Why the Best Online Customer Service Is Invisible

Forget customer service rankings. Think how satisfied you'd be if you picked online stores that simply worked right in the first place.

  • Share
  • Read Later

Online customer service has always had a hard time mimicking the experience of buttonholing a clerk in a store and getting your answers immediately. Complaints abound, from not being able to get a human being on the phone to not being able to find a phone number at all. One study estimates that 72 percent of people have a problem right away while ordering. So much can go wrong, which makes it astounding that any online retailers manage to get it right.

But how is satisfaction measured? Quantifying the positive and negative experiences of those who have encountered problems is one valid approach. But at the company where I work, dealnews.com, we do something different. Our view is that, while phone support is great, you’d be much better off if you don’t need human help at all. So we tried to figure out which online shopping experiences don’t cause problems in the first place.

It’s hard to quantify ease of use, of course. Most surveys focus on the overall “satisfaction” of customers, which is a nebulous term at best. In a recent survey by Temkin, 81 percent of respondents ranked Amazon as having “excellent” or “good” customer service. That’s a lot of satisfied customers, and has a lot to do with why it’s the reigning online retailer. On that list, Kohl’s was right behind with 80 percent, followed by Costco, Lowe’s and Sam’s Club in the top five. Earlier this year, Zappos topped Amazon on at least one list, the award for Best Customer Service given out by the National Retail Federation.

(MORE: Customer Service Hell)

At dealnews, we tried a more qualitative approach. As part of their regular jobs, our researchers go through the steps of buying all the products the site aggregates, minus the actual purchasing, totaling up to about 300 items a day. We figured these guys have a vast range of experience with online commerce, so we decided to poll them. The result was interesting: They made the case that the biggest factor in customer satisfaction is the way a site operates its user interface and organizes its information. By that standard, their five favorites were the following:

  1. Amazon: At the top of the list are sites that have hassle-free user interfaces. What they like to see are sites that allow you to store multiple addresses and credit cards and easily track and edit orders and manage subscriptions, like Amazon does.
  2. B&H Photo: The editors also like it when a site makes calculating shipping easy, as B&H Photo does, with a calculator on every page. So many sites hide this functionality, or only make it available at the end of the checkout procedure.
  3. Gap Inc.: For ease-of-use you also can’t beat retail conglomerations that bundle all their sites into one shopping cart, the way the Gap Inc. sites do. That helps shoppers easily meet shipping minimums and apply coupon codes.
  4. HP Home & Home Office: The dealnews editors give high marks to HP Home & Home Office, which has a very straightforward checkout process that happens all on one page, instead of routing a shopper through multiple pages.
  5. REI: At the end of the day, it helps when a site just works well. That’s why the editors also like REI, which has exemplary sorting functionality.

Online commerce sites take note: Our researches also reported their pet peeves — common characteristics of sites that simply┬ádon’t work well. If there were as many abandoned shopping carts in real life as there are online, you’d never be able to make your way through a store. If you frustrate shoppers at any turn, you’re going to lose them. Here are the easiest ways to do so:

  1. The biggest pet peeve among the dealnews editors is shopping at a site where you can’t enter your coupon codes until the last stage of checkout, only then to find out that they don’t work.
  2. Another reason to ditch a site is if the retailers make it hard to figure out shipping costs, especially ones that don’t tell you the final cost until the last step of checkout.
  3. Similarly, dealnews editors get frustrated when they get all the way through the process of buying something only to find out at the last stage that the item is not in stock. Why not note that on the item’s page and not let you put it in your shopping cart?
  4. Finally, the expert shoppers find it annoying when a retailer puts more effort into fancy Flash applications that are supposed to show off the products than in functional sorting and filtering, or other basic tools that enhance the retail experience. Fancy to most people on the Web means slow, and that means time wasted, the exact opposite of the fast and easy process that online shoppers crave.