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Secrets of Mastering Customer Service

In your market there should be only one site to buy the one best product or service - your place. Reliable, fast and proactive customer service is one of the key features which help to differentiate your site from competition. It is the customer service what creates confidence. And it is the customer service what is too often being neglected when planning online operations.

Here are some Do's and Don'ts, which can help to streamline your customer service operations. The Do's and Don'ts, usage or avoidance of which is being enforced by the Smart Answer service.

1. Do not use mailto links.

Seems to be pretty simple: place on your web page something like

<a>Submit Service Request</a>

and you are done. Doing this you assume that when a user selects the link, browser will automatically bring up a form to send an e-mail message to the address specified by the link. And this is deadly wrong assumption.

First, mailto only works if the user's web browser is setup correctly. That means that the software must be properly configured. And if it is not, you will make things even worse by supplying yet another one problem to your customer.

Second, the form, which pops up when clicking on mailto link, will eventually send email message. The keyword here is the 'email'. That is the message will incorporate sender's email address. The browser does not ask about this address, it uses some default one instead. This may be an address of email account deactivated half year ago. Or some fake address entered as anti-spam measure. Or another person's address (do you always work on your own PC?). This is how your reply will be lost leaving your customer in the dark.

Third, the email message does not allow you guide your customer. More on this later.

The bottom line: Always use forms.

2. Be proactive.

"Buying your product is the worst decision I ever made, because I can't figure out how to make it work blah blah blah..." Compare this to "I bought an X from your company. The model is YY and serial number is ZZZ. When I turn it on it flashes red light next to 'replace cartridge' plate. How could I make it work?" Both messages could well be a description of the same problem. But with the first description at hands you will have to request more information from the already irritated customer. How to avoid this? The answer is simple:

Ask questions before they start typing. That means do not lure your customers with tempting textbox. Help them to identify what exactly goes wrong (if any!) and what they exactly want of you before they begin their story. And when it comes to problem description help your customers to provide all the relevant details.

Speaking html and web site design that means there should be no submission form on your main service page. Its purpose is to help your customer decide as to which major category his/her question falls to. Most obvious categories are billing issues, sales questions, improvement suggestions, product problems etc. Each category may qualify for separate page with hints and links to related resources like Frequently Asked Questions.

When it comes to service request form, do not limit it to plain text problem definition. Ask for details. Provide input fields to specify model info, service level, location, account id, site url - everything, what is relevant.

3. Maintain Frequently Asked Questions list.

No matter how good is the documentation what comes with your product or service, it fails to answer all questions. No matter how friendly are the manuals most customers fail to read them. It is well known fact that most people open operating guides to find answers, rather than to learn. But structure of manuals assumes systematic reading. Furthermore, systematic reading of structured information does not guarantee understanding because people are different and they think different. Frequently Answered Questions lists do not force reader to stick to some structure and offer yet another learning approach what complements your documentation.

Frequently Asked Question list does not require thorough planning the way manuals do. Thus it is relatively simply to maintain the FAQ: once you answered a question you believe is generic, add it to the list. Modern systems for customer service automation allow you do it with a single mouse click.

4. Analyze.

Every time you receive a service request ask yourself why this question ever occured? Here are the things to consider:

The answer may be in your Frequently Answered Questions list already. But it may be not easy to locate it, because of placement in wrong category. Furthermore, if your customer service software maintains FAQ search logs, you can detect common search phrases, which miss existing entries and rephrase the entries to include frequent search strings.

If a question is too frequently asked, you can consider placing a link to it on the page with service request form (e.g. under "Top 5 questions").

5. Describe your service policies, schedules and timeframes.

Make sure customer knows what he or she can ask. That is, what exactly are the product/services you have sold and thus do support. How long customer will have to wait for reply. What are your service hours.

6. Provide feedback.

If you do not want your customer felt like his/her service requests go into black hole, make the whole process transparent. In other words assure your customer you have a procedure. Let him/her know what is going on. Every request submission must be confirmed - use either web page or email message (or better both). Every request must be registered, that is it must be assigned unique number you and your customer can use as a reference. Most customer service solutions provide also an interface to track progress of problem resolution - whether the request is queued, already assigned or completed.

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