8 Top Tips For Giving Great Online Customer Service

We’ve all been there, you’ve got a problem with a product or service and you submit a support request on the company’s website or email their support team. You get a reply from someone asking questions that you’ve already answered in the initial enquiry and, from their minimal response and lack of basic grammar, you’re fairly sure the support operative is a teenager who just failed his high school English exam and couldn’t care less about your problem. The company immediately has your back up.

You most certainly know when you have received great customer service and when it has been rubbish. But is your own customer service up to scratch or could your organisation do better? Read on for my top tips from 17 years working in customer service environments and start making your customers feel cared for and valued.

1. Good manners and formality are your friend

Let’s get this basic but important point out of the way first. Write a properly addressed response, even if it’s an SMS. Write “Dear Kate” or “Dear Mr Jones” and use the name they signed off with. You’ll immediately create a good impression by addressing someone politely the way they wish to be addressed.

If this is a follow up communication with them on the subject and they’ve addressed you “Hi Mark” then by all means use “Hi” as well, it will help create a rapport, but don’t use “Hi” for the first response, it assumes a familiarity.

Take the time to write a relatively formal response, even if only a couple of lines are needed.

“Dear Kate,

Your website has been updated. Please let me know if you need any further assistance.

Kind regards,
Rhian”

Is so much better than:

“Hi Kate,That’s all done now.

Rhian”

Which brings me on to signing-off. Make sure this is polite too. “Kind regards” or “Many thanks” always work well, in fact nearly every support communication I have ever written ends with one of these. Just putting your name at the bottom is, quite frankly, a bit rude and lazy!

2. Attention to detail

Read the message properly and pay attention to all the information you’ve been given. If it doesn’t immediately make sense don’t just fire off a response stating that you don’t know what they mean. Have a look at the product or issue and try to work it out. If the customer doesn’t really understand the issue themselves but has tried to include lots of information you may well find the answer further down their message. You might have to read between the lines a bit.

If the message contains multiple queries or issues make sure that you address every one. If you don’t you either look incompetent, stupid, lazy or all three.

3. Response time and updates are very important

So you’ve picked up a message and the customer has a problem you can’t resolve immediately or that is puzzling you. Don’t just sit on the enquiry, let them know you’re looking at it. It’s OK to tell them that you don’t know the answer right now but make sure that they know you’re investigating and keep them up to date on progress. Honesty is good and your customers will think more highly of you for it, they like to know what’s going on.

4. It’s good to say “Sorry” (even when it’s not your mistake)

An apology is very easy to give, especially in written communications, and creates a great impression with the customer. You don’t have to mean it from the heart but the customer wants their inconvenience to be acknowledged. Even if you can’t fix their problem right away an apology goes a long way towards making them a happy customer who feels that your organisation cares about them.

Consider this scenario. You work for a company providing a website updating service. The customer sent through instructions for an update which weren’t entirely clear. You complete the update but they’ve come back complaining that it’s not correct. It costs you nothing but the 6 seconds it takes to type “My apologies for the misunderstanding” and they feel appeased. You don’t have to look them in the face or even say the words out loud. Of course you fix the error too and quite possibly when they look back over the email they’ll realise their information led to the error.

  • “I’m sorry but I’m not quite clear what you’d like, could you clarify please?”
  • “Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused.”
  • “I’m very sorry we can’t resolve this immediately but please be assured we are working on it.”

In summary, good use of “sorry”, whether sincere or not, helps a great deal in keeping customer relationships happy.

5. Be proactive

Make an effort to provide a solution even it’s not an easy one to find. This might mean thinking outside the box or giving them options which weren’t quite what they asked for. A lot of the time you’ll find that they weren’t that set on their proposed option, they just want a solution that works. Your customers will appreciate the effort and see you as an organisation that goes the extra mile to make things work for them.

6. The customer is not always right and it’s OK to tell them so (politely)

There are times when your customer will request something which you know won’t work and you need to tell them this or you’re not really providing an expert service.

“I’d like my website colour scheme to be pink and yellow.”

Tell them politely that in your professional/expert opinion and based on experience that another option would be better. Make sure you give them the reasons why and provide them with viable alternatives. Examples are always helpful to show them the error of their ways too. In the above website example I’d create a very quick colour scheme mock-up to demonstrate this.

“I’d strongly recommend an alternative colour scheme as pink and yellow will negatively affect the accessibility of your website. They will be very problematic for any visually impaired users.”

7. Learn to read minds

There’s always the occasional customer that sends a one line message that you could mistake as having been written on a smart phone by a five year old, possibly using predictive text prompts. It makes almost zero sense and hasn’t even been signed off.

Or they have a very vague idea about what they’re asking for but have no idea how to go about communicating it.

This is where you need to hone your mind reading skills. If you know your product or service well enough the odd useful word will sometimes be enough for you to figure out what they are asking for. If not you might have to take a best guess and explain to them that you weren’t clear on what they wanted but you’ve done xyz and to let you know if that’s not right. 9 times out 10 they didn’t really know themselves and what you’ve done will be fine. If not they’ll hopefully give you clearer information.

If you really can’t make head or tail of what they’ve sent it’s fine to go back to them and let them know that you’re really not sure what they’re asking for and can they give you more detail please. Just apologise for your lack of understanding when you so (see above regarding saying sorry!). They’ll probably apologise back for giving you terrible information.

8. Standard responses are good but always be prepared to customise them

Having standard responses to requests and issues can be very useful. It saves time and means all your customers are getting the same information (this is especially useful if you have a team of people dealing with your customers). They also give new team members good information to work with.

The problem is that customers don’t really like receiving a standard, stock response. It makes them feel unvalued and fobbed off, even if it answers their question.

Be prepared to customise standard responses as required. Be sure to address the response properly and sign off properly. Make sure it answers their queries thoroughly and in the correct context. Edit it as needed so it forms an appropriate response. Add any additional information the customer needs and remove any that isn’t relevant to them.

Follow the above tips and your customer service will be great. In summary, you need to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and pay attention to details. Respond to your customers in a way that you would be happy with if you were them. You know when you’ve received good customer service so give that same quality to your customers.

I also highly recommend obtaining feedback on your customer service. If you use a ticketing system it may well have this feature included which makes it really easy. A simple “Satisfied/Unsatisfied” with the option to comment will suffice. It takes the customer seconds but gives you valuable insight into your performance. If you don’t like the idea of asking for feedback you should be asking yourself why not. Quite possibly you’re already concerned that your customer service needs improvement.

PS. You can apply these rules to phone and face to face customer service too.

(Blog post)