Online retailers beat bricks and mortar customer service

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It is strange to think that a website could provide better customer service than a human being, but as as a recent Marketing Week feature on multi-channel marketing shows, letting people shop how and where they want can provide a better service to them overall.

This week’s cover feature on online retailer Asos, which is aiming for £1bn in sales by 2015, also mentions its good service points, such as the fact that users can view products on a catwalk and can get free returns.

The click and collect function on a website, for example, allows people to check whether a shop has something in stock, buy it then and there and then collect within about a week. Argos is one retailer which did this early, making no bones about the fact that it is not an expert in the products it sells, like John Lewis might be. But it uses the online, catalogue and in-store formats to make shopping easy for people. And Sainsbury’s intends to double the number of stores offering click and collect to 800 by the end of the year.

But it’s not just set functions that a website can perform really well, to make shopping easier for people. When mixed with real human contact, customer service can become a powerful brand differentiator.

The American shoe brand TOMS sells direct online and via selected retailers such as Office in the UK. It offers a variety of customer service options including phone, email and live chat. Logging on to the latter to swap a pair of shoes felt a bit like going on instant messenger when I was a student, but customer services employee Emma was right there to answer my query.

I needed to arrange a complicated international exchange and was fully expecting the answer to be ’no we can’t do that as you bought the shoes in the US and want to exchange in the UK’. But she let me know she would need to investigate, and would email the answer to me direct.

The brand then arranged a free courier to pick up my shoes – which I’d ordered in America but had been sent the wrong size – to swap them for the right pair via Amsterdam, and delivered them back to me.

Thus the brand managed to get round a system which probably didn’t allow for international exchanges. And the ’system’ is something which brands could blame for poor customer service. Compare that with an in-store experience at Uniqlo recently which wouldn’t exchange a jacket for a dress because it wasn’t the same kind of item.

While I do browse Uniqlo’s website – and appreciate its occasional free deliveries – this in-store experience has put me off the brand. As has an unhelpful sales assistant at shoe repairer Timpson which I had held in high regard before this first visit, given its founder’s straight-talking column in the Telegraph and on hearing other people’s positive experiences.

For bigger operations, getting all parts of a business in line to provide good customer service can be trickier. When British Airways launched its online check-in and fast bag drop services, I was working at the ad agency behind the campaign to promote these.

At the airport, however, some staff were covering up the word ’fast’ because of the queues forming at the bag drop area. But BA’s then marketing director got involved in the operations side of things to try to sort out the queues.

I do appreciate the difficulties big companies like this have, but if they really did start with the consumer needs then none of this might happen.

O2 is stepping up in-store customer service – with its Gurus to help people buy the right phone, and it is currently recruiting staff for about 40 stores, which can only be a good thing.

As a consumer, I don’t separate out customer service from marketing or other communications, and I don’t care about internal systems. I just want good service and I will be a loyal customer.

So could customer service be the new advertising? We will have a feature on the Promise Index, which looks at the difference between brand perception and reality, in our magazine cover-dated 30 June so watch out for it in print or online.

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