It is no quick and easy matter to implement service excellence online, but over the past few years, some of our favourite online bookshops, retailers, and the like have shown the way in making e-service a pleasurable experience for customers. Now that e-service—the delivery of business services to customers via the Internet—is commonplace, organisations need to review whether they have an appropriate strategy for delivering high-quality customer service through this increasingly important channel.
I think there are three factors at work here. Firstly, companies are being driven to improve their e-service processes, making them more efficient, easier to use, and more hassle-free for customers. Secondly, there is the essential work to be done in integrating the different service channels in order to provide a truly seamless service for customers, whether they are using telephone, face-to-face, or e-service to do business with a company, or any combination of the three. Thirdly, I think customers are beginning to expect the e-service option to be present, and they will judge the company’s customer service in no small measure by the effectiveness of its e-service. In the eyes of today’s customer, the quality of their web experience has a significant influence on the image and reputation of the service provider.
Some companies may not even include e-service within their strategic thinking, but it seems that customers now expect e-service to be available, and so the time has come for many businesses to review their online offering. Companies that either do not offer an e-service option or that provide only a basic web service could be left out in the cold, with their competitors taking market share by identifying and meeting their customers’ online expectations.
Like all aspects of business planning, developing an effective e-service strategy requires concentration on the details. Organisations need to understand exactly what they want their e-service provision to do. How should it appear to customers, and will it fit well with the organisation’s service culture? Organisations need a clear view of what e-service process improvements are needed and how they will facilitate an e-service provision that will be distinctive in the market. What should a good e-service strategy consist of?
One possible approach has four elements:
- First, what is the desired level of customer service that can realistically be achieved through e-service? Outstanding service is probably the ultimate goal, but depending on the current state of play, an organisation might set out to achieve suboptimal service within, say, a year, and then move to service excellence after that. It is important to base the desire for improvement upon customers’ actual experiences—that is, how services should look to customers, rather than on an internal judgement of service quality. This means the company must talk to customers about e-service.
- Next, review current service levels in all channels, including e-service. The review should be based upon factual information, coming primarily from customers themselves. What do customers really think about the business they do with the company when they conduct it face-to-face, by telephone, and via the Internet? Even more importantly, how effectively can they channel-switch if they want to (or if they are forced to, which sometimes happens when a company’s e-service offering is only partially complete). Service channels should integrate to give customers a good experience.
- The third element in the strategy analyses the changes that are needed in e-service to reach the service level discussed in point 1. This part of the strategy identifies how improvements for customers will be made.
- To complete the e-service strategy, the organisation should plan how to acquire and deploy the necessary resources to make the changes. With customer service, this planning normally focuses heavily on the organisation’s people, and one would expect enhancement to employees’ customer service skills and product/service knowledge to be included, as well as how to change the online processes (the technical aspects) to the best effect.
There are some additional points to bear in mind when developing an e-service strategy:
- E-service can give customers a self-service (unassisted) approach or one that is enhanced with support (by online chat or instant messenger) from the company’s well-trained customer service representatives. Support delivers assisted e-service, which is sometimes needed as a way of “training” customers to use the technology.
- An e-service strategy cannot be designed in isolation. E-service must fit with a company-wide, integrated set of policies, processes, technologies, and resources (including human resources) in order to deliver positive customer experiences.
- A key consideration in developing a strategy is the role that the customer will play in the e-service interaction. Talk to customers, especially if they are online.
A final, additional element in an effective e-service strategy could include measures to ensure that the organisation keeps up to date with evolving technology. Customers ar expecting it!