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By: Mark Madson
For some reason, a lot of business advice for online retailers gives scant attention to what has been proven the best way to build customer loyalty - great customer service. Far too many shoppers have had less than outstanding experiences at e-commerce sites, even the best-known ones, and mediocre, impersonal customer service practices seem to be the norm.

This means that the few e-tailers that distinguish themselves with great customer service will rise to the top of the heap over time. Although the following tips are in no particular order, they have all been shown to build strong customer relationships while highlighting the fact that you are offering the industry's best practices. You will, of course, tailor your approach to the character and personality of your company and industry. These are just starting points. You need to do the work!

1. Assign personal customer service representatives: The order confirmation e-mail that you send to buyers can automatically assign them a personal representative to help down the line. With just a little system tweaking and IT elbow grease, the e-mail can even arrive to the customer from this representative's address, highlighting the contact info. Customers always like the idea of having "personal" attention, so give it to them from the first sale.

2. Use the "human touch" (or, "personalize everything"): Greet returning customers by name on your landing page, and offer personalized recommendations based on their previous orders. Remember, too, that the "personalization" highway runs two ways. You are asking the customer to relate to a human being, not your company, so put pictures of the customer service staff on your site. Some e-commerce sites will feature the customer service manager's name, contact info and photo during the checkout process, while others put all this on the Help page and the confirmation e-mails. This creates the building blocks for a real relationship.

3. Call customers that "mouse away" before buying: If a customer initiates an order but doesn't finish up, a quick phone call or e-mail is all it might take to discover and solve a simple problem, and complete the sale. Most customers will appreciate this gesture, and capturing just a fraction of these "incomplete orders" can add significantly to your bottom line.

4. Provide a thorough FAQ page or knowledge base, as well as detailed product pages: Unsurprisingly, among the easiest ways to improve customer satisfaction is to prevent problems, and subsequent customer contacts, in the first place. By having thorough, detailed product pages you can actually answer many questions before they're asked. And regardless of how friendly your service representatives are, no customer wants to have to write or call to find out how to return a product. A thorough, accurate and searchable FAQ page or knowledge base should answer all the reasonable, predictable questions.

5. Live chat: People do not want to be put on hold when they call, or wait two days for an e-mail reply. A live chat option can be a cost-effective way of serving present and potential customers, with the fringe benefit of reducing the call volume into your customer service department.

6. Improve "night ring" service: If your firm has a third-party, off-site (or virtual) service taking care of after-hour calls, you need to monitor its quality. It is essential that you empower the service to serve your customers as effectively as you would during normal business hours. While bringing round-the-clock call and e-mail coverage in-house is not an affordable option for every company, it probably is necessary if you really want to guarantee that your customers are treated the way you want them to be.

7. Prominent testimonials: Don't hide the great things your customers say on a "testimonial" page. Some successful e-tailers feature testimonials on various important pages, such as landing pages, order pages and customer service pages. Be wise and be a bit modest, too, because you may be seen to be bragging, especially if you don't follow through at your "advertised" level with every customer.

8. Liberal price protection and return policies: Don't simply make the price protection promises, but consider proactively notifying customers if the items they purchased previously go on sale. You can offer to apply that price difference on a future purchase or simply refund the amount. It's a very small cost but it can win you a customer for life, as will a simple, straightforward, more-than-fair return policy.

9. "Thank you" is a magic phrase: Send e-mails or make phone calls to a few selected customers every day, simply to thank them for being a customer. Such a personalized gesture will surprise and gratify even a hardhearted online bargain-hunter. Always take a moment to include something personal in the message, to show them it is not merely a form-letter or generic note that was sent to everyone.

10. Do more than fix your mistakes (and fix the ones that others make, too): When fixing any mistake you've made, make sure you exceed your customer's expectations. If you left an item out of a shipment, you should apologize, of course - but then offer a discount of up to 100%. Many businesspeople tell stories of making loyal customers by coming up with uniquely satisfying resolutions to problems. And if it's the shipping company that made the mistake, it should still be you who offers a solution to the customer. Taking care of the problem so the customer doesn't have to is terrific customer service.

11. Secret shoppers: Brick-and-mortar retailers use this method quite a bit, as "secret shopping" is excellent at identifying problems, testing policies, tweaking procedures and, of course, keeping your customer service reps at the top of their game.

12. Upgrade the "tech tools": Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software has matured tremendously in the last few years and, properly deployed, such technology can be an important ingredient in ongoing, high-quality customer care. With very little tweaking, CRM software can ensure that your staff is able to review customers' contact histories so they don't have to introduce themselves or their problems for five minutes on every call.

The tips are generally commonsensical, and the basics of customer service haven't changed in centuries, probably. Of course, the specific ways we implement policies and manage customer relationships will change as the tools do. With e-commerce came a great number of advantages, as well as all of the same old challenges, so there is always a mix of activity for the customer service manager, whose job covers everything from technology to psychology. The bottom line, of course, is that the way your customers feel about your online service will affect - your bottom line!About Author:Metro Hi Speed is a leader in online fax solutions for any sized business. Less expensive and more reliable than traditional fax services - you'll enjoy the convenience and well as the cost. Visit us today for more information on our small business and corporate fax solutions.
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