|Online business is anonymous. It's all too easy to forget
that there are actual persons -- not just faceless entities -- at the other end of those
electronic transmissions. And that can be a huge customer service mistake.
Do you ever stop to think about how your customers will
perceive your email or your chat communication before you send it? How do they see your
Web site? Online and off, showing consideration for your customers is the first rule of
etiquette. But taking this common-sense approach in the cyber world can be harder than it
seems. Mastering a few simple techniques will help prevent the misunderstandings that can
reduce the profitability of your Web presence and improve both your service level and your
the Power of E-mail
According to Lydia Ramsey, author of Manners
that Sell: Adding the Polish that Builds Profits, "E-mail has become one of the
most popular and efficient means of communication in the business world. Unfortunately,
because of its ease and convenience, there is a great deal of misuse and abuse associated
with it." It's easy to lapse into the habit of writing informal, poorly structured
emails. It's equally easy to assume that just because you can get someone's email
address, you are free to use it haphazardly.
are increasingly tired of receiving email from merchants and marketers who fail to
respect their privacy or time, and likewise fail to treat them professionally and
courteously. So you should be very careful about the privacy of your customers: never sell
or pass their contact or personal information to any other organization without their
express consent. Be sure to send email only to customers or potential customers that have
indicated a desire to hear from you, either by contacting you first or by making an active
decision to ask for contact from merchants like you. Such discretion will not only reduce
your marketing costs but also help preserve your reputation.
Next, treat email like any other form of
business correspondence. According to Jacqueline Whitmore, Founder and Director of The
Protocol School of Palm Beach, "Nothing irritates us more than receiving emails
riddled with misspellings and poor grammar, and devoid of punctuation." A business
email should be treated simply as a business letter.
Ramsey provides this insight: "One major
caution [with online communication] is that online business owners [must not] overlook the
importance of the personal touch in business relationships. Using electronic mail instead
of picking up the phone may save time, but it doesn't allow for the personal interaction
that is so necessary to developing good relationships or solving problems in transactions
or negotiations. There are times when a phone call and the human voice may be more
beneficial than an impersonal email. Words are often not as important as the tone of
voice that you use." If anything, email should be treated even more carefully than
other forms of business communication: people have become so accustomed to smileys and
other emoticons in personal email, that they forget that such flourishes have no place in
business email. In business email, you must make the words convey the context.
Booher, founder of Booher Consultants, a communications training firm, suggests reading
outbound email with an eye toward what it says about your business image. "Clients
notice errors and writing characteristics," she says. Bob Mander of Lekas &
Levine Public Relations, Inc., puts it another way. "Do what has always worked
best," he says. "Engage in and sustain dialogue with your customers."
Experts also suggest the following tips for
making the most of your email communications:
Above all, remember that good Netiquette
is about fostering two-way communication. Customer contact, in whatever medium, is all
about dialogue. Connecting with your customers develops trust and helps you resolve
conflicts. Personalizing contact, so that you engage your customers, is critical.
Especially with email, it is important that your readers feel that messages are directed
to them personally. Bear in mind that customer service is sales-oriented, and treat each
customer contact, whether by email, old-fashioned mail, or telephone, as an opportunity
to build a lasting relationship.
- Reply as promptly to an email as you would a
phone call -- never more than 24 to 48 hours later.
- Where possible, limit emails to 20 lines or
- Use the subject line as a "hook" and
keep it specific and interesting.
- Include the text of earlier messages in replies
for added convenience.
- Avoid using jargon, slang, abbreviations,
profanity, or colloquialisms.
- Never use all capitals, the electronic equivalent
of shouting, or all lower-case letters, which equates to whispering.
- Ensure that your email includes a proper
salutation, closing, and signature.
- Spell and grammar-check your emails so that they
are as professional as any other form of business correspondence.
- Remember that there is no such thing as a
confidential email -- post on the Internet only what you would post on your company
Sales & Returns
business owners view returns and problems as just another necessary evil in business.
Successful online merchants realize that these are just two additional opportunities to
sell the customer on the merits of their business. Again, etiquette is key to providing
both goods and services. Whether online or in a brick-and-mortar business, there will
always be customers who return a soiled blouse, or who waste hours discussing a contract
only to cancel in the end. Client expectations and limitations are best established in the
beginning. According to Mike Foster, founder and President of Foster Success Strategies, customers prefer to
deal with a site that has clearly posted prices and shipping costs; anything perceived as
a hidden cost can cause the e-tailer grief later on. For services, the Web site should
specify the limitations of what will be provided at no charge in terms of an estimate or
planning and at what point a charge will be incurred. This fee could be required up front
and deducted from the final bill if the client decides to use the services.
business online is simply another way to interact with customers," says Ross
Silverstein, President of iPROMOTEu.com.
"Behind the computer screen is another human being. That individual should be, and
wants to be, served in a fast, courteous, and professional manner. Companies operating
online should respond promptly to customer inquiries and should always be polite and
Bill Lampton, Ph.D., President of Championship
Communication in Gainesville, Ga., and other experts point out a number of critical items
that can help you minimize returns and improve customer relationships overall. Your Web
site should prominently display the following:
In short, use your Web site to give your
customers information that they can really use. "Some companies have Web sites that
inform but don't communicate; others have Web sites that communicate but don't
inform," says Booher. "In today's e-commerce, you must have both to connect with
- A clear listing of all terms and policies
concerning privacy, sales, shipping, delivery, return, and exchange. (For best results,
ask customers to indicate that they have reviewed and accepted these conditions as part of
the sales process.)
- A list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that
your customers might have, together with answers.
- A Help section with detailed explanations about
any procedure that your customer might need to follow.
- Contact information to help your customers reach
you by email, snail mail, and toll-free telephone.
- A "live help" button to
"chat" with a customer service representative in real time.
are few customers more loyal to you than those who had real problems you were able to
solve. When customers or clients do become problematic, it's important to remain
professional and to avoid attacking or blaming them. But don't feel compelled to make
excuses for your rules either; simply fix the problem. Remind the customer that an
agreement was made, and that he or she accepted the return policy or service arrangement
at the time of purchase. Foster suggests writing an email to problematic customers one
day, sleeping on it, and reviewing it the next day to avoid sending out an overly
emotional or incendiary message. Keep in mind that these communications may well be passed
on to other potential customers or clients without your knowledge, so be careful what you
write. It's also wise to thank the customer for the feedback while remaining firm about
the policy. When feasible, consider a means of compensation for unclear circumstances,
such as covering shipping costs for the purchase of a new blouse. Statistics show that
customers are more than four times more likely to tell someone about a negative experience
than about a positive one.
Getting back to each and every customer is
critical, so it is important not to fall into the trap of putting problem online customers
on the back burner just because they aren't standing physically in front of you. Booher
says that accessibility prevents problems. "Make sure 'Anytime, Anywhere' doesn't
mean 'No Time, No Where,' " she says. Many organizations advertise that they're
available to provide service or information 24/7 via their Web sites; but in reality,
customers end up frustrated by lack of availability. There are many tools available to
help you automatically monitor incoming email inquiries and route them to the most
knowledgeable service agent. This increases efficiency, and also takes into account that
customers have individual needs and questions that can't be answered by form letters and
emails. Establish safeguards to ensure that your problem customers get an initial contact
as quickly as possible, to let them know that their problem report has been received and
is getting attention. Tell them when they can expect an answer, and from whom. Of course,
all such correspondence should follow a sound business communication model.
The Internet provides outstanding opportunities
for marketing and for serving your customers. These opportunities will continue to grow as
technology improves and becomes more widely adopted. But the challenges of this new
frontier will continue to grow as well. The rules of Netiquette are still evolving, and
will continue to do so; but learning to navigate the Net politely is not as hard as it may
seem. Simply remember that offline rules apply online. Here's a short list of them:
Just as the online world is always
changing, so will its etiquette requirements. Remember that it is not enough to assume
your employees know how to conduct business cordially from what they've done in the past;
the wheel is in a constant state of reinvention, and so are the rules of etiquette that
accompany those changes. Apply common sense, keep up with trends, but most importantly,
remember that online as well as offline, customers always come first. Customer service,
more than technology or product, will define the successful online companies of the
- What you wouldn't do offline, you shouldn't do
- Treat your online customers at least as well as
your offline customers.
- Never use information provided by your online
customers without fully disclosing that use in advance and obtaining their permission.
- Use context-sensitive marketing approaches to
help customers find the products or information they need.
- Provide truly useful information that your
customers can act upon.
- Never interrupt Internet conversations in chat
rooms or newsgroups to "plug" your product or service.