E-tailers need to put more focus into customer service if they are to succeed

International Data Corp. has dubbed 1999 the watershed year between “the age of e-commerce pioneers” and “the age of diffusion and competition.”

Most large companies with a product or service to sell have already deployed a business-to-consumer Web site.

But merely having a sales presence on the Web is no longer a differentiator. A good e-tailer needs other attributes to differentiate itself from its competition, such as product, price, a gimmick, or just good, old-fashioned customer service.

As we get more comfortable with on-line shopping, however, our willingness to overlook technical glitches or other bad experiences diminishes.

We get to the point where one negative experience will make us avoid that company’s Web site for good. In fact, one such instance left me with such a bad impression that not only am I hesitant to visit the company’s Web site again, I’m inclined to walk past the brick-and-mortar storefront as well.

On Nov. 11, I placed an order with a well-known toy e-tailer. Just placing my order was a real feat. I tried for several hours to get into the Web site, only to be told that its servers were overwhelmed due to demand.

When I finally got to the site, I selected two items I wanted and noted that both were in stock. I put them in my shopping cart, went through the cumbersome checkout process and received an electronic notification that my order was received and being processed. I expected delivery of my purchases within a week to 10 days, as I did not request special delivery.

Two weeks went by, and I received nothing and heard nothing from the e-tailer. I went back on-line to check my order status and saw that it was still “in process.” Another week passed and no progress was made.

Finally, on Dec. 5, I received an e-mail saying my order would be shipped within five to seven business days. “Sorry for the delay,” the e-mail said, “but we’ve had big demand for our products this season. Here’s an e-coupon good for US$10 off your next on-line purchase.”

Meanwhile, I anticipated that I would soon receive the two items I had ordered. Imagine my surprise when, three days later, a box arrived with just one item in it. A note inside said the other item was out of stock, so they cancelled my order for it, without even asking me if that was OK.

This kind of behaviour might have been acceptable during the pioneering age of e-commerce, but it is definitely not acceptable in the age of on-line competition.

What bothers me most is that I was not kept informed of the progress or problems in fulfilling my order, which would have been so easy to do via e-mail.

This brings me to my Fundamentals of Customer Service for Online Shopping-or, more broadly, e-commerce in general:

Keep the customer informed and involved. I would have been less angry if this toy company had kept me informed of the progress of my order. When it was discovered that an item was out of stock, why wasn’t I informed, and why didn’t the company offer to send it later? I probably would have accepted a backorder slip. Instead the company simply cancelled my order and lost a sale-and, quite likely, a customer.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Telling me that an item was in stock when I placed the order was an implied promise. Making a promise you can’t keep leads to disappointed customers.

Anticipate demand, and then multiply that by 10. This company was clearly unprepared for the demand its nationwide advertising campaign generated. There are two issues here. On the technical side, the servers and software couldn’t handle the access demands. On the logistical side, the company’s order fulfillment system couldn’t process orders fast enough. If this company wants to play in the big leagues, both issues must be addressed quickly.

Follow up to make sure the customer is truly satisfied. Despite the $10 e-coupon, I’m not going to visit that shopping site anytime soon. This experience reminded me that toy e-tailers are a dime a dozen on the Internet, and I’ll keep looking until I find one with superior customer service.

Companies that want e-commerce success need to remember that online shoppers have endless choices. The winner will be the e-tailer that puts customer service first.

(Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a technology consulting firm in Houston. She can be reached at linda@currid.com.)