Article

What is online customer service? + 8 ways to improve your online customer service

Online customer service is the process of answering customer questions digitally using tools such as email, social media, live chat, and messaging apps. Here are tips for good online customer service.

By Sarah Olson, Content Marketing Associate

Published March 10, 2021
Last updated August 23, 2021

A shift toward digital customer engagement was already underway before COVID-19, and it’s only been accelerated by pandemic challenges. The digital experience is especially important considering that ecommerce sales jumped 30 percent in 2020. We also know based on the Customer Experience Trends Report 2021 that 65 percent of customers want to buy from companies that offer quick and easy online transactions.

That also includes online customer service. It should be as easy to ask a question about a product as it is to buy it. With more customer interactions happening primarily online, it’s important for companies to go above and beyond to deliver a compelling online experience.

So how do you create an online customer experience that feels authentic to your brand, even for customers who never visit your store or office IRL?

Here are a few thoughts.

What is online customer service?

Online customer service is the process of answering customer questions digitally using tools such as email, social media, live chat, and messaging apps.

Online customer service has a few key benefits:

  • Customers can get more immediate, in-the-moment help
  • Support teams can manage more requests in less time
  • Companies can reduce wait times and increase customer satisfaction

Tips for good online customer service

Now that we're becoming accustomed to doing essential functions online, from grocery shopping to telehealth appointments, customers will come to expect seamless online experiences everywhere. Whether you're a household name or a scrappy startup, the expectation for what defines good customer service is increasing.

The only option is to rise to the occasion, and we're already seeing that more than half of customer support teams are prioritizing CX more than they did a year ago.

Good online customer service meets customers' expectations. Read on to better understand customers' priorities and how you can meet (and exceed) their expectations.
Image showing a numbered list of customer expectations, summarizing what is described in the text

  1. Easy interactions

    65 percent of customers want to buy from companies that offer quick and easy online transactions.

    Meanwhile, 75% of customers said they were willing to spend more to buy from companies that give them a good customer experience. It’s no wonder, then, that companies like Target and Amazon have been thriving despite COVID challenges. They understand the importance of customer obsession and are able to deliver a consistent experience from start to finish.

  2. Choice of channels

    64 percent of customers used a new customer service channel in 2020, and 73 percent plan to keep using it.

    A lot has changed recently, including how customers talk to support. The reality is that customers will expect companies to be just as adaptable to new and emerging channels as they are. That means meeting your customer where they are, whether that’s an email, chat, or Instagram DM.

  3. Fast replies

    Most customers expect an email response in 12 hours or less, and for channels like social media and chat, the expectation is that you’ll be even faster.

    Responding to customers in a timely manner shows that you value their time, and more generally, their business. To improve your reply time, consider how your technology plays a role. Giving agents access to more information with fewer clicks can save time and improve focus.

  4. Empathetic agents

    49% of customers want agents to be empathetic. Meanwhile, they also have high expectations around diversity and corporate responsibility.

    Beyond technical skills, customer service agents need to bring empathy and humanity to their role. Agents should also be sensitive to customers’ needs post-COVID, as many people remain isolated from loved ones and may be experiencing various forms of grief.

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How to improve your online customer service

Meeting your customers needs—answering their questions, solving their problems, helping them find peace of mind—is one of the best ways that you can show your customers true empathy.

In this era where so much of what we do happens online, it's going to require empathy and understanding to differentiate yourself from the competition and improve customer loyalty.

As Rich Gardner, VP of Global Strategic Partnerships at Klaviyo, explains, "Customer engagement cannot always be about new sales—the best way to engage your customers is to develop an online experience that is based on customer empathy."

Here are a few tips to improve your online customer service.

  1. Help customers help themselves
  2. Meet your customers where they are
  3. Get a complete view of the customer
  4. Respond as quickly as possible
  5. Train your support team for soft skills
  6. Deescalate with care
  7. Ask for feedback
  8. Be human

1. Help customers help themselves

Answering common questions in your self-service help center has a few key benefits, including the convenience of being available to help customers 24/7. In fact, 69 percent of customers want to resolve as many issues as possible on their own.

Keep your help center up to date with product information, and enlist the help of your customer support team to provide the most relevant and helpful information based on incoming customer requests they're seeing. They are close to both your customers and the product, so they will have valuable perspective to offer.

2. Meet your customers where they are

Customers have come to expect that they can talk to companies on the channels they prefer. For some customers, that might be your standard web form that automatically creates an email. For others, they might be more inclined to send you a quick message via WhatsApp or Instagram DM. Meanwhile, you might find that a strategically deployed live chat on your website's product pages might help you reel in potential customers.

The truth is, it will probably be some combination of all these. With an omnichannel strategy for customer service, you can manage all your service channels in one place and tune into customer data that will allow you to personalize your online support.

3. Get a complete view of your customers

Tapping into customer data, either through app integrations or custom-built apps, can help you provide more personalized service to customers online. With Zendesk for customer service, customer context can be pulled into your agent workspace and managed from a single view. This gives your agents the full context of the customer relationship, such as past conversations and purchase history. It also saves them time by eliminating the need to toggle back and forth between multiple systems, which can be a major pain point for support reps.

4. Respond as quickly as possible

One of the advantages of online customer support is that a customer can expect faster, in-the-moment assistance. For example, if a customer has a quick question about sizing, they can ping you via chat to confirm before they submit their order. But this only works if a customer service representative is poised and equipped to help.

Part of this is a matter of staffing. Look at your help desk metrics to get a sense of ticket distribution by channel, and deploy your agents accordingly. For example, you might need more agents on chat during peak business hours to keep up with your response time benchmarks.

Your technology is also important. If agents are working with outdated systems, that's going to slow them down. Similarly, if they are navigating multiple layers of process, it will take longer to answer even the simplest questions. Make sure you have the right tools in place, and then optimize your workflows for efficiency.

5. Train your support team for soft skills

The same customer service skills we typically think of, such as mirroring and warm tone of voice, also apply in the digital realm. They just require a bit of training to translate to online channels.

Here customer service educator Rea Ninja explains a few important customer service skills for online customer support:

Remember: People tend to read emails in a more negative tone than originally intended, so agents should keep their communication light and conversational. Agents can convey warmth by using emojis, exclamation points, or even gifs when appropriate.

6. Deescalate with care

Customer complaints are inevitable, but these conflict resolution techniques can help you stay calm and begin the process of repairing the relationship. It's important that you tackle these conversations from a place of empathy. You never know what the person on the other side of a conversation has experienced that may be triggering feelings of anger and frustration.

As a customer service provider, your job is to listen sincerely and act appropriately. It can be difficult to manage your emotions, especially if you are feeling burned out, so remember to drink water, take breaks, and be kind to yourself.

7. Ask for feedback

Feedback is a critical part of the online customer service process. Asking for feedback shows your customers you care about their experience and that you value their input. You should regularly monitor customer feedback and measure your customer satisfaction (CSAT) score. CSAT surveys at the end of every interaction will help you gauge satisfaction and identify issues in the moment.

You can also using social media listening tools to help you hear what customers are saying about your product or service, even when they don't tag you on Twitter or Facebook directly. These tools can help you get a sense of how your customers truly feel about your brand, and give you insight into how to evolve your brand messaging and engagement strategies.

8. Be human

We all crave the authenticity of real, human connection. Recall the story where a Zappos customer service employee stayed on the phone with a customer for over 10 hours. This is just one example of how relating to each other as humans can have a positive impact on business.

Empower your agents to connect with customers from a place of truth and openness. A simple anecdote or acknowledgment of shared experience can strengthen your connection and increase customer satisfaction. Having a sense of humor can also help diffuse a tense situation and move conversations toward a mutually beneficial resolution.

At your service

Online customer support tools, from your library of help center articles to your snappy social media assistance, allow you to be there for your customers when and where they need you–and you can do it from anywhere in the world.

As remote work becomes the rule instead of the exception, it's important that your customer service team is empowered with powerful, flexible solutions. Zendesk for customer service allows you to unify your customer conversations in a single workspace and integrate seamlessly with trusted apps like Slack, Shopify, and many more. Get started with a free trial of Zendesk for customer service today.

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