Online retailers and service providers face an interesting challenge when it comes to their customer service strategy. On the one hand, one of the things people like about buying stuff online is that they can do simple shopping at home in their bathrobes while they're microwaving a Hot Pocket, and they don't have to bother with the trivialities of human interaction. While I'd rather buy something like a tailored suit from a brick-and-mortar store with a real live person who can assure me that I'm dropping hundreds of dollars on something that's actually going to be worth my money, I can't say that I would really miss the customer service experience I have every week at a place like the grocery store if I switched over to an online alternative like Fresh Direct. On the other hand, without any human connection to its customers, it's very difficult for an online-only operation to establish any real brand loyalty. Sure, they have things like good prices and a quality user experience to keep their buyers coming back, but it's hard to beat the loyalty inspired by a warm and welcoming salesperson. It takes a whole lot of well-designed UI to add up to the good feeling you get from a person in a store who legitimately wants to help you out. Even if you offer a better experience, it's extraordinarily hard to convince your customers to stick around when a competitor starts undercutting you. The trouble is, part of the edge an online business has is the ability to do large volume at low cost. It's easy to see why such business often shy away from extensive "live" customer service. Training and employing a large number of reps who can deal with a wide variety of customer service scenarios is very expensive.
What some of the more clever web retailers have begun to realize, however, is the huge amount of value they can get from a small number of people that deal only with the simplest of those scenarios. These people may not be able to effectively handle the 1 out of 100 customers that's totally irate and unreasonable, but they can do a lot of good by making a personal connection to the other 99 people who were already having a relatively pleasant shopping experience. That one moment of positive communication can easily be enough to swing a simply satisfied customer over to become a fiercely loyal customer.
I had just such an experience earlier this week with Zappos.com. These guys are well-known for their excellent customer service, but I personally had never dealt with any of their representatives. I've been very happy with my experience buying from Zappos in the past because of the little things they've done to make their shopping experience smoother, including effective search tools, quality customer reviews, detailed product information, free shipping, and an easy return process. However, I wouldn't have thought twice of ordering from somewhere else or stopping into Foot Locker if I could find a size 15 at a better price (us big guys gotta take what we can get). In fact, when I needed a pair of athletic shoes this past week, I went to a few other places first to see what I could find. I had hoped to find shoes before our Wednesday softball game, but nothing turned up. I didn't feel like running all over town trying to find something, so at 11:30 on Monday night, I ordered a pair on Zappos, opting for the free shipping since I wasn't going to get them in time anyway. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at work at 9:30 the next morning to find an email from Zappos saying my order had been upgraded to next-day air free of charge, and then my even greater surprise when my shoes showed up at my desk at 10:30, less than twelve hours after I'd ordered them. At this point they obviously already had me on the hook.
Pleased with myself and my shopping experience, I breathlessly tweeted about it to all my friends. Just a short while later, I received an at-reply from someone at Zappos. I don't know if it's a highly trained service specialist or a summer intern, but they clearly have somebody over there watching Twitter for comments about their company and responding to them. It might seem insignificant, but for a customer like myself who's already on the fence between mere satisfaction and loyalty, this small human connection can easily be enough to kick them (me) over to the loyal side. Next time I'm in the market for some shoes, chances are slim that I'll even bother going to the store first. I had a great experience with Zappos, and it was cemented by the idea that there are people there who are looking to help me out.