A few days before Valentine's Day, I was shopping in Lord & Taylor for some clothing for my wife. I enjoy a lot of things, but one thing I really hate doing is shopping for clothes in a store. Thankfully, a Lord & Taylor sales associate was there to help me find the perfect item for my wife. Without the associate's help, I probably would have walked away with nothing.

While in-person customer service is one thing, how do you provide good customer service online? How can you provide customer service to customers you can't see, might never talk to and in fact may only have their email address?

Before you consider the tools for your online customer service needs, consider the people part: your employees and your customers.

Educate Employees

Make sure your employees understand what customer service really means and how to execute on it. Communicate to them that they should understand that customer service is about serving customers, making sure their needs are met, listening to their pain points and matching solutions. They should understand that the quick sale is not most important but that the longer term customer is important.

Connect Customers to Employees

Janelle Barlow, president of personnel consulting firm TMI,US and author of "A Complaint is a Gift, Using Customer Feedback as a Strategic Tool," recommends a focus on personally knowing your customers. This works best when your ratio of employees to customers is closer to equal, but if you have many customers compared to the size of your staff, knowing each one may not be practical. In this case, you might deploy technology similar to the personalization technology used by Amazon.com that allows targeting and some level of customer assistance.

Get Your Answers Straight

Paul Purdue, president of iFulFill.com, a fulfillment house handling orders on behalf of thousands of customers, believes that accuracy in answering customer questions is one of the most important aspects of customer service, not speed in reply. A wrong answer is always worse than a right answer, even if the right answer has to be delivered hours later. A wrong answer sent immediately can cause further problems down the road.

Get Real

A way to add a sense of warmth and personality to your online customer service page is to include the photos and names of your customer service staff. This can make interaction more intimate than just swapping text messages back and forth by putting a face on the reps your customers will be dealing with.


If you choose, you may set up your Web site to let customers serve themselves. On the Web, "self-service" means giving customers all the tools and information they may need to handle transactions and solve problems themselves.

Letting your customers serve themselves can save you time and money, and let those customers who prefer to find their own answers help themselves. By giving as much information as you can online and making it easy to find and get to - you can lessen the number of phone calls you have to answer and e-mail you will received and must respond to. Furthermore, you'll find that there's a lot of customers that prefer to dig around for solutions and answer but can't because you don't have enough (or any information) online or they can't find it.

You can do this several ways:

  • Getting started: Post an online repository of information. Sometimes this is called an FAQ, for "Frequently Asked Questions."
  • Mid-tier: Purchase off-the-shelf solutions such as KnowledgeBase Solutions, edocs, Google (its search engine appliance) and Atomz.
  • High-end: Hire a Web solutions provider such as Courion in Framingham, Mass., or TeaLeaf in Silicon Valley. These companies will help you develop and implement a self-service strategy.

James Segil, president and COO of Knowledge Base Solutions, noted that not only will self-service provide answers for your customers, it will also allow you to see which questions are not being answered. Consider: If you sell lamps and 60 percent of your customers are querying your site for lamp cleaning supplies and not finding an answer -- because you do not have any lamp cleaning supplies - you might discover that this is a product area you should consider selling.

DIY Doesn't Mean MIA

The best self-service in the world may still break down - or some customers may simply never warm to it. When self-service fails, make sure the customer is able to get help as soon as possible:

Make sure you provide live telephone support and/or sales to your customers, even though you are "online." Many customers may have a question and want an immediate answer and may simply be uncomfortable with or even unable to receive your e-mail reply.

Case Study: Rackspace

Web hosting may not seem like a very exciting business, but it's one where customer service really matters. Rackspace, a mid-size Web hosting company, considers customer support a fundamental component of its success.

Rackspace's customer service approach is first apparent when you visit its site, www.rackspace.com. After you've been on the site for a few minutes, a chat window pops up with a live customer service agent asking to assist you. Other evidence of its attention to customers is on its phone line. The company offers a live person answering the calls, not a dreaded phone menu system. That's service.

Rackspace makes customer service part of its compensation plan, giving incentives to its employees to serve customers well: A full one-third of Rackspace employees' compensation is based on how they reach their customer satisfaction goals.

The Customer is Still Always Right

At the end of the day, don't lose sight of who you are trying to please: your customers.

Chris Gardner, vice president of marketing at edocs (http://www.edocs.com), a company specializing in customer self-help solutions, says that in too many cases, customer support initiatives are internally focused and not focused on the customer. "If there's not enough value in it for the customer, they'll never adopt it," he says.

Ramon Ray, Technology Evangelist, is a technology analyst, author, speaker and the editor of Smallbiztechnology.com.

Since 1986, Ramon has been using computers and was first "online" in 1995. He has written hundreds of technology articles and the book "Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses" (Amacom, Nov 2003).