19% of online shoppers had a positive story to share while 21% had a negative customer service experience with an online seller over the holidays. This is a wake-up call for retailers that “getting it right” really does matter, writes Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360.

No matter what you sell or where you sell it, no one can argue that customer service does not deserve greater attention.

In a Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights 2020 post-holiday survey of 1,137 online shoppers, we solicited comments from those who had both positive and negative shopping experiences. In both instances, customer service wound up in the top tier of responses.

Retailers beware. The customer is passionate about customer service. Almost one in five (19%) had a positive story to share while 21% had a negative customer service experience with an online seller over the holidays. This is a wake-up call for retailers that “getting it right” really does matter.

While Amazon, Walmart and Target produced many good customer service experiences for shoppers, 208 retailers received at least one mention as being the place where they had their best online holiday experience. And it is the individual stories and sentiments that inspire me each year.

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This post will be prescriptive in nature as I believe the best retailers will be inspired to do more. I have identified three learnings that were crystal clear from this research and classified some of the most instructive comments (positive and poor) from the almost 2,000 that were shared in this research survey.

I wanted to cite one example that shows the impact of customer service and how moving it can be for a shopper.

“I shopped at Walmart… and my order duplicated. Somehow, I was refunded only one but got both orders. I called to return the items that had been unpaid for and was told by the manager to not worry about it and Merry Christmas. It was a small order, only $40, but it was my very last $40 I had to my name and my kids were hungry and out of food completely. So, it made my Christmas an amazing Christmas. And after I paid again, I took the payment up to Walmart and asked the manager to please put it toward a charity or someone else in need.”

  1. Deliver customer service the way it should be

Customer service is personal and means different things to different people where circumstances usually define one’s perspective. Fair is something that comes to mind for many shoppers, and that often revolves around getting the price they deserve or the refund that they feel is coming to them. But ultimately, it is a belief among shoppers that retailers must deliver a high level of customer service. That includes listening and fairly responding to their needs. If you can do a little something extra, even better. My sense in monitoring customer service over the years is that without achieving such a level it will be difficult to grow one’s business. On the opposite end of the spectrum, poor service often revolves around slow delivery and a lack of timely communication where returns can certainly be problematic for shoppers. Poor customer service will often result in losing customers and, over time, can take down any retailer, no matter their size.

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Omnichannel looms large for retailers as their expectations are for a “one brand” experience, no matter the channels being utilized. Factoring in both buy online pick up in store (BOPIS) and curbside into that equation are critical particularly in a COVID-19 world.

Positive responses from online shoppers:

  • Costco: Embodies the saying “The customer is always right.”
  • Nordstrom: Always makes the customer’s needs a priority; quality goods + free shipping + returns.
  • Home Reserve: Best customer service. No questions asked or push back.
  • eBay: It cares about the customer, even when there is a problem with the client.
  • Amazon Prime: My best shopping experience. Any problems that occur, there is always a respectable and understanding employee there that helps me with the situation or problem that I endure and helps correct it immediately.
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods: The representative gave me a $30 discount on snow pants because the brick-and-mortar store did not have the size I needed.
  • Fenty Beauty: My first time shopping with the retailer, I had an issue where my package never arrived. I was able to get in contact with Fenty and it sent me my product plus a bonus product.

Negative responses from online shoppers:

  • Costco: Order was scheduled for delivery and then did not arrive. Order was rescheduled for delivery a week later than expected. Costco blamed their delivery vendor. Costco sympathized with disappointment over delay but did nothing to rectify or compensate for delay.
  • Walmart: I ordered a yoga mat. I was told repeatedly to keep waiting for it, as it was still in transit. Finally, after multiple emails, I was issued a refund, a $10 gift card, and a very generic apology. The customer service frustrated me so badly I deleted the gift card and haven’t shopped there since.
  • Wish: Horrible shipping times and all computer generated. No human to talk to.
  • Rugged Legacy: From date of order to receiving, it was six weeks! I emailed constantly and got the same robotic response. Very frustrating. 
  1. Handle issues in a timely fashion

Customers are impatient and do not want to wait to have problems solved. While technology can be ideal to solve routine questions, transparency is welcome throughout the shopping journey. Often, it takes a person to reach a resolution that is satisfying for the shopper. Timing expectations are subjective, but one can see from some of the comments below that shoppers have a limit to where they can be pushed. If retailers exceed those parameters, it will surely be unpleasant for both parties. Being proactive can also set a retailer apart.

Positive responses from online shoppers:

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  • REI: Transparent, helpful and customer-oriented.
  • Etsy: I love shopping on Etsy because you get to talk directly to the creator of the items that you purchase. They respond quickly and nine times out of 10, they respond to resolve any issue amicably.
  • com: It has excellent deals—great prices in items for sale. It also has excellent customer service and has always dealt with any issue I have had extremely promptly and to my satisfaction.
  • Victoria’s Secret: I had ordered a few bras and the payment went through before I added all the discount codes. I sent a quick email, not really expecting much but it credited my card the discount and an extra little more for my inconvenience. Then emailed me a couple more times to make sure I was satisfied.
  • Best Buy: Excellent customer reps and I give them high marks for service after purchase.
  • Amazon: Wide search and selection available. If issues arise, its automated questions are spot on for the situation at hand and let you get to a resolution quickly.

Negative responses from online shoppers: 

  • Hollister: It took multiple contacts to get merchandise credits when a package went missing and was damaged during processing.
  • QVC: Lost my package and then made me pay to ship a replacement back, and it took over a month.
  • Tiger Direct: It took over four weeks to resolve an incorrect order.
  • Third Love: Bought bras. Took weeks for them to respond to an email asking where my products were. It took over two months to get my stuff, and they are of lesser quality than anticipated. Will not shop there again.
  • EZContacts: Lied continuously to me concerning my order from start to finish. It took over a month for me to receive an order that should have taken two days.
  1. Communication counts

One shopper said it best expressing their frustration: “The customer service rep assumed I was just looking for additional discounts instead of answering my questions.” Shoppers have simple needs. I sometimes believe that some customer service reps have been trained in the art of not answering the question. Personally, that can be more frustrating than hearing an answer that I do not like. I would encourage retailers to ensure that their training addresses this concern.

Negative responses from online shoppers:

  • Walmart: A question I had regarding an item was sent to online chat that was evidently experiencing a glitch. I was sent through an online chat loop that never ended. My problem never got solved and I never received the phone call that the online chat robot said would happen in less than a minute. Very frustrating!
  • Aliexpress: My worst shopping experience that I’ve ever had would be on Aliexpress because I’m still waiting over 4 months later for something from three out of the five people I ordered from and yet the company who owns the website isn’t doing anything about this for me the buyer whatsoever. It hasn’t even responded back to emails regarding this, let alone giving me my money back and taking off these bad sellers. So needless to say, I’ll never be shopping with it EVER again unless I don’t care about losing out on my money!
  • Spirit Halloween: I ordered an item, thought everything was fine till I went to check the shipping status, which said my order was cancelled. I was never sent an email about this, so I contacted its customer service and they explained it was a third party that it uses that cancelled my order for no reason. I just feel like it could have at least notified me.
  • Sears: Its departments don’t communicate, and the refrigerator that I was told was ready to be picked up wasn’t. I only found this out after driving 20 mins to the location to pick the item up. Then Sears took no accountability for its error!
  • JC Penney: I purchased three pairs of sweats but they didn’t all come in at the same time. When I picked up the first pair and found out they didn’t fit right, I returned them at the store and canceled the other two and was refunded for those as well. Then, I received a late fee in my credit card even though I owed nothing. I was frustrated. I did call the number several times but could not talk to a real person. I finally did get the issue taken care of, but I hate having to speak with a computer—it’s very impersonal.
  • Ulta: Worst online shopping experience would probably be last Christmas when I spent several hundred dollars on new cosmetics for myself and my oldest child. Ulta double charged me after it had already notified me that three different products were not in stock and it never even carried the items in the first place. Then, I called to clarify what the notifications meant and what it could do on its end to resolve the out-of-stock items that were already paid for and waiting to be pickup up in store. As I waited for the manager to pick up the line to assist me, they left the phone on thinking I was on hold—well I heard about what a difficult person I was. I was called the “B” word twice by the sales associate who was briefing the manager on the issue that I was calling to be advised what could be done. After that, Ulta sent a notification about out-of-stock items and to call my local store where my purchase was to be picked up. I will never shop at Ulta!

Retailers, it is simple. Just do the right thing. Treat your customers with respect. Be honest, be timely and go the extra mile. Err on the side of taking care of the customer. You can then be confident they will return.

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