Putting a Website to Work

Every business these days should have a website that is easily accessible to customers. One of the best reasons to launch a website if you haven't already is that this is probably one of the most low-cost ways for your business to provide customer service. Used properly, a website can act as a resource for customer "self help" and that means you may not need as many employees to handle customer service requests by phone or mail. Customers like being able to easily find answers that they're looking for when it's convenient to them -- and that may include hours when your office is closed -- so a website is an ideal venue to try to anticipate and answer those questions.

Online Customer Self Service Essentials

It should go without saying that your website should be written in a clear way that is easy for your customers to understand. It should also be simple and intuitive to navigate. If you're unsure, ask for feedback about your website from people similar to whom you're marketing your products or conduct a usability study. If your business is international, think about including multi-lingual content so that prospective customers in other locales feel more comfortable about doing business with you.

There are certain customer service components that every business should be incorporating into their websites these days. These include:

  • Frequently asked questions (FAQ). A FAQ page is a place your customer can go to at their own convenience to find answers to the questions your customers most often ask about your products, services, and/or business. Use this to answer questions about your return or shipping policies or store hours. Consider including a searchable FAQ so that someone can type in a specific question such as, "How do I turn off the electric pencil sharpener when I'm not using it?"
  • Your contact information. Be sure to include either an e-mail address, telephone number, or mailing address for your business on every page.
  • A customer feedback form. Every customer wants to feel that their questions will be answered. Provide an online form that your customers can fill out with specific questions they didn't find in the FAQ. Make sure that you assign a staff member to respond promptly.

Optional Website Self-Help Features

Web technologies have also come to market making additional more sophisticated customer service features available at low costs to even small businesses. Here are some of the optional features you can add to your website to provide better ways for customers to help themselves.

Provide Live Chat

One way to engender customer loyalty is by ensuring that their interactions with your business -- or your staff -- are pleasant. Sometimes technology can make these interactions seem less personal. Customers can tell the difference between someone who can really help them and someone just pressing automatic send buttons for pre-scripted platitudes. That's why one feature that businesses are adding to their self-service websites is live chat. Software vendors -- such as LivePerson, BoldChat, HelponClick, and eTalkUp -- now offer to provide chat platforms along with options on how you would like to respond to customers. The response options include live chat with a person, a feature that lets a customer click to talk, or a FAQ-based automatically generated response.

PlumberSurplus.com started out three years ago as an online retail site for plumbing supplies and fixtures. Since then, it's grown, and entered new markets. Customer service had been a big factor in the company's success, according to Joshua Mauldin, customer service manager. 'Our intent is to deliver an in-store experience to an online customer. We've found the best way to do it is with chat. Over the phone, it's difficult to convey things like color, and what a product actually looks like.'

E-commerce originally adopted online chat as a way to provide customer service at lower cost than by phone, says Dorine Andrews, an organizational change management consultant and former assistant professor at the University of Baltimore. 'The whole concept was that customer service reps would be able to deal with three or four people at a time.' But as online retailers, chat software, and customers themselves have gained in sophistication, chat has become much more than just a way to control costs. Done right, it can provide a higher level of customer service. And it can increase sales.

Here are five tips to make live chat work for your business:

1. Don't have chat reps also answer phones. Unless your company is truly tiny, have different customer service reps responding to chat and phone inquiries. That way, each staff member can be focused.

2. Don't overload reps with too many chats at once. How many is too many? That needs to be commensurate to the complexity of the product or service. If the questions or product are complicated, you may want a one-to-one ratio. If the questions are more general, a rep might be able to handle a half dozen at once.

3. Don't have a chat button on the site unless there's someone standing by. One of the quickest ways to alienate customers is to have them click a button that says 'Chat now' only to find there's no one to chat with. Fortunately, today's customer service chat software can either remove the chat interface, or replace it with something that says 'Leave us a message,' when there are no chat reps logged on to the system.

4. Use scripts -- wisely. A customer who posts something like, 'WHY ISN'T YOUR #@*& PRODUCT WORKING' will only be further infuriated by a scripted response such as, 'I'm happy to help you. Let's work together to resolve this problem.'

5. Go beyond chat. One of chat's great advantages is that reps and customers can literally be on the same page. Customer service chat can give reps the chance to either 'push' webpages (by including links in their chat messages) or actually take over the customer's browser -- with his or her permission. Both can be effective ways to give customers targeted information about your products.

Develop an Online Customer Forum

Some of the best help for your customers may come from other customers. A growing number of companies are creating online community forums, or other ways for customers to interact. This not only improves customer satisfaction, because they can often find quick answers to common user questions about your product or services, but also saves time and resources for your business.

A number of software companies now provide businesses with the tools they need to create an online forum for customers on their website. Some of these companies include Telligent, Reality Digital, and GroupSwim.

The benefits of an online customer forum include the following:

  • Providing an environment where customers answer each others' questions can be much more effective than simply providing the answers yourself.
  • Few companies can afford to hire (or outsource) the number of customer service reps needed to give helpful responses quickly to every customer who needs them.
  • Customers often respond to each other faster than customer service reps can.
  • The answers customers give each other are often better than answers from company staff.
  • You can learn of problems with your products quickly if you monitor postings.
  • And while you run the risk of having negative comments posted about your business, products, or services, alternatively such a forum can create a better sense of trust between you and your customers.

It's also important to create an atmosphere where customers want to help each other, notes Craig Newmark, customer service rep and founder of Craigslist.org. 'It begins with treating customers the way you'd like to be treated, taking customer service seriously and following through,' he says. 'The way we run our site encourages people to give each other a break because of that culture of trust.'

Goozex, an online video game trading business based in College Park, Md., also found that upgrading to a new community server platform enabled the site to launch a community forum that helped the site cut costs and yet improve customer service. "About 50 percent of the customer support requests are addressed on the forum and don't get to the customer service department at Goozex," says CEO Valerio Zanini. "That means we have been able to improve our customer support efficiencies by 50 percent. That's a huge cost savings for us."


Wagner, Todd, Treating Your Customers Right, November, 2003.

Wasserman, Elizabeth, Tech Talk: Online Game Site Develops Forum IncTechnology.com, 2009.

Zetlin, Minda, Helping Customers Help Each Other Online IncTechnology.com, 2007.

Zetlin, Minda, Making Chat Work for Customers, 2008.