Service on the Internet seems intent on mirroring the state in the offline world. To sum it up in one word: Struggling. Sure, there are exceptions to this statement, but business appears to have a general tendency to provide less than exceptional service, regardless of how much service is touted as a priority.
A great example of really bad service is our experience with our last webhosting service. On their home page they proclaim they are "world class", yet their attention to customers and interest in what customers experience was simply pathetic. Like many companies, they think they're great nonetheless. We switched hosting services after two weeks with them. I'm sure you've had similar experiences online.
A good starting point for many online companies (you might work in such a company) is to spend less time and energy putting extra "bells and whistles" on their site. A new study from PricewaterhouseCoopers found that most online shoppers do not use these extra features. They could also spend more time training their employees to provide good service and rewarding employees accordingly. Having knowledgeable employees who interface with the customer would be a good start as well, and giving them responsibility with authority would be great.
You can also go a long way towards perfecting your customer service by understanding customer perceptions of the service encounter.
In case you're in the dark about why customer perceptions matter here, well, customer perceptions are the holy grail of marketing. While many companies spend time asking customers what they want from service, but not how they perceive what level of service is currently being offered.
NEW PERSPECTIVES ON SERVICE
With a profound commitment to understanding customer perceptions as a means of perfecting your service, the question immediately arises what factors affect a customer's service perceptions? You can start to answer this question by reading our tutorials on The Usually Forgotten Basics of Good Service and How to Measure Service Quality.
Now, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Richard Chase (who wrote our article "The Ten Commandments of eService") and Sriram Dasu shows how you can use the theory of behavioral science to perfect your service. Both are professors at the University of Southern California.
What is behavioral science? It's a field of study that shows how everybody has a bias in the way they process information, and this bias affects their attitude, behavior, and perceptions. You can see a good example of this bias in our article "Why You're Always Right, and Your Customers are Always Wrong."
Here are some of the insights you can use:
Last impressions--not first impressions--endure.
You think the beginning and the end of a service encounter is the same for a customer? You're wrong. People tend to remember the last experience they have with a company far more than the first impression.
This is one of the reasons why the service of many online companies is perceived so poorly. While they might perfect the customer experience at the beginning of a purchase process - usually through a good technology that searches and sorts products - they blow it when you try to check out. Unexpected delivery charges, failed credit card confirmations, and no toll free numbers to remedy the situation are a customer's last experiences. This is what remains in the customer's recollections.
Segment The Pleasure, Combine The Pain
Behavioral theory says "Segregate Gains, Integrate Losses." In other words, people like good things to be spaced out over time. In that way, good experiences seem longer. In contrast, people like bad things to be bundled together - in that way they can get it over with fast!
So if you're going to hit customers with bad experiences or bad news, get it all over with at the same time. Spreading bad service encounters out over time is like getting "nickeled and dimed" to death.
Get The Bad Experiences Out Of The Way Early
Speaking of bad experiences, you might be the type of that feels you hate delivering bad news, so you delay it until the last possible moment. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. In a sequence of events involving good and bad outcomes, people prefer to have undesirable events come first.
"Get bad news, pain, discomfort, long waits in line, and other unpleasant things out of the way as soon as possible so they don't dominate the customer's recollection of the entire experience," says Professor Dasu.
Build Commitment Through Choice
The power of the Internet has given many companies the sense that they must provide an instantaneous response to customers. But more than an instant response, customers want choice. Behavioral theory has shown that people are happier when they perceive they have control over a process, especially an uncomfortable one.
So make sure to give your customers choices when you need to give them bad news. For example, don't just tell them that what they ordered is not in stock; give them a variety of choices on how to handle that situation. Remember, customers want to perceive they have some control.