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ecommerce customer service

To survive and thrive, eCommerce sites must compete on customer service

When I was a kid there was nothing more normal than shopping in a big department store. In one place you could buy a bedspread, a new washing machine, a toaster, and a new suit. Each department was stocked with high quality brands, and often there was a member of staff with decades of experience who could answer any question about any product.

I simply cannot imagine a shopping trip like that today. Not when I can simply go onto Amazon or Shopify and get instant access to every brand and product under the sun.

As someone who has worked in ecommerce for over a decade, I am well aware of the danger posed by online giants like Amazon to the rest of the industry. The unbeatable selection and super-smooth delivery process does make shopping on these sites extremely tempting. As small and medium size ecommerce sites, how can we compete with Amazon as well as the growing online presence of Walmart and Target?

The quick answer is: we can’t. Don’t even try.

The long answer is: you’re asking the wrong question.

Direct competition is not the answer

Trying to compete with Amazon and Walmart on selection is like trying to take on the neighbourhood tough guy on his own turf. Why bother?

A much better solution for small and medium ecommerce players is to carve out their own turf and dominate that. This may not be as difficult as it sounds. Remember, for all of their size, Amazon and Walmart do have weaknesses.

For example, Amazon is great if you know the exact brand and product you want, or if you are buying something commoditized that the brand doesn’t matter.

But browsing on Amazon is not such a great customer experience. There is a lot of advertising, and perhaps too much selection, with dozens of nearly-identical products competing for your attention. Yes, there are reviews, but have you noticed that pretty much every product on Amazon has a 4.5 star rating now? And every product, no matter how amazing, seems to have a really terrifying one star review sitting at the top.

Browsing – something which was a hugely enjoyable part of the old department store experience – isn’tmuch fun on Amazon and Walmart. And these bigger players are simply not set up to provide the level of information many customers crave.

This opens up a huge opportunity for the rest of the ecommerce sector

High information customers are coming

Up until about a year ago, I would split my shopping between online and in-person store visits. The latter were for purchases when I had a lot of questions, or really felt the need to see a product in person before buying. This is especially the case for big ticket items, when you really don’t want to risk the hassle of possibly having to organize a return.

Like most of the world, I am currently doing all of my shopping online – even when I’d rather not. And, like most of the world, I sometimes find this process frustrating.

But frustrating or not, I’m not likely to return to my old shopping habits once the pandemic is over. The shops I would regularly visit for expert advice are disappearing – last week, Fry’s Electronics just shut its doors for good, and there are several more high profile bankruptcies on the horizon. If you live in the UK, things for bricks and mortar retailers are even more dire, with Debenhams, TopShop, and Miss Selfridge all closing as well.

So even when we can return to stores we often won’t. Too many of the stores will not be there to return to.

This leaves millions of high-information shoppers uncatered for, and this is where medium-sized ecommerce players can thrive.

Compete on customer experience

Your customers have questions. What are you doing to answer them?

A good FAQ is a start, but in my experience it is the infrequently asked questions which really convert sales. If you want to pick off sales from Amazon and Walmart you have to do what they do not: have two-way communication with your customers.

Having a live chat solution is another good start, but is it enough? Is your customer support team trying to convert sales or just solve problems quickly? Can they handle high volumes of questions and are they available 24/7?

A much more practical solution is the new generation of A.I. powered assistants which can answer questions and suggest product ranges to browse through. This is a new and developing technology, but it is quickly becoming the online equivalent to those sales people from department stores I can remember as a kid. You know, the guys who could answer any question about any product, point you to a curated selection of products to browse through, and were usually keen to close a sale.

Whatever solution you opt for, now is the time to invest in customer experience. Figure out how you can cater to the high information shoppers Amazon and Walmart can’t reach, and you will quickly build a loyal following.

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