Ecommerce Customer Service

Probably the oldest joke among retailers is to remark on how easy business would be without customers. It’s true that they can generate a lot of work – but they also generate ALL the money. We’ll discuss best practices for customer service and learn what needs to be on our websites to reduce problems.

The perfect customer

Let’s say there’s a four way intersection and ½ block away on each of the four streets a single person stands. On North Street we find Santa Claus. On East Street we see the Easter Bunny. Bill Gates is on West Street, and finally on South Street we find the perfect customer.

In the middle of the intersection is a pot of gold, and they’ll start for it at the same time.

Who will get the gold?

Bill Gates – because the other 3 are make believe.

I love my perfect customer. He finds my website through organic search or via a Facebook link which doesn’t cost me a penny. When he gets to my website he has no trouble finding the information he needs and he carefully reads it to make sure that he’s ordering the correct product.

His credit card is good. His PayPal account is active. He doesn’t make any typing mistakes when he enters his address or credit card number. When he gets my product, he loves it and he can’t wait to give it a positive review. Despite the lame joke above, this person does exist, and there are plenty of them. But..

Customers are work. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news:

Customer service is just like anything else: There is a best way to do it, and like the best way to do most things:

 Do the heavy lifting first so that the long term job is easy.

 When there is a problem, jump on it and take care if it right away.

Reducing unnecessary customer interaction

It may come as a surprise, but one of your goals will be to reduce the amount of time that you spend interacting with your customers. When the phone rings or you get an email that’s obviously from someone interested in your products your first reaction may be joy.

But in fact one of the most time consuming aspects of running an e-commerce site can be dealing with the questions that your customers have about your products and your company’s policies. If you’re getting these kinds of questions on a regular basis, this is your customers telling you that you have a problem with your site design.

If your site is properly designed, your customer will be able to quickly and easily find information on shipping, returns, payments and other basic questions. If the product content on your site is complete and properly configured, instead of asking questions, he’ll be entering his credit card number.

I’ll talk about this a lot more in the design section of the book, but this will have such a large impact on the amount of work you will have to do later that I wanted to address it here as well.

Make sure your customers can easily find:

  • What do you sell?
  • What about shipping and returns?
  • How to contact you
  • Product specifications
  • Product warranties

It is not that you do not want to talk to your customers, or trade emails or Facebook messages with them. The issue is that every time you do this because basic information is not on your website, you’re wasting time and money. If it is on your website and you still get questions, take a hard look at the site. Your customers can’t find it.

What your customer needs to know

It’s great when people enter their credit card numbers or pay with PayPal without contacting you. If your site is getting decent traffic, and your products are properly positioned, you literally will not have time to talk to each and every customer that buys from your site(s).

You will have to talk to your customers sometimes though. If it’s a customer service issue, just handle it as quickly as you can and move on.

If you don’t have the order yet, it’s important to understand that it’s not in your best interest to flood your customer with too much detail about the product. Here’s what your customer actually needs to know:

Only as much as it takes to get the order.

Try not to use industry specific buzzwords that will only encourage the customer to ask more questions.


“Yes ma’am, not only does the eyeball squeezer run on batteries, it includes the latest retina-rebound technology.”

“Can you explain what retina-rebound is?”

Whoops. Now you get to stay on the phone.


“Yes ma’am it does run on batteries. What kind of credit card did you want to use for this purchase?”

“VISA, please.”

Much better and much more profitable.

The business that you don’t want

Sometimes you have a chance for business that you don’t want. You can recognize these customers pretty easily. It’s up to you if you want to deal with them. Just know going in that they will most likely become a time-suck:

 They call or email repeatedly and want to know every detail about the product, worrying over “something they read on the internet” about it.

 You can’t get them off of the phone or they fill up your inbox.

 They are so confused about the internet in general that you can make a pretty good guess that it will be difficult to support them properly.

 They want you to match price with some guy on eBay or elsewhere.

 They seem to want hand-holding through every step of the transaction – do you want to walk them through using their baby-bottle sterilizer too?

There is nothing wrong with someone having a legitimate question or concern – but some people take it to a ridiculous extreme.

Every market is different, but over time you get a feel for who these folks are in your niche. We politely decline their business, and send them to our least favorite competitor. Because we’re nice.

There is one other customer you don’t want: the thief.

Avoiding fraudulent orders

While there is certainly no shortage of product and credit card thievery out there, it should not worry you. These people are easy to spot. We watch for a few simple signs.

 Their Bill to and Ship to addresses are different, and do not indicate a relationship. If you are billing to John Doe and shipping to Jane Doe that is understandable. If John Doe wants to ship to Jane Smith you need to do some checking.

 They want the most expensive version of the product.

 They want it overnighted.

 They want it shipped to a port city or border city – especially Miami and the surrounding area.

 They have an unverified PayPal address, or…

 Their credit card does not pass your Merchant Services address verification test. (This will not cause the transaction to fail – but your processor should give you a warning message letting you know.)

 They exhibit a poor command of English in their verbal or written communications. (Many fraudulent orders come from overseas.)

How to check your order for fraud

First off, trust your instincts. If you have mental alarm bells going off, there’s most likely is a good reason.

We eliminate most fraud with a simple phone call. Nine times out of ten the phone is disconnected, or goes to a non-descript machine message: “You have reached 345-678-9101 please leave a message.”

Next, we try to call the number of the recipient if it is different from the sender.

We look up the addresses on Google to see if they have been flagged in some way and we’ll take a look at Google maps and see if the ship to address is legit. If it is a storage facility – don’t ship.

If your order is from a company, or the ship to is a company address, it’s really easy to check. Any company of any size will have a website where you can verify info and addresses.

In 15 years doing business online, out total loss due to fraud is under 2500.00, on sales in the millions. If you just use common sense, you’ll be fine.

Remember, just because someone orders from you does not mean you have to take the order. You always have the right to refuse orders.

What happens if you get stung

Let’s say a bad order does get though, and you ship. The credit card company will take the money out of your account and give it back to the person whose card was used. But you are not out the amount of the purchase.

You are out what it cost you. Say you are selling pan flutes. Joe orders one with a stolen credit card and the order is for $100.00. The credit card company will restore the $100.00 to the card holder – which is as it should be. But you are not really out $100.00 – you are out your cost on the flute (50.00) and whatever it cost you to ship it (maybe 8.00). It still stings, but not as much.

Remember the burden is on you as the vendor to verify purchases. If it was your card that was stolen, this is how you would want it, right?

Generating repeat business

The first sale is the most difficult. Make sure your customers are satisfied with their first purchase, and getting repeat orders is easy.

More sales are in the box

If you are shipping product yourself, include an invoice (receipt) of their purchase for their records. Make sure it has all of your contact info on it. But don’t stop there. Most accounting and order management software includes the ability to modify templates.

Your packing slip or invoice template might include a coupon or coupon code giving them a discount on their next purchase. If their product uses a consumable item (think coffee filters, coffee, etc) include an easy way for them to re-order that, and give them a small price break.


You can also include the above in your order acknowledgement email. Don’t make it too generous – many people will share this discount, so make it small enough that you can simply write it off as a marketing expense.

If your product is the kind that justifies an ongoing email campaign, you can consider setting up a mailing list. Most shopping cart platforms either have this included, or available as a third party add-on.

If you’re selling from a blog or other self-designed platform, you can use AWeber or MailChimp. These are email list management and auto-responder tools. MailChimp has the added bonus of being free for the first 2000 emails every month. You can find out much more about MailChimp by clicking.

Be careful. Most people are flooded with marketing emails and spam. Do they really need to know that you are having your bi-weekly blowout sale? Are they really likely to need your widget every other month?

Only send out an email when you really have something to say and truly believe it will be of use to your customer.

Offer a bonus for referrals

There is no business like referral business. They’ve just spoken with your customer and they want one too. Easy money. Generate this by offering a bonus product or discount to your current customers. It’s especially potent with products that have consumables, for some reason.

“Have your friend enter her order with your bonus code, and you get a free package of coffee clusters for your machine!”

Always ask for feedback

People love it when you ask for their opinion. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, and everyone likes to think that what they think makes a difference. Feedback will tell you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong with your website and your product. And your customer will appreciate being asked.

Here's a chance to interact with your customers, make them feel good about themselves and get information that will help improve your business. How often do you run across a situation like that?

If you don't want to get up close and personal with the folks using your website, it's fairly easy to have an automated feedback or survey form fall into their inbox shortly after they receive their product. Make sure that happens soon after they receive their product - if they get your request for feedback more than a week after it's delivered they’ll most likely delete it.

B2B vs. B2C

B2B = Business to Business

B2C = Business to Consumer

There are some big differences between B2C and B2B selling. Most are illustrated below, and you want to consider these factors when you are setting up your site and selecting your product. I like to do both. Consumer orders provide me with a steady stream of smaller purchases, while larger corporate orders can result in several thousand dollars in profit in one whack.

If you can sell products both to consumers and to businesses on one site, that is the best. It won’t work for every niche but for the right ones it’s golden. The more expensive industrial products add legitimacy to your sire for the consumers. Business purchasers will just ignore the consumer items.

B2B Pros

You’re selling to other businesses. Congratulations!

 Your average order size should be pretty big. Companies tend to place larger orders for consumables and to need larger, more expensive products than individuals.

 You can make more money per order, which means that you don’t need as many of them to cover your expenses every month.

 You don’t have to worry so much about getting paid or fraud – businesses are really easy to check out.

 You are dealing with professionals who are in it to make an honest dollar, just like you. They will generally be reasonable in their expectations and understanding of any glitches in delivery.

 They pretty much know what they want or need, and any questions you do get are likely to be reasonable – and may generate ideas for site content or new products!

 If you can find the right B2B niche, you can generate a fairly large, sustainable income with just one website.

B2B Cons

You’re selling to other businesses. I am so sorry this happened to you!

 A significant percentage of your orders and most of your large orders (over $5,000) will be on Net 30 terms – which means you don’t get paid until a month after you ship.

 It is easy to get locked into a situation where too much of your money is coming from one customer.

 You are dealing with professionals who are in it to make an honest dollar. Not so great. They know how to negotiate – some of them go to school specifically to learn how to pry discounts and other concessions out of you.

 Sometimes the order comes from someone who is obviously far removed from the actual work to be done, and has no idea what they are ordering. You’ll have to do a little extra work to make sure they are getting the correct product.

B2C Pros

You’re selling to real live people. Congratulations!

 There’s LOTS of them. Even if you are selling stained glass parallelograms, there are a lot of them.

 You should be able to generate a steady stream of orders – this keeps you busy, keeps money flowing, and gives you broad marketing data.

 You get to interact with other people every day, which is nice if you are an internet marketer – it can be a lonely business.

 Consumer sales gives you a better opportunity to get into and leverage Social Marketing

 You are almost always talking to the end user of your product, or at least someone who knows them well.

B2C Cons

You're selling to real live people. I am so sorry this happened to you!

 Some people are simply a pain. The law of averages dictates that some of your customers were fall into this group.

 Consumer businesses can be cyclical, and are particularly sensitive to economic conditions.

 You get to interact with other people every day, even when you don't carefully want to or don't feel like talking.

 Consumer sales, almost demands that you get into and try to leverage social marketing techniques. They are sometimes complex and time-consuming. And the jury is still out on whether they convert nearly as well as SEO.

 You occasionally get calls from people who just plain seem lonely and want to talk to you forever. You have to develop a technique to get them off the phone. I find that a crisp, "I hate you. Please go away." is the best way to deal with these needy people.

 I'm just kidding. Never be mean to a customer, however irritating they might be. If you find your customer is long winded, a gentle reminder that you have other calls coming is enough to get them to hang up.

Customer service

Customer service is easy. I know a lot of people reading this that have been in the customer service business are going to disagree with that. They believe that customers are needy, uninformed, and just generally a pain. And they are right sometimes.

But the extent to which your customers complain is an indication of a couple of things:

 How well your website is set up to eliminate customer problems and confusion.

 How well your company systems have been designed and implemented.

tip indicator

Treat every customer complaint as if it were an opportunity, because that's what it is. Every time someone has a problem with your website or the way your company operates, they are giving you a suggestion on how to improve things. It is genuine, unsolicited feedback, and that is a golden opportunity.

When you're presented with a problem your first goal should be to fix it and fix it at that moment. We have a policy that if the problem can be fixed for less than $150, we simply do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. Our number is $150 because we sell some very expensive equipment, and that number makes sense for us.

If you're selling consumer goods only and you have a price point of $100, your number of course will be lower. The good news is, your customers won’t expect you to give away the farm. They simply expect to be treated fairly.

What if you can't fix it now? What if there is no quick and easy solution, regardless of how much it cost you or your customer? Simply have an agreed-upon set of steps that you and/or your customer will follow to resolve the situation.


"Okay, this will be easy to take care of. I’ll log in to check my UPS stats to see whether or not your product actually goes out tomorrow. If it doesn't, I will call the factory for a ship date update, and then send you an e-mail with the new information. Is that fair?"

"Fair enough. But if they can’t ship before the end of the week I'd like to cancel the order okay?"

"That's perfectly understandable. But we'd hate to lose you as a customer. I’ll do everything I can to see that the product is on its way to you tomorrow afternoon, and of course I'll let you know either way."

Once you have a plan in place, be sure to follow up. Think about the last time a vendor promised to ship something to you, or get back to you with needed information, and he didn’t. If you hadn't already made the purchase, I'm betting that you went somewhere else.

Of course you’re going to do your best. You want every transaction to go smoothly, and you don’t want any glitches or mistakes. But occasionally something will go wrong. Shipments don’t go out, or an address is mistyped or you ship the wrong item.

What to do when you’re wrong

First take responsibility. Never try to shift blame. It will make you look like a weasel. Not too surprising, because you’re acting like one. Even if you use a dropshipper, once you take the order or the credit card payment – it is yours. Own it.

Second, inform the customer immediately. They need to know what’s going on, so they can adjust. This is especially important around the holidays, or if the customer has given some indication that the purchase is a gift.

Before you call or email your customer, have some alternatives ready. Decide in advance how you will fix it, and what you are willing to do for them. People like clarity. Never ask them, “What would you like me to do?” This puts you in an awkward position if they want something that destroys your profit on the order.

You may find that the situation is one you cannot resolve to your customer’s satisfaction. Oh well. Apologize, give them their money back, and move on.

If you come to an agreed upon solution, act on it immediately. In fact, act on everything immediately. Things left undone usually end up not done at all.

What to do when the customer is wrong

People make mistakes. They mistype credit card info, mix up dates, and lose things. All the time. When your customer makes a mistake, the most important thing is to inform them right away.

Remember most people pump their info into a shopping cart and expect to see three things:

1. An immediate email acknowledging their purchase

2. The product in a few days.

3. A charge on their credit card or PayPal statement.

If they have done something that will prevent any of the above from happening, they need to know.

Send an email right away. If they don’t respond in a day or two then (horrors!) pick up the phone.

Remember, right now it’s their fault. If you don’t follow up, it’s yours.

Again, have a fix in mind for them. If it is just a typo like a 4 digit zip code, it’s easy. If they have chosen to buy two products that are obvious mistakes when purchased together, have some alternatives ready.

When it just can't be fixed

Sometimes despite your best efforts, and even when the customers being perfectly reasonable. There will be no way to resolve the situation to your mutual advantage. You just can't fix it. It's okay, simply refund their money and move on.

How to talk on the phone

It may sound like a silly title for a section, but you'd be surprised at the stuff I hear coming out of people's mouths who are supposedly working in a real business. Business phone etiquette is easy and at its roots is just polite behavior.

Always answer by the third ring. We go so far as to set up our system so that it rolls over to voicemail after the third ring. Letting your phone ring five or more times while the customer sits on the other end leads them to wonder if you are a real business after all, despite your gorgeous website.

Leaving Messages

If your customer leaves you a message always return the call that same day. Depending on which coast you’re on, it's possible that you won't get their message until after they’re gone for the day. That's okay, leave a response on their machine right away. They will hear it first thing in the morning and are much more likely to return your call, since you did them the same courtesy.

When you leave your message, please try to speak clearly and not too fast. When leaving contact details like e-mail addresses, URLs and phone numbers always repeat them twice. Give the information nce in the normal flow of the message and then again at the end, more slowly. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to messages from customers or suppliers, and had them rattle off their phone number machine gun style forcing me to listen to the message over and over while I try to decipher what they've said.

Calling your customers

People are so used to getting poor customer service from Internet companies that they are amazed when I actually call them. Sometimes a customer will express surprise that there was "a real person at that website." This is almost always a guarantee of an order.

The above is just an indication of how bad most Internet companies are - and it presents a real opportunity for you. Many customers, especially those that are buying consumer products, are thrilled to get an actual phone call from an actual "Internet person". Remember - they're used to going to Amazon, and then having to just wait and see what happens.

When you do call your customer, either to thank them for a nice order, to give them an update on shipment were to answer a question, identify yourself first. "Hi this is John from XYZ I'm responding to your question about the ship date for your new Cuisinart."

People are so used to being inundated with crap calls from phone solicitors that they appreciate knowing who they're talking to immediately, and you're much less likely to get hung up on.

You may be wondering why you would ever call your customer instead of just sending them an e-mail. The answer is that sometimes they want you to. The feedback form on your website should have a spot where they can indicate how they would like to be contacted. Some people work outside, and while they have their cell phone they are not in front of a computer. So email is just not the best way to get hold of them and they know it. Be respectful of your customer's request and get in touch the way that works best for them.

When you have multiple websites

We played around with this problem a little bit before we finally figured it out. When things first started out, we would answer the phone with our company name and "How can I help you?"

Once we had multiple websites up that stopped working. People would ask "is this the" It confused them, and it's pretty easy to see why. Worst-case scenario, they would be expecting to hear something with the website name in it, and when they didn’t, they would hang up. Here's your fix:

"Internet sales desk, how can I help you?"

Perfect. Now, they almost never ask whether they've actually reached the specific site that they called. They simply launch into their question, we help them and we usually end up with an order.

OK we’ve covered Suppliers and Customers. There’s just one more group of people you’re going to become very familiar with. Over time some of them will become information sources, some will be friends and some will be suppliers.

But they all have one thing in common. They want your customers.