While service may be the quickest route to a new customer, it is also the ultimate path to securing a loyal customer as well, writes Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360.

There’s an old adage in retail that shoppers long remember the service rather than the price. By delivering superior service, retailers can provide a memorable experience that sometimes lasts a lifetime. So while service may be the quickest route to a new customer, it is also the ultimate path to securing a loyal customer as well. Service is personal for me. It’s a topic I enjoy thinking about and reflecting on how retailers can do it better.

As more and more customers opt for self-service, I wonder if I will ever be that customer. Perhaps it’s an age thing and the fact that I grew up in a time when service was a badge of honor for retailers. I wonder if retailers have done everything in their power to shift shoppers into self-service mode, relegating those service-centric days to be a relic of the past. Ten customer service questions came quickly to mind and I thought it might be interesting to ponder those best addressed via self-service means versus others that benefit from a full-service as a jumping-off point.

The Full-Service vs. Self-Service Dilemma

I reached out to our staff to get their insights on real issues of the day, knowing customer service is core to shopper behavior now and especially during the holidays. I wanted to explore how they solved customer service issues, whether these individuals prefer self or full service and why they selected their respective answers.

Though I put myself in the full-service camp, I’m all for the time-savings that can be achieved when handling more mundane tasks on my own. Tracking an order, finding a return policy or looking up a store’s phone number are perfectly suited for self-service.

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My sense is that shoppers want more self-service until something goes wrong, and then they want full-service. In some ways, it all comes down to learning the system and feeling comfortable. That means having problems solved in the environment of your choice.

Online shoppers opt for ‘both’ depending on circumstances

Fifteen colleagues shared their service perspectives and full-service had a bigger role than I might have expected.

  • Self-service + full-service: 47%
  • Full-service: 33%
  • Self-service: 20%

One woman’s feedback gets to the heart of the issue, “I’m a ‘both’ vote, and it depends on why I’m contacting a retailer. If it’s something simple that I can quickly look up online like tracking, I’ll do that. But, if it’s a more complicated issue I’ll jump on a call. I’m not a huge fan of live chat as the conversation can drag a bit if the agent is dealing with multiple customers so I usually find it quicker to pick up the phone.”

Full-service perspectives ranged from being a last resort to others who, like me, find it quicker to let someone more qualified do the work. One shopper’s sentiment was, “I only do full service when absolutely necessary. I find self-service to be quicker the majority of the time even when I’m disputing a charge or need a replacement.” Many of us think first about what is the most efficient way to get the job done, and it’s all about speed as one introverted staff member alluded to, “I prefer to handle everything myself unless there is an issue with the item.” Another concluded, “I find it quicker to do everything myself and like to minimize any communication with someone else.”

Overall self-service is well suited for the “easy” stuff. Examples shared included information that could quickly be looked up online such as shipment tracking and returns process instructions where links make it preferable to handle on your own. It’s nice to hear that one individual called out a true positive, citing that she had minimal customer service issues to deal with of late.

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Complicated scenarios push shoppers towards full-service, and that means talking to a human because most problems are nuanced and unique to the individual. This could be that they have an issue, are upset and want a discount, an order is late or lost, or an item is broken after the return window has elapsed.

It usually implies that if a customer has a problem or questions they are turning to customer service to solve, that they’ve probably exhausted whatever tools are readily available. It means taking care of anything where details are involved. “I want to talk to someone so I know it is being resolved or at this point, I would rather talk to someone than beat my head against the wall or the computer screen.” Another shared that, “it depends on the issue, if it’s something definitive then I like self-service, something I can find in my account, but usually I call. Unless it’s longer than 5 minutes. Once it breaks the 10-minute window, then you know they failed.”

This also means covering one’s bases, “For any issues like receiving the wrong item, not being able to get a discount code applied or missing a refund, I’ll call customer service. I want an immediate answer and to be able to leave myself a note that John Smith told me XYZ so I can refer back to that call if the problem persists. It is super annoying that answers and conscientiousness vary by agent, and sometimes I’ll call right back after hanging up if I didn’t feel like the customer service rep did their due diligence.”

I do caution that full-service is not foolproof, according to another. “If I can’t solve the problem myself, I’ll try a full-service option, but I often wind up annoyed. Problems include wait times… and their inability to solve the problem in a timely way.”

Chat forever changes customer service

Chat has changed the dynamics for me and many others. I was skeptical but found it to be an ideal middle ground. The ability to multitask makes it appealing and adds to my efficiency. Others agreed and found it preferable to being on the other end of a long hold. 47% of the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000 are taking advantage of chat to advance the shopper experience. That includes 73 of the Top 100, a resounding vote on the status of the service.

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Shoppers shared that they like using the live chat feature if the website has one and find it preferable to waiting on the phone. They like directly communicating with someone as opposed to submitting details on an issue via email or on their website. Another cited that, in theory, they love the idea of live chat. But they feel as though they’re too often offline or bots that only return standard answers minimally related to what they’re asking. Another concurred, noting that the downside was that the conversation can drag a bit if the agent is dealing with multiple customers and finds it’s usually quicker to pick up the phone.

Investing in customer service

At Digital Commerce 360, we pride ourselves on providing both the retailer and the consumer perspective. Our Digital Commerce 360 2020 Conversion retailer survey kicked off the year, and 37% rated integrated customer service as very important when it comes to improving one’s conversion rate, survey of 105 retailers. It’s in good company with free shipping at 40% and site search at 42%.

Following on those findings, customer experience garnered a high ranking among retailers (41%) as an investment they would be making to drive conversion. A strong customer experience can serve as the foundation for improving conversion as both initial experience and retention prospects both matter.

Shoppers thought through elements beyond the site experience that drive conversion. According to Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights 2020 conversion survey of online shoppers, 30% suggested that helpful customer service would increase their likelihood to place an order. It’s important to note that an easy, clear return policy that supports a self-service model was the No. 1 reason a shopper would be likely to complete an order. The guaranteed arrival date means limiting order tracking as it is likely the main reason shoppers check the status of their orders. As returns represent much of the potential problems once an order is placed, a no-questions-asked approach goes a long way towards retention.

It’s always a wise idea to reflect on ways shoppers choose to purchase on Amazon. While customer service was important to 20% of Amazon shoppers, many other reasons rose to be in the top 5 reasons to purchase from Amazon, according to Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights 2020 Amazon survey. They included Prime membership and its associated free shipping, onsite search, competitive prices and likelihood of availability. This lower number may be a reflection of the combination of self-service being honed over time and shoppers also learning the ropes. Additionally, Amazon is generally known for giving the customer what they want.

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A tilt toward full-service

We encourage retailers to perfect their self-service capabilities. At the same time, assessing one’s full-service strength is advisable. Let’s take a look at three instances where full service was selected. These should provide food for thought so retailers optimize for success this season. The more complicated elements of customer service suggest taking a full-service approach.

One of my favorite retailers, Abt Electronics, has a policy of making customer service a priority and always saying yes to any reasonable request. When I need to learn more about a product or make a choice between two products, I often start with the website. Regardless, I appreciate that this combination is most likely to ensure customer satisfaction. I appreciate the knowledge that an expert salesperson can bring to the table either via email or in-store. While looking at the features side by side may work for some, I can more quickly discern from a salesperson which product is right for me.

Another instance of shopping lately that favored the personal touch form of customer service was arts and crafts retailer Blick. I have found over the years that their sales associates really know and care about the products they sell. As my daughter had a design list a mile long, not only did our associate save us time by finding everything, but more importantly, she was adept at steering us to products that offered more value, giving us even further trust in the brand. Once again, starting online and finishing in-store proved to be the most efficient.

A third example involved a first-time online purchase from a company called Mannequin Mall. They were gracious enough to let me cancel our order but two weeks later, a refund still had not been issued. A quick call resolved the issue in a matter of moments whereas a prior email had gone unanswered.

Holiday prep checklist

Now is the time to elevate customer service to ensure high customer satisfaction. You can be sure we will be shopping your sites and hope to get most answers addressed via self-service. For the remainder, your full-service personnel should be ready for all our questions and prepared with answers that can satisfy even the most demanding shoppers. There is still time to do the job right.

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The following is a short list for review prior to the all-important season:

  • Keep it simple
  • Review onsite information and ensure FAQs are comprehensive
  • Reinforce corporate values
  • Train and retrain for a best-in-class experience
  • Refine metrics for measuring success and assess performance
  • Know the products to best advise customers
  • Leverage technology to deliver exemplary service
  • If it doesn’t make it faster, don’t adopt
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