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Google
Customer Service - The Key to Increased Customer Lifetime Value

Last month we discussed building credibility and trust at your website, so that visitors feel comfortable buying from you. That is half of the battle. The more important part is increasing the lifetime value of each customer, that is, getting your one-time buyers to be repeat customers. There are many factors that go into this: marketing; product quality; and the consumable nature of the product or service you sell. However, if you have poor (or non-existent) customer service, you can forget about repeat business.

Since none of us is running a large company (I assume) and don't have much of a budget—if any—for customer service, all of the tips and resources in this article are either free or low-cost. Customer service for small businesses is typically provided via sweat equity.

Ground Rules
First, some common sense ground rules for providing good customer service:
1.The more ways you have to contact you the more assured the potential and repeat buyer will feel in coming back to your site. We will look at many of these ways in this article.
2.Respond quickly! There is no point to having many methods of contacting you (e.g., email, chat, voice mail) and then fail to respond in a timely manner. It will just turn people off. Better to have less contact methods and be diligent in responding to issues or requests.
3.Be proactive. Since we want to minimize the amount of time spent with customer service (and so do our customers!), provide as many ways as possible to answer common questions and problems as possible. Obvious solutions to this are FAQs and email updates.
4.Ask customers how you're doing. Get feedback about your customer service from those who use it. Are the FAQs comprehensive? How hard was it to get in touch? Did you get your problem solved? This will enable you to improve your service. You may have to offer a freebie to get people to respond. There are many free sites that provide surveys and polls for your website, including: http://www.pollwizard.com; http://www.visitorpoll.com; http://www.pollit.com; http://polls.whatiz.com

Now that we have that out of the way, let's discuss the common low-cost methods of customer service that we can use.

EMAIL
Yes, this is an obvious one, and is a minimum requirement for every website. You should have a specific email address for support requests (typically support@yourdomain.com). I have all email to this address forwarded to my MS Outlook mailbox and I use filters to color it red. This way I can take a quick glance and see if anyone is requesting help.

FAX
Some people like to use FAX, especially if they don't want to send messages from their work email. You don't need to own a FAX machine; you can get free FAX receive service that goes straight to your email. The two popular services are http://www.efax.com, and http://j2.com. You will have to pay if you want to send faxes.

USER FORUM
In the old days it was called a bulletin board system (BBS), now they are user forums or groups. This is a great way to provide support, mostly because if you can get enough people to use it, your customers will help each other out! People will request answers to problems that others may have already had, and they can respond with the answer. However—you must make an effort to participate in the group and answer questions


as much as possible, at least once a day. You can also post updates and message digests to common problems in the user group as well. The best place to start a group is at http://groups.yahoo.com.

CHAT
Chat is very popular on the Internet, and is becoming a popular tool with customer service as well. The chat software is free and includes products from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, as well as mIRC and ICQ. Personally, I feel that ICQ is the best product to use for a business site. You can get it at http://icq.com. The only drawback to chat software is that they are proprietary and can only work with users that have the same software. So if some of your customers use MSN Chat, and some use AOL Instant Messaging, then you need to have both on your computer. There are a few chat programs that are capable of working with multiple chat services including the ones I listed above. These programs are: Jabber at http://www.jabber.com/index.shtml, EWZY at http://www.cactusvisionsoftware.com/ewzy.htm (which includes an autoresponder), and my personal favorite Trillian at http://www.cactusvisionsoftware.com/ewzy.htm.

There are more sophisticated software and services that you can use if you have larger needs for customer service. These include advanced chat with transcriptions, video, voice chat, etc. Take a look at the following sites: http://www.humanclick.com, http://www.phplivesupport.com/, or go to http://www.ecommercetimes.com/product_guide/live_interaction/ to see a current list of live interaction services and software.

VOICE and PHONE
Another method that really gives customers a "warm fuzzy" is being able to contact you by voice, such as a voice mailbox or live phone call. You can typically rent a voice mailbox from AT&T or other provider at a low-cost. Just make sure you return people's calls! A great way to talk to customers for free (or low-cost) is to use a Voice-Over-IP software product such as Net2Phone (see http://web.net2phone.com ). This provides you a way to call anywhere in the country for 2 cents a minute, and great overseas rates as well. I use it for personal calls a lot. The great thing is that if others have this software, you can talk from computer-to-computer for free. So put the download link to the software on your web site.

OTHER SERVICES
If you want it all in one spot, look into ureach.com (http://www.ureach.com). They have
A unified messaging service that includes call forwarding, voice mail, fax, email, file storage (30MB), PDA address book synchronization, pager notification, ICQ integration, all in a single interface. You can also access messages via your WAP mobile phone. Some of their features are free others are not. Their plan info can be found here:
http://www.ureach.com/help/planinfo.htm.

Finally, you should track your problems (outstanding and closed) for historical purposes. Most of us are able to do this using either MS-Word or Excel. If you need a more sophisticated trouble tracking software, the only one I found that looked decent and didn't cost a mortgage was Request Commander (about $30) at http://www.nestersoft.com/requestcommander.

Good luck!

About the Author

Mike Martone is the webmaster at http://www.profitmonkey.com, editor of the free newsletter Ebiz Edge, and author of the ebook '7 Days to 700% More Traffic'