2008 is a year quickly fading from view, some would rather forget the past 12 months and others have reason to remember the year past with fondness.
Of all the merchants considered as either the winners or losers in 2008 they each can take a look back and see one business tactic that binds them together, for better or worse.
Customer Service is the Difference
The winners of 2008 include companies like Amazon.com, Zappos.com and Apple. These outstanding companies have one thing in common, the perception (at least) that they provide outstanding customer service to their customers.
- I can say that I have personally done business this holiday season with all three of these high quality merchants and they all provide outstanding service from the buyers perspective.
- I was pleased with each and every transaction and in each incidence I felt as if I had gotten the better part of the deal. Is that because I got a discount?
- No, Apple made me pay what everyone else pays, so did Zappos and in most cases Amazon. The difference was that I received what I bargained for and more... I felt good about the transactions in each case, people like to feel good.
Some of the key features of this high quality customer service first approach include:
- Clean, well organized websites with easy checkout procedures, fast shipping options and full disclosure of product availability
- Great telephone or website support and service before and after the sale.
- Free shipping options - in the case of Zappos, free shipping for returns up to 365 days after the sale.
- Liberal return policies - well spelled out and unquestioned - no ambiguity, either the customer is happy or they get their money back - period.
- Under promise and over deliver - in each case these companies estimate shipping times longer than usual so the customer is pleasantly surprised when the item arrives at the door early.
- Online account access - see where your shipment is, access previous orders, track your own purchase habits and save items for purchase at a later date. All great features in an ecommerce environment.
Zappos really rules the roost with their liberal 365 day return policy, no questions asked, including free return shipping. I just signed up for the free VIP membership at Zappos (special deal for Twitter followers of Zappos - Do a search in Twitter for Zappos VIP) The VIP membership offers me free overnight shipping on all orders, it also almost guarantees that when I think of buying shoes, I will think of Zappos.com. Amazon.com has a similar service with the Prime membership but in Amazons case the customer pays a yearly prime membership fee ($79.99). Apple just kills you with quick, uncompromising service and delivery and a top of the line product. There are no deals at Apple, but then they have no need to offer discounts - people just keep buying.
The big customer service losers of 2008 include:
- eBay - Constantly changing the platform and rules, alienating the sellers, collecting bad press like a skinhead organization, eBay just has really seemed to been on a mission to kill the golden goose. In an effort to provide better CS for buyers they have alienated the best of their sellers who have made the move or will make the move elsewhere in 2009. I really have no idea how eBay will recover from 2008 yet somehow I sincerely hope that they do. One wonders however when the very people who built eBay into a cult like merchants organization have left the building. ebay customer service on the phone or in email, heck in any way you can imagine has to be the very worst on this planet we call earth. I can not say how frustrating it is to deal with "Trust and Safety" Billing, or any other eBay department. ebay has been king of the roost for a long time and as such they have become blinded by success and immune to requests for better CS and a possible change where it counts. If ebay does not start treating the people who use the platform and pay the fees better in 2009, look for a further drop in stock price and other less than happy changes.
- Cell Phone Companies - It does not matter which carrier you have, the public at large is getting fed up with the entire cell phone industry. 2 year contracts tied to discounted phones is just not a good deal for the consumer. Especially when the cell phone companies seem to provide less service to each customer in the process. I have read and heard complaints about each and every cell provider with the result being that the customer is forced to break a contract and pay a fee to get away from the service provider. This should be illegal in my opinion, if the service is not pleasing the customer, then allow the customer to go on his or her merry way. Bad Bad Customer Service Cell Phone companies!
- Brick and Mortar merchants attempting online operations -Circuit City, Barnes & Noble, The list goes on - Poster Child = Sears.com
I have shopped at Sears.com and from within the mall store version a many times this holiday season. The experience has been enlightening and frustrating all at the same time. The most glaring problem I noted is the differential in pricing between online and at the store, and not the way you may be thinking...
Across the board it seemed to me that the prices on major items was less in the store than on the website at Sears.com. Sears has decided to put a premium on convenience which just drives the online shopper elsewhere. In every case where I checked prices on the Internet, I always found the lesser price at another merchant, usually at Amazon.
Additionally the online shopper is very limited in what they can do with their account online. There is no way to track completed orders, no way to save items in the shopping cart for later purchase, items placed in a shopping cart can change price virtually while the customer continues to shop the site and the general navigation of the site is slow and clunky.
I placed an order for a very nice point and shoot camera from Sears.com in plenty of time to get the item before Christmas. 8 days later I get an email from Sears that my item is out of stock, will not ship and the entire order of 6 items was canceled. No explanation, no we will tell you when these items are in stock again, no offer for a similar item - Bad customer service!
Brick and mortar needs to study what and how the best of the best do ecommerce in 2009, they need to provide high quality customer service that companies like Zappos and Amazon provide. Our world is quickly changing from a get it quick only competition to a get it quick and give me service mind set. The customers will still shop online if they know the service is there backing up the order. They will leave in a heartbeat if any one function related to customer service is ignored or not addressed.
How do I apply these lessons in my small business you ask?
Make Customer Service the most important part of your entire marketing budget.
Give customer service the attention it deserves in your own company. If you excel or even perform adequately with your customer service department (even if you are it) then you will stand out in the dismal landscape of customer service experience the average US consumer is presented with. Outsourcing the CS tasks to foreign countries or hiring workers who can only read a script is not the way to win customer loyalty. Every company in America wishes it had the fanatical following of consumers that Apple has, yet no one seems to step up to the plate and do what it takes to earn that trust. Do what it takes, make the right moves, think about what your customer wants, and give it to them. People will buy again and again, bull market or bear, if you treat them with respect and give them more than they expect elsewhere.
Be a Customer Service Oriented Business in 2009! You will certainly reap rewards beyond anything you may expect.