Category Archives: Serving Customers

Focus on Customer Service

Focus on Customer ServiceFor your business to succeed, you’ll need to build your online reputation like it’s your most valued asset. Achieving positive word of mouth requires you to respect customers’ money and time, and allows for very few mistakes.

Dealing with a constant flow of questions, feedback and criticism isn’t for everyone. Among other things, giving good customer service should require you to:

  • Respond to each customer message right away, with courtesy and enough detail to solve the issue – regardless of whether the request seems courteous or well thought out. It can sometimes take reading or listening to a message several times to determine how best to answer.
  • Fulfill orders promptly, and provide plenty of communication about order status. The right shopping cart can help automate this process, sending personalized emails as orders are received and then shipped.
  • Always be on the lookout for valid feedback that could indicate you’re not providing the right information on your website or enough communication after the sale; start with the assumption that customers are the experts on how your business looks to the rest of the world.
  • As soon as you can, publish a toll-free telephone number for customer service. You can start by getting a low-cost service that forwards the number to your cell phone, and then eventually forward those calls to trained staff that you contract, say, at an outsourcing service.
  • Provide a sensible money-back warranty and fast, hassle-free refunds.

You’ll find that some emails requiring individual answers – for example, requests for exchanges or returns – are repeated many times. For these questions, save examples of your best replies to paste into new messages.

Above all, start with the understanding that your real job is to make customers happy. Never allow a service issue to stay unresolved long enough to result in bad word of mouth or a customer calling the payment card issuer.

Our next article about problem customers talks about a few special cases.

Next: Problem Customers

Problem Customers

Problem CustomersEarly on you’ll start to encounter occasional problem customers. Your fair and courteous treatment of difficult situations will help establish your online reputation and could have a big impact on your job satisfaction and peace of mind.

Real ‘Problem Customers’ Are Rare

In nearly all cases, customers who seem combative, irrational, or even dishonest are really normal people who are under unusual pressure or are having a bad day. It’s important to put yourself in the position of your customer, never assume that people are being dishonest until there’s real proof, and ask yourself whether their communication could be justified under difficult circumstances.

In our business we’ve found only about one individual in 5,000 to be a real problem customer. However, this can definitely be influenced by the type of products you sell. For reasons described in my article about Good vs. Terrible Product Ideas, I encountered far more problem customers when I ran a different category of online business. Since dealing with problem customers can be a big source of frustration, you should consider this possibility as you choose your product idea.

Here are guidelines I’ve learned for different types of difficult customers.

  1. Good people who are having a bad day really aren’t a problem at all, and will comprise nearly everyone who at first seems irrational or confrontational. These individuals might, for example, have an unusually urgent need for your product or be unsure about the safety of shopping online. It’s important to respond to these individual quickly, with the utmost courtesy, in a way that assures them you’re honest and fair.
  2. Truly abusive customers are rare, and will usually make themselves known early-on. An example of abusive behavior is to demand a big discount and to imply a threat or use profanity if you don’t agree. Once an individual displays abusive behavior, your best option is to to communicate with courtesy and respect but to avoid making the sale. If the individual is already your customer you’ll be tempted to refund the purchase in hope of ending the abuse. However we’ve found that combative customers can continue to cause problems even after you’ve refunded their money and let them keep the product for free.
  3. Self-destructive consumers are rare but can be a big concern. With improper use almost any product can cause injury or financial loss. If you receive a communication from anyone that suggests they might use your product in a harmful way, always explain the potential outcome in clear and explicit terms. If the individual seems determined to proceed, do everything possible to avoid making the sale.
  4. Customers who commit outright fraud are rare, but require you to always be meticulous in your record keeping. Fortunately a good payment processor can prevent your dealing with the vast majority of cases where, for example, someone claims that they’ve never bought your product. In cases where an individual says that your product was bought but never delivered, we’ve found that while UPS isn’t perfect overall, they have been very reliable in either issuing an insurance payment or, after investigation, getting the customer to admit a mistake.

In every case, your best option is to communicate with respect and recognize that email can be dangerous if you’re not careful with your communication.

Next: Email is Dangerous

Email Is Dangerous

Email Is DangerousEven though our online store publishes a toll-free number on every page of our website, we still find that most people prefer to communicate by email before and after a sale.

Email definitely has advantages, but we’ve found that it can present so many potential problems that you need to use special care with your messages to avoid misunderstandings and bad word of mouth.

For all of your business and personal email, we recommend that you always start by following one primary rule.

First Rule of Email:

Never write anything in any email that you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.

Because email creates a permanent record that can be forwarded to anyone on the Internet, it’s important to write only clear, courteous messages that reflect positively on you and your company. People we don’t know have published excerpts of our emails online, so we’ve learned that every sentence we write, even if taken out of context, must sound positive and professional.

Here are some other guidelines for writing customer emails.

  • Say something positive to start. Even if it’s only to say thank you or we’re sorry, setting the right tone will encourage readers to give you the benefit of the doubt as they read your text.
  • Put action items very near the beginning. If you need, say, for a customer to provide more information, make your request within the first few lines to improve the odds that it will be read.
  • Be as brief as you possibly can, while taking care to fully answer all of the customer’s questions.
  • Say that your company will take responsibility for any problem without blaming suppliers or individuals, using the word “we” instead of “I” whenever possible to help your company look bigger than you are.
  • Don’t assume that a person is combative just because their email sounds harsh. The tone of email is difficult to control when writing, and even harder to interpret when reading. If an email sounds argumentative, consider responding with a helpful phone call. Regardless of how you follow up, be prompt and polite.

It’s perfectly OK to monitor your business inbox by forwarding messages to a personal web mail account (like Gmail or Yahoo!) but you should only reply using the company email account provided by your web host.

Email Scams

Be on the lookout for email scams, of course. Fraudsters constantly evolve their tactics, and as noted in our story about keeping your money safe, it’s essential to treat all email links and attachments with utmost suspicion, even if the message appears to be from someone you know.

As your business grows, you’re likely to encounter one especially annoying email scam that starts with an innocent sounding product inquiry. Often the message is poorly written, and the writer might use a web mail account with a common, domestic sounding name.

Once you reply to that first inquiry, you’re likely to get an urgent request for pricing on a large quantity of your product. You also might get the feeling that the writer is copying text from your website with no idea what your product does. These are clues that you could be dealing with a fraudster. A Google search for that email address might reveal that others have seen similar requests from that account. If so, stop the communication right away.

What’s Next?

As your online business grows you’ll need to balance the demands of your day job with your new business. We’ll talk more about this topic in the next article about moonlighting tips.

Next: Moonlighting Tips

What’s an Outsourcer?

What's an Outsourcer?As your business grows, you could find there’s too much work to handle while keeping your day job. And, if you sell physical goods, you might run out of room to store and prepare those items at home.

At this stage, your choices can come down to enlisting family members or hiring employees and perhaps renting warehouse space, or finding an outsourcer (also called a fulfillment company).

About Outsourcers

An outsourcer can handle warehousing of your products, assembly, packaging, fulfillment, and most customer service requests. Depending on your product, you may still need to provide frequent guidance about handling individual customer service issues.

The outsourcer will likely charge a small fixed fee every month (say, for phone equipment) plus variable fees that depend on the number of items assembled and shipped, and the number of customer calls answered.

A good outsourcer can bring several benefits.

  • You’ll have vastly fewer management and record keeping headaches compared to hiring employees and renting warehouse space
  • Because most of the fees will depend on the quantity of items shipped, you’ll have far fewer fixed costs to worry about as revenues change
  • The outsourcer should already have trained staff and nearly all the equipment you’ll need, so setup and training could be much easier

However there are also some disadvantages.

  • Should the outsourcer’s staff, business terms or work quality change significantly you could find it difficult to replace the service
  • Outsourcers work for profit, so they’ll almost certainly cost more in the long run than handling the work in-house

Your Decision

Your choice of outsourcer – and whether to use an outsourcer at all – is absolutely critical to your business. Start by searching online for fulfillment companies that are close enough that you can help with setup, training, and taking physical inventory a few times per year.

It’s essential to meet with management at each potential outsourcer, tour the facility, and get a feeling of whether you’ll get the attention you need.

Most importantly, get at least three references of other businesses who use each outsourcer candidate. Call each business owner, and ask that they, too, give you the name of another company you can call for a reference.

Prepare a list of questions to ask each reference and write down the responses. It pays to ask as many questions as time allows, for example:

  • How did you first find out about this outsourcer?
  • How long have you worked with them?
  • How many of your shipments and calls do they handle per day?
  • What can you tell me about the quality of their work in general?
  • How promptly have they fulfilled your orders so far?
  • How well do they communicate with your customers by phone? Email?
  • How is the quality of their communication with you?
  • What can you share about their management, and any staff turnover?
  • What have been your biggest surprises working with this company?
  • Have you worked with other outsourcers? How do they compare?
  • Is there anything else I should know about the outsourcer?
  • Are there other companies I might call who have used this outsourcer?

Should you find the right candidate, be sure that you both sign a letter that covers obligations and costs, confidentiality, protection of customers’ personal data, termination, and other critical points.

Use of an outsourcer isn’t for everyone. One of my former coworkers created a successful business by first bringing on family members, then renting a warehouse, then hiring full-time staff and quitting his day job.

Next, we’ll cover strategies to manage your money as your business grows.

Next: Manage Your Money

Shipping Your Products

Shipping Your ProductsIf you sell physical products online (as opposed to electronic downloads), the choice of shipping options presented to your customers and the way that shipping fees are calculated will both be determined by your shopping cart.

Very basic shopping carts (like PayPal Standard) usually calculate shipping fees based on weights that you configure and order quantities, in combination with shipping regions that you define.

Because this basic method only estimates the fees, you’ll find that some customers pay too little, while a few visitors might feel they’re being overcharged and will abandon your shopping cart without a purchase.

More advanced shopping carts can give customers a broader choice of shippers, and generally link with carriers’ online systems to calculate accurate shipping fees based on weights, box sizes, delivery addresses, published rates and any discounts you might have. In the case of our own store, we try to charge every customer exactly the fee calculated by the carrier, including any carrier discount, to minimize shopping cart abandonment and complaints.

Note that once you receive an order, unless you use PayPal you’ll generally need to copy-and-paste the customer information into a system provided by each carrier to print the required shipping label. An advantage with PayPal is that its services all provide an online system to print UPS and USPS labels directly, without the need to copy-and-paste.

Shipping Carriers Compared

Probably 80% of our customers choose UPS when buying from our online store. And as far as we’re concerned, UPS has a number advantages:

  • UPS has top-notch online tracking that provides timely and reliable information about the status of each package.
  • UPS has fair and reliable processes for dealing with lost shipments, damaged goods, and occasional customer fraud, and a willingness to track down root causes and resolve claims quickly.
  • You can change delivery and even recall a package after you’ve sent it, albeit at a significant cost.
  • UPS offers a convenient online system for emailing customers prepaid labels to return products if needed.
  • Insurance of up to $100 is included in the cost of every UPS shipment.

However UPS is not perfect, and some of its practices can really hurt.

  • As far as we can tell, UPS has no transparency when it comes to the big discounts they give different online retailers. We’ve had to plead our case every year with the local UPS rep, and hope they’ll help us out.
  • Any time you fail to catch the smallest customer typo on a shipping address, UPS may charge you an address correction fee of $11.
  • By default, UPS uses a customs clearance service that could charge international customers hidden fees that total more than the cost of shipping; when customers refuse to pay, you might have to refund their purchases and pay insanely high fees to get your package back.

As you might guess, we now use only the US Postal Service (USPS) for shipments outside the USA. The USPS has a number of advantages:

  • Unlike other carriers, the USPS offers consistent and transparent pricing for all its services.
  • You won’t get stuck paying surprise fees for address corrections, returned packages, international customs clearance, and so on.
  • The USPS offers Saturday delivery at no extra charge, and unlike UPS can deliver to PO boxes.
  • Customers pay very low rates for shipping to distant US locations like Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and US military bases.

Sadly, some USPS practices seem to be stuck in the pre-Internet age:

  • Especially when it comes to overseas shipments, the USPS online tracking system often gives unreliable, outdated information.
  • USPS support can be almost impossible to reach, and it could take several hours and multiple phone calls to resolve a single issue.
  • The USPS requires a two week wait before they’ll trace a lost package, and often won’t even report their findings until 21 days after that.

Choose Your Carriers with Care

No matter what carriers you choose, much of your customer service effort will be spent resolving delivery issues. We’ve gotten plenty of complaints about both carriers, and have gotten negative online reviews from customers who seemed angry that we don’t offer a particular service they like.

Note that our online store has no track record with other shippers like FedEx, partially because of lack of integration with PayPal, and partially because of my personal bias arising from bad experiences as a consumer.

Configuring shipping options in our shopping cart was the last big step to start selling online. Next it was time to make our store visible to search engines so that people could find us.

Next: Make Your Website Visible