If I were to pick the single element common to most of the truly outstanding businesses I have come across, it would most definitely be their commitment to customer service. That shouldn't be surprising because without customers you don't have a business. Or at least you don't have a business for very long.
Unfortunately it's been my experience that on the Internet, customer service is the last thing most Net companies are thinking about. In fact, it's usually the case that the less customer service a Net company can get away with the better. We've all heard how the self-service mentality on the Net is able to bring customer service costs down from dollars to cents.
A lot of e-commerce companies seem to have been born with a warped spin on this mentality. They seem to think that it comes with the turf that, when you're on the Internet, customer service just takes care of itself. Provide an e-mail feedback mechanism, make one of the juniors in the office responsible for answering those complaints when they have time to get around to it and presto - customer service taken care of.
It's just not the case. In fact, the Internet opens up a whole new range of customer service issues that offline companies don't have to deal with.
There is the old saying that the only thing worse than getting complaints is not getting complaints.
I'm sure most business owners would agree that it's highly unlikely that they are doing everything right and that every customer is walking away 100 per cent satisfied. Some of your customers are not going to like the way you operate - simple as that. The key to customer service is getting them to tell you that.
It's only when a customer makes a complaint that you are given the opportunity to improve the way you do business. Don't shy away from criticism or harsh feedback; it's the most valuable information your customers can give you!
Offline it's much easier to receive this criticism. If a shopper is frustrated with long queues or tardy service at a department store they're much more likely to vent their dissatisfaction to the person at the frontline of customer service. A manager only needs to walk past and take note of the frowns and foot tapping to realise their service is not up to scratch.
Online, however, there is no human interaction at the frontline, just a lot of lines of HTML code. Your frustrated online customer is more than likely to swear at their computer, delete your site from their bookmarks or favourites and never visit you again. You've then lost that customer forever - the ultimate business sin.
Net companies must make it easier to give feedback, in fact they should be prompting and rewarding their customers for providing feedback. And for goodness sakes, once you have that feedback, do something about it! I don't care if you're on the Internet or not, unless you have a highly motivated, well-resourced customer service team you're not doing business as well as you could be.
I'm still waiting for a response from an angry e-mail I fired off to one big e-tailer over Christmas, even though I was promised that a customer service representative would contact me shortly.
That was just the first rule of customer service this e-tailer broke in what was undoubtedly the worst shopping experience of my life. But more on that later.
Philip Sim is the former editor of ARN. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org