Help: Can I get my question answered?

For consumers, good communication with retailers should include choice, accessibility, and execution. Retailers must evaluate which methods are appropriate for their business. They also should ensure they employ a customer-centric approach to these efforts.

When hunting for gifts, shoppers are certain to have questions along the way. That means, they will be reaching out to retailers to address those concerns. The range of ways to communicate are important to shoppers making this a new area of focus for our 2020 e-tailing group Gifting Index. The index, which evaluates retailers across four gifting fundamentals including customer service, will continue to receive our attention throughout the year. 

From a customer service perspective, our 2020 efforts tracked many of the policies associated with gift giving and included everything from free shipping to same-day delivery. Additionally, there was a focus on returns including posting of the return policy, cutoff dates for ground delivery during the holidays, an evaluation of whether retailers extended their return dates to accommodate the flexibility shoppers need at this time of the year.  

While we did assess if live chat was available, this initiative takes chat one step further and looks to see if the chat is a virtual bot, which can address standard questions, versus an agent-based scenario that accommodates broader needs. For retailers, the bot approach is an efficiency model which functions like interactive FAQ’s. This is helpful for some but certainly not ideal if a customer has any tough questions. A look at which touchpoints are in place suggests that contact via phone number still tops the list. At the same time, it is exciting to see that live chat is a close second. Email is presented as a customer service option in just over half of those retail websites we evaluated. My observation is that email has seen steady decline among retailers and this may be due to its labor-intensive nature. Text sees increased adoption, particularly among retailers who cater to younger audiences. While “we call you” is an interesting approach, only 4% of our surveyed merchants put this technology in place.   

A Customer-First Model

As I conducted the research for this blog, I tried to factor in the needs of the customer where these six questions came to mind. To round this out, I have highlighted some of what I experienced to guide retailers towards optimization.  

  1. What type of customer service options are available? 
  2. Is “Contact Us” information readily visible or are shoppers forced to hunt around, which can be frustrating when one already has an issue with a retailer?
  3. What options are available to address the customer’s preferences when it comes to communication for both standard needs and potentially more complex product information questions?
  4. How has each touchpoint shifted since the inception of online shopping?
  5. Does the retailer call out that the chat is virtual versus live agent? 
  6. How might shoppers feel when they are routed through a chat bot eventually finding their way to a live agent?  Can chatbots be effective for shoppers who have very specific needs that may require a live agent?  

Recommendations for Retailers

1. Put all customer service options out front to avert shopper frustration

Customers like choice in how they communicate based on their own unique circumstances. Neiman Marcus lays out the options and is thoughtful in embracing all types of visitors. 

2. Address which touch points can deliver the quickest results

Aldo lets you know the behavior they expect from all of us. Their advice that chat is the fastest way to resolve issues for shoppers is a welcome reminder for those who are time starved.

3. Let shoppers know what can be accomplished

Best Buy guides chat users giving them options to address most customer concerns. They can also message for additional needs.

4. Hiding touch points is not customer-centric

In contrast to the more accessible strategies which we prefer, some retailers do not provide a “Contact Us” link but instead lets you know that this information is integrated within Customer Service, making it time consuming for shoppers to find what they need. 

We also saw that, when testing live chat, we initially were led to more standard questions. When visiting Walmart, should we ask about more details or something else? We could then be directed to a live agent as seen in the Walmart example below.

An initial look for a toll-free number found it was not accessible at GameStop. We did however eventually find it in the chat. Making it more obvious would help to make it a more ideal shopper solution. 


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5. Know your Audience

This consumer-centric statement can have a variety of meanings as can be seen below in the following three examples.  

For Urban Outfitters, knowing that their customer base is young means social matters. They encourage access via both Twitter and Facebook highlighting when most appropriate.

For the enthusiast category, knowing there are shared experiences among arts and crafts aficionados, Michaels finds value in connecting customers with their fellow shoppers.

Apple called out support by phone and they encourage their customers to download their Apple support App for easy access. This way they can best control and customize those experiences, hopefully making it more efficient for their customers.

6. Go the Extra Mile

I especially liked that Dover Saddlery (a GiftNow partner (GiftNow is a sponsor of research conducted by the etailing group)) highlighted on their customer service information page that customers can contact the CEO. The phrase “we listen” should be a message heard more often from retailers.

Clear Communication is Key

For consumers, good communication with retailers should include choice, accessibility, and execution. Retailers must evaluate which methods are appropriate for their business. They also should ensure they employ a customer-centric approach to these efforts. We encourage every retailer to also test out each customer service option to ensure that they meet the brand’s highest level of service while also exceeding the heightened expectations of timed-starved shoppers. 

Getting customer service right builds brand loyalty and can lead to improved Net Promoter Scores as some people may actually specifically recommend a brand that takes customer service seriously and efficiently resolves support and service issues. Conversely, an unpleasant or unresolved experience can cost you a customer for life or, even worse, a former customer who actively recommends against buying from you.

For a list of the retailers included in this analysis, please download your copy of the e-tailing group 2020 Gifting Index.

Lauren Freedman is the president of the e-tailing group

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