When online customers knock, is anyone there? | Contributor

By Patti Rowlson
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

Picture this: A potential customer hears about your product or service from their friend. They Google your business name, find your company’s website and like what they see.

They click the “Contact Us” tab, add their name and email address to the form on the page and even take time to describe what they need in the comment box provided. Then they click the submit button and wait.

Do you know how long it will take for that customer to hear back from your company? Do you know if the Contact Us form is even working on your website? Have you tested it lately?

What if someone messages your business through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter or Google+? Do they receive a timely response or any response at all?

Does your company have a policy for who handles those customer inquiries?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you are missing out on sales due to lackluster online customer service, which is a waste of the marketing dollars invested in setting up and maintaining your website and social media profiles.

Serving an instant-gratification world on the Web

In today’s on-demand world, consumers have caught the instant-gratification bug—they want what they want when they want it.

Many expect to hear from brands within hours (not days or weeks), or they move on to another business/source of information.

I’ve done this myself—reaching out to northwest Washington service providers like landscapers, window installers, electricians and screen printers via their websites’ contact pages. When a response was not received, I moved on. I did not pick up the phone and call their brick and mortar location, so they lost a potential sale.

How do you compete with larger brands online?

There are some large national brands that have invested big money in customer service so they can respond quickly when consumers knock on their virtual doors (via websites and social media profiles). Of course, because of the size of these corporations, they have the resources, staff and marketing budgets to deliver excellent customer experiences.

Unfair as it may be, local consumers now expect a similar level of service from businesses in their communities. The challenge (and frustration) for small businesses is that it’s tough for those without a dedicated marketing person or team to respond as quickly as consumers expect.

Four tips for better delivery

The good news is that there are a few simple things you can do to greatly improve your company’s online customer service.

1. Test 

This may seem like a no-brainer, but test the Contact Us form on your website on a regular basis.

2. Educate

Set a policy for how fast your company will respond to inquiries coming through your website, and share that information on your Contact Us page so consumers know what to expect. It can be a simple statement like “XYZ Company values your time and interest in our widgets. A representative will respond to your inquiry within 24 hours, Monday through Friday. If an immediate response is needed, please contact us at 360-555-5555.”

Here’s a sample of a Whatcom County elder care company that uses a simple but effective statement on its Contact page.

3. Acknowledge 

You have to acknowledge all inquiries, even if you don’t have time to provide full details at that moment. A simple reply, saying “thank you for inquiring about our widgets. Our team will have an estimate to you by tomorrow afternoon,” goes a long way toward satisfying consumers’ desire for instant information.

4. Be Available

Ramp up engagement on social media sites. Engagement (actually conversing with consumers online, not just sending out marketing messages) helps consumers feel like part of your business community. Engagement helps people feel like they can reach out to you online when they have questions or need product support.

Follow back and engage with people who connect with your business on sites like Twitter.

Woods Coffee and Jake’s Western Grill do a great job of this. If you visit either business’ Twitter page (see Woods’ here, and see Jake’s here), you’ll note that the number of people following them on Twitter is very similar to the number they follow in return, and that’s a good thing.

As small-business owners, we can’t possibly be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that certainly doesn’t mean we have to wave the white flag when it comes to delivering stellar customer service online.

The tips above can go a long way toward reducing the number of missed sales opportunities and improving the overall reputation of your business.

How about you? Have you had great customer service experiences online with local company via their websites or social media profiles? Give them a shout-out in the comment section below.

Patti Rowlson is a marketing consultant and social media manager at PR Consulting Inc. She helps Whatcom County small businesses identify, implement and consistently maintain marketing-related programs. Learn more about small-business marketing by connecting with PR Consulting on social media sites or by visiting www.pattirowlson.com.

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