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Why you should adopt customer self-service at your online store

illustration of a customer taking product boxes from a shelf

It was Napoleon who once said ‘If you want a thing done well, do it yourself’. He could easily have been talking about customer self-service.

Consumer expectations for stellar customer service have never been higher. According to Microsoft, 90% of U.S. consumers see customer service as a deciding factor in whether they do business with a company, while 58% will switch companies due to poor customer service.

The message from customers is clear: Deliver a seamless customer experience – or else.

In the face of this pressure, some merchants are taking a radically different approach to customer care. They’re enabling their customers to be proactive and solve issues themselves – without the need for service requests. 

In this post, we’re going to explore how your brand can empower customers with self-service capabilities that enhance their experience with your brand.

What is customer self-service?

Customer self-service is where customers have access to resources that allow them to troubleshoot problems and answer questions independently. By investing in tools such as knowledge centers, chatbots, and real-time tracking capabilities, service representatives no longer have to be the first port of call for customers.

Imagine if instead of calling your hairdresser to book an appointment, you could simply log in to an online portal and do it yourself. Your account also saves all of the information from previous visits so that you can pick the same service and even set up recurring appointments.

This is a great example of how self-service strategies empower customers to take charge of their customer experience and form repeat purchasing habits that increase Customer Lifetime Value.

Why customer self-service is the new benchmark for great customer service

Customer self-service does sound like an oxymoron. With today’s consumers demanding ever-higher standards of customer service, it might seem counterproductive to outsource essential parts of customer service to customers themselves. Yet there are several reasons why this approach is paying dividends to merchants:

Consumers like having control over their experience

We’ve all had the experience of feeling like online shopping would be much smoother if we could manage it for ourselves. Whether it’s not being able to initiate a return or see stock levels in real-time, much of the friction in ecommerce comes from being dependant on someone else to advance our shopping journey.

According to Bizreport, 73% of consumers want the ability to solve product or service issues on their own, while 65% say that they feel good about themselves and the brand when they’re able to solve problems solo.

The takeaway is clear. Offering a true customer-centered experience means giving your customers the agency to choose how they solve problems, rather than providing a one-size-fits-all solution in the form of call centers or live chat.

It increases the bandwidth of your customer care team

Customer care is easily one of the most important teams in ecommerce. Yet it’s also one of the most under-optimized. Most websites as designed to send customers straight to the ‘contact us’ page, even though the vast majority of customer queries don’t require a dedicated service request.

For example, if a large-scale weather event affects delivery to a specific region, this will likely result in an avalanche of questions about delivery delays. It makes far more sense to add this to your FAQs than to have your team answer endless identical queries.

According to self-service vendor Smart Tribune, around 70% of the service queries businesses receive can be answered via self-service tools like  FAQs or AI chatbots. That’s a lot of unnecessary traffic that your business could be directed at your customer care team.

When customer service representatives are bogged down with unnecessary inquiries, they have less time to dedicate to more complex issues. This lengthens the time it takes to resolve cases, which lowers customer satisfaction. 46% of consumers expect companies to respond to their queries faster than four hours, which requires extreme efficiency even during normal times.

By embracing a self-service philosophy, you can free up your customer service representatives and give your customers quality information much faster.

It empowers customers to interact more with your brand

Let’s compare two different customer service scenarios to see which results in more high-quality brand interactions:

Version 1:  The customer is unable to find a comprehensive sizing guide on the website. They put in a query via an online form where responses take at least two working days. In the meantime, the customer is unable to move forward in their shopping journey and ends up buying from a competing brand.

Version 2: The customer finds a sizing calculator which allows them to input their measurements to direct them to the right size. They also have access to a library of customer reviews to find out more about the garment’s fit and FAQs on how to maintain a garment’s shape. 

In sum, the more information your customers have access to, the more opportunities there are for brand engagement. Self-service journeys take the customer across multiple touchpoints that deepen their brand knowledge. The traditional customer service approach, meanwhile, sees the customer left in a holding pattern that can persuade them to shop elsewhere. 

You can collect valuable customer data

Whenever your customer uses a self-service tool, whether that’s a chatbot or a tracking link for their online order, you’re getting in-depth insights into customer behavior at each stage of the shopping journey. 

Identifying what resources your customers are using and when helps you to build a much more accurate picture of what’s pushing customers towards purchasing. For example, if there’s a clear trend in customers going starting the checkout process after reading your returns FAQs, this is a good indication that you should consider promoting your returns policy elsewhere on your website.

A self-service approach also makes it much easier to segment which website visitors have a high intent of purchasing versus those that are just browsing, allowing you to nurture them with the appropriate content on-site. 

Ecommerce: The customer self-service pioneer

When we think about ecommerce, it’s hardly surprising that it’s shaped consumer preferences for more agency. When online shopping hit the mainstream in the early 2000s, the reason for its popularity was simple: Convenience.

There’s no more waiting for sales assistants to find the right item when you can add it to your shopping cart. Checkout lines disappear when customers can progress directly to the payment portal and process their credit card details. In sum, ecommerce has eliminated many of the pain points we experience when shopping in-store – all because we get to manage the end-to-end shopping journey ourselves. 

So, what happens when we need assistance with answering a query or solving issues that crop up during the shopping journey? We want to be able to sort it out for ourselves. 

However, this can be easier said than done. 55% of consumers report finding self-service portals or tools difficult to use, even as the use of self-service methods has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online shopping doesn’t typically involve interacting with other humans, so a lack of effective self-service options poses serious problems for your site. When shoppers can shop 24/7 across multiple time zones) there’s no logic in relying on customer service representatives who are only online from 9am-6pm each day.

This makes customer self-service critical to the overall health of your business and keeping cart abandonment down, especially during peak season.

6 Ways to adopt customer self-service at your online store

1. FAQs

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) are usually the first port of call for customers, so there’s a lot is riding on this method of self-service. When FAQs are answered well, they build trust in your brand and help guide consumers onto additional touchpoints in the shopping journey. But if not, they can end up causing confusion and creating more questions than they answer.

That’s why it’s important to make that your page is:

  • Easy to find 
  • Concise and easy to understand
  • Organized logically using common categories e.g. returns, payments, shipping
  • Providing further contact information to escalate issues
Warby Parker’s frequently asked questions page

Warby Parker uses a filtered menu to keep their FAQ page clean and easy to navigate.

A common trap that FAQ pages fall into is focusing on questions that a business thinks are commonly asked, rather than staying in the loop with what their customers want to know. Running regular customer surveys and monitoring comments on social media posts are good ways to get an inside view of what your customers want to know about.

For more about creating a great FAQ page, check out our full guide. 

2. Chatbots

Chatbots are a great solution to the conundrum of being unable to staff your live chat 24/7. Chatbots can be set up to answer relatively straightforward and common queries, such as store opening hours or shipping destinations, enabling customers to get instantaneous responses.

While chatbots can be a great replacement for traditional FAQs, it does take a bit of work to get a chatbot to the point of being able to answer more complex requests or personalize interactions. Most chatbots operate using machine learning algorithms which allow them to improve their responses over time, meaning there can be a teething period when they’re first introduced.

KLM mobile chatbot screenshot

KLM uses chatbots to proactively inform customers of flight delays or rescheduling.

Despite this, chatbots are gaining increasing popularity as consumers prioritize speed in their customer service interactions. 56% of consumers say that they prefer to use chatbots than call customer service support, while 47% are open to using chatbots to purchase items. 

In sum, chatbots help to free up more time for businesses to help customers with much more complex requests, while speeding up response times for basic information. 

3. Real-time inventory counts

Having access to up-to-date stock isn’t just important for good inventory management, but for driving customers to make a purchase. Displaying inventory levels on your product pages eliminates endless requests relating to SKU availability, making it a valuable self-service offering.
As BOPIS and curbside pick-up grow more popular, consumers are unlikely to commit unless there’s a guarantee of their chosen items being available in a specific store. Despite this, less than half of retailers offer inventory visibility on product pages.

Net-a-porter product page with real-time stock levels

Net-A-Porter uses real-time stock levels to help drive buyer urgency to purchase.

It’s notable that nearly half of consumers still want to shop in-store during the pandemic, with the immediacy of products cited as one of the key reasons. After all, nobody wants to receive a substitute item that isn’t what they asked for, or have their order canceled and refunded because an item sold out. Without real-time inventory information, your customers can’t make an informed decision about a purchase, which increases the likelihood of them avoiding your store.

Consider using an Order Management System like Whiplash that integrates seamlessly with your ecommerce platform. This ensures that your inventory counts are updated in real-time wherever a customer places an order or makes a return, which promotes trust and transparency.

4. Self-service returns

Hassle-free returns play a major role in whether consumers choose to purchase from an ecommerce brand. 51% of consumers say they won’t shop with an ecommerce merchant that doesn’t offer free and easy returns. This has only become more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 44% of consumers exhibiting more cautious shopping behavior to avoid having to return items.

Nordstrom’s returns portal page

Nordstrom’s self-service returns portal offers customers a variety of return options.

Customers being unable to initiate returns adds a huge amount of friction to the post-purchase experience. Being dependant on an anonymous person to handle your returns request often leaves consumers feeling powerless, which in turn creates negative feelings towards a brand. By offering a seamless returns workflow that’s under your customer’s control, you can inspire consumer confidence and boost conversions. 

Using Whiplash, merchants can embed a branded returns link within the initial order confirmation email, allowing customers to start the returns process without contacting a representative first. This self-service approach massively streamlines your returns workflow and allows you to process returns much more efficiently.

5. Real-time order tracking

The ability to track their online orders has become an expectation for many consumers. 82% of consumers say it’s important for retailers to update them during every stage of the fulfillment and delivery process, which puts a lot of pressure on your customer care team.

Sephora’s order tracking page

Sephora’s order tracking portal has a clean layout that integrates its brand colors.

Implementing real-time order tracking via your chosen carrier eliminates the need for your customer to continually ask for updates. Giving consumers the ability to check their orders whenever they want also helps to remove one of the biggest causes of delivery anxiety – a lack of transparency over the fulfillment process.

6. BOPIS and curbside pick-up

We don’t normally think of click and collect strategies as self-service offerings. Yet they’ve become a popular way for consumers to avoid common pain points in the in-store shopping experience. Hunting for items across endless aisles or navigating crowded stores spaces have become experiences to avoid, especially in the pandemic era.

BOPIS and curbside pick-up enable consumers to get the best of both worlds; the empowerment of online shopping and the ease of returning products in-store if necessary. But for this to work effectively, retailers need to invest in making this a smooth experience.

Gap’s buy online pickup in store instructions page

Gap’s curbside pick-up service gives customers clear instructions on how to navigate the process as seamlessly as possible.

Small additions, such as allowing customers to ‘check-in’ via an app or email link to confirm their arrival, means that staff can have an order ready to go rather than making customers wait for retrieval. You can find more top tips in our curbside pick-up guide.

Adopting a customer self-service mindset at your ecommerce store can be quite a transition that won’t happen overnight. But even small steps like optimizing your FAQs and introducing order tracking will take a huge amount of pressure off your customer care division – as well as creating happier customers.

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