How Customer Service Can Make or Break Your Business

05/05/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

How can your business build good relationships with customers you don't see face-to-face? That's the crucial question for online merchants, and your answer determines whether your business will succeed in attracting and retaining customers.

To compete online, there are 6 customer-service elements a business must master: easy shopping, accurate product descriptions, clear shipping information, a transparent return policy, easy access to customer service and the willingness to meet customers' requests. Let's look at each element in detail.

Element 1: An easy-to-use shopping experience

"The best online customer service is invisible," says Time magazine, meaning that good design prevents customers from having to ask for help to find what they need. It can also keep them from leaving your site to shop elsewhere. To make shopping easier:

  • Group your merchandise in categories that make sense: by gender, age, size or other relevant category.
  • Include an easy to find search tool to save customers time.
  • Post shipping and return policies where they're easy to see. (Read more on this below.)
  • Allow customers to validate coupon codes before the end of the checkout process.

Element 2: Accurate product descriptions

Shopify describes product information as "a mission critical piece of the online sales puzzle." Detailed written descriptions and clear photos of your products can make the customer comfortable enough to purchase from your store. Clarity can also prevent a mismatch between expectations and reality that can lead to returns, disputes, chargebacks, or negative reviews. Ensure that your site describes each product's:

  • Materials and construction
  • Intended use and durability
  • Care instructions
  • Sizing, including metric and imperial measurements
  • Information about what makes the product unique, such as country of origin or handcrafted status

Additionally, your customer service team must know your inventory well enough to answer customer inquiries and make reliable recommendations.

Element 3: Clear and detailed shipping information

No one likes to be surprised at checkout by high shipping fees or long waits for delivery. Manage customers' expectations from the outset with these simple-to-implement practices:

  • Include shipping and delivery information on every product page.
  • Offer a range of shipping speeds at different price points.
  • Offer free shipping over a certain spend amount. UPS Compass recommends setting your free-shipping threshold a bit higher than your average cart order to encourage more spending.
  • Track every shipment to ensure timely delivery and to reduce the likelihood of friendly fraud.

Element 4: A transparent and easy to use return policy

Fear of merchandise-return hassles is the leading reason some customers say they avoid buying online. Shoppers who regularly make online purchases seek out stores with the best return policies. To earn their business and to forestall customer worries about returns, ensure that your store's policy is easy to find and understand:

  • Include time limits on returns.
  • Explain who pays for return shipping.
  • Tell customers whether they will need a return authorization code before shipping returns.
  • If items are not returnable, put that information on the product pages and highlight it again during the checkout process.

Online shoppers have come to expect a high level of service on returns. Writing for Entrepreneur, Endicia co-founder Harry Whitehouse recommends that businesses seeking to be competitive should offer a generous return window (up to 90 days), free returns and a return shipping label either in the package or readily available online for printing.

Element 5: Easy-to-contact customer service

In an ideal world, every business could have live, multi-language customer service assistance available around the clock. In the real world, where cost is a factor in staffing decisions, the next best option is to be clear about when customer service is available and in what languages. If you offer live chat and phone service, promote them on every page. In addition:

  • Post the hours (including time zone and country) for live customer service availability.
  • Post a customer service email address and tell customers how soon they can expect a response.
  • Consider offering multiple customer service channels. Internet Retailer reports that many customers prefer email over chat, and phone assistance is preferred by many mobile shoppers.

Element 6: Listen and respond to customer needs

From a financial and public relations standpoint, it behooves your company to do everything possible to satisfy customers. Customers who are pleased with their purchases and those who are satisfied with the resolution of a problem are more likely to become long-term customers. They are also less likely to dispute charges or post negative merchant reviews.

If this sounds similar to the adage that the customer is always right, it is -- especially in an age when unhappy customers can broadcast their complaints to the world on Twitter and other social media. To retain customers and avoid the PR nightmare of a complaint going viral online, empower your customer service team to solve problems:

  • Train all sales staff to listen carefully to customers and make their satisfaction the top priority.
  • Give customer service representatives the authority to make case-by-case decisions, whether for a return a bit past the deadline date, a return for store credit, or an expedited replacement item.
  • Additionally, make sure your service team has ready access to a manager to make decisions about high-cost or complicated customer service requests.
  • Follow up with customers to ensure that they are satisfied with the resolution of their problem.

Ask all of your customers for reviews within a few days of their purchase. Use the feedback to identify which aspects of your customer service and site are working well and which need improvement.

Invest in customer service now for long-term success

Customer service costs money up front in terms of training employees, optimizing your online store, and possibly absorbing the cost of return shipping. Those costs are an investment that can yield repeat business, referrals, and a reduction in returns and chargebacks as your business builds relationships with its clientele. If your team is skilled at listening to customers, anticipating their needs, and delivering what they want, those customers will feel like you know them well and value their patronage, even if they're on the other side of the world.