Hey Jude, take Customer Service and make it better, better, BETTER

8 min read
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Artwork by Bruno Silva

It is easy for e-commerce companies to neglect customer service, especially when the agents’ work volume gets too much to handle. Businesses need to keep in mind that speed and agility in replying to customers are important, but language and tonality can be what tip the scale.

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.

Before I joined Unbabel this year, I used to work for one of the biggest e-commerce marketplaces, with operations in close to 50 countries. I was hired as an Account Manager and was based in the Berlin office, where I worked with 250 merchants. My job, above all, was to build a relationship and keep customers happy by making sure we delivered on the promises made by the Sales Team. There was a very human side to it, and this is where things sometimes became tricky.

Any troubleshooting that was out of my scope of duty was handled by a team which had been outsourced to Eastern Europe, and was in charge of both B2B Partner Management and B2C Customer Service. The team was staffed with agents who didn’t speak German as a native language, but who had instead learned it at school. They spoke German the same way they spoke their own native language, influenced by their local culture and how they were brought up, and that wasn’t necessarily the style our German merchants were used to. When problems come up, there is a lot of emotion involved upfront. It doesn’t help to have someone talk to you on another cultural frequency that makes the message come across differently from intended. In some cases the merchants would call me up: “Dennis, what the heck?” In other cases, they would cancel their subscription immediately.

Hello, goodbye

The point I’m trying to make here is not about how the customer service team should have spoken to those customers, but rather how important this team really is. It’s often viewed in the same way many Beatles fans (myself included) view Ringo Starr. Customer service is there, and deep down you know you need it, but you don’t really give it much credit. Much in the way you don’t acknowledge that without Ringo’s drumming rhythm, the whole song breaks down, no matter how great the lyrics are or how good the guitar sounds. Until one day he leaves for two weeks and you realize just how important he is to you.

With companies, it’s the same. The best part is building the product, coming up with the design and marketing strategies. Thinking about fancy ad campaigns and office culture is fun and colorful, much like a late 1960s’ album cover. But customer service? That is gray and dull, a must-have, nothing else.

What I realized during my previous work experience is that, when it comes to customer service, nobody will say anything if the process goes smoothly. They take it for granted. But what if they have a bad experience? That’s when customers get angry. They start writing bad reviews. They talk to their friends about it. And worse, they may never buy from you again!

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Here, there and everywhere

On the Internet, companies will be competing against millions of other companies. There are the usual suspects such as Amazon, one of the first e-commerce websites ever to see the light of day, Ebay, Etsy, and Alibaba, to name just a few. Alongside these big marketplaces, there are the online stores of most major brands in the market. Even smaller, local businesses are typically starting from an online pure-play perspective. Customers can find what they are looking for someplace else, just as easily as they found you in the first place.

More than an extra sales point, having an online presence has become a necessity for businesses to keep up with consumer’s habits. Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing 2018 report defines the industry’s current scenery as “everywhere commerce,” since consumers are now able to shop however, wherever, and whenever they want. According to MuleSoft’s article on the Top 5 Emerging Retail Industry Trends, the average digital consumer owns 3.64 connected devices and tends to consult these devices prior to making a purchase. The shopping experience can spread itself out through multiple platforms, as people might browse through items on their phone, then check them out in person at a store and finally complete the purchase on their computer and have it conveniently delivered at their doorstep.

This is good news for retailers, since, according to Deloitte, people who shop using different methods — including online, mobile and visits to a physical store — spend more than double the amount that those who shop exclusively at brick-and-mortar stores spend. However, it also creates a new set of challenges, as businesses must now plan, strategize, and execute across all channels, regardless of whether the ultimate sale happens on- or offline.

Whatever channel or store customers choose, they expect the shopping experience to run smoothly. This is where businesses can take the opportunity to shine and provide such a good service that customers won’t even consider buying from anyone else.

I want to hold your virtual hand

Even though online shopping is rapidly gaining popularity, it still only made up 10.2% of total retail sales worldwide in 2017. One of the greatest advantages brick-and-mortar stores have over e-commerce is in-person customer interaction. If you’re buying something online, the people you talk with over the phone and over email are the only people you’re going to talk to as a customer. Those interactions happen more often that you would think, as Salesforce states that 83% of consumers require some degree of customer support while making an online purchase.

It is believed that, when we speak to a person, only 7% of communication is the actual words, while 55% is body language and the remaining 38% is tone of voice. That’s how you build trust. That’s how you build a connection with a person. Remember what I told you about my experience at my prior company? They forgot to take this into consideration. When you provide no face-to-face contact, miscommunication is often the dealbreaker. So how do you best mimic that over email or chat?

You need to hire for technical skills and emotional intelligence rather than for language skills. If I am not constrained by language and am able to express myself, I can inject my own relationship-building skills into all interactions with customers. I can even anticipate what could become potential dynamite and neutralize it before my company gets hit with reviews, negative word-of-mouth, or a decrease in the customer base. You need to make sure you hire the best people for the job, because customer service agents are the only ones who speak to your customers on a day-to-day basis.

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Don’t be a mean Mr. Mustard

Failing to provide good customer service can make or break a business. It costs companies five times more to acquire new customers than it does to keep existing ones, for example. When it comes to online reviews, it has been shown that having five positive reviews on websites such as Yelp can certainly help boost business, but one very bad review is enough to have a negative impact on it. The easiest way to prevent this is to invest in good customer service agents. And if the good ones are constrained only by the inability to speak your language, why not give them a tool that will help them reach their full potential and focus on what they do best?

Let’s take a look at our customer Daniel Wellington. Early last year, it was the fastest growing company in Europe — 4500% over three years. Such rapid expansion meant that the company had to work hard to keep up with its demand, and from a customer service perspective things could have gone south. Instead, the business was able to stick to its brand promise of offering its customers the best multi-channel support. With a little help from friends at Unbabel, Daniel Wellington was able to support customers in their native language, even those who speak languages that are too costly to support natively, but still widely spoken enough to deserve attention. As for the markets for which the company has dedicated native speaking agents, we are there to assist during peak seasons.

We are approaching that time of the year when it’s even more crucial to have the right customer service structure in place. For most companies, the main challenge during peak seasons like Black Friday and Christmas is keeping the same response times and level of customer satisfaction as during less hectic times. You will need to plan ahead and establish whether you need to provide your agents with extra product information or training, or to hire more people in order to meet your customers’ expectations. If your customer service team is not prepared to handle the increased number of tickets, requests, phone calls, and live chat messages, all the good work you did during the rest of the year might be at risk.

Finally, retailers can’t forget that these are stressful times for buyers as well. They will pass the pressure they’re feeling along to the companies in the hopes of getting the right gift delivered on time. As the saying goes, all you need is love — and lightspeed delivery.

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