on this sale from me, but here I am – extoling their virtues. I received superb customer service.


Where does good customer service start? Simple – with the business owners and founders. Their approach to putting customers first, to provide an experience THEY would want if they approached their own company, the staff they hire that continue to approach doing business the same way – it starts from the owners and works out from there.

Is the customer always right? No. Can you provide superb customer service, no matter what? Yes.