“Can I help you?” for websites

Customer service is still in its infancy on the web. Here are some ideas how to make it better.

A lot is different between doing business online through websites versus offline in a shop or office. For one, customers to a large extent help themselves. The only trace we have of customers are lines they leave in the web server and web application log files. If we don’t look, it’s easy to forget they’re there altogether.

But behind every page view there’s a person trying to get something done. Categorizing the possible outcomes of this “getting something done” on a website we get something like this:

  1. Flawlessly. The site was self-evident. It worked just the way I expected it to. I didn’t even have to think.
  2. Smoothly. The site was self-explanatory. I had to read some instructions and eventually got my stuff done.
  3. Painfully - Self-helped. The site didn’t work the way I thought, but I somehow muddled through with some trial-and-error.
  4. Painfully - Had to get help. I couldn’t get the site working, but I asked someone for help, and they guided me through the non-obvious parts.
  5. Painfully - Gave up. I couldn’t get the site working and didn’t bother asking for help.

In the long run we can use feedback from customer service and testing to gradually improve usability and functionality of the site so the experience is approaching category 1 most of the time.

Category 5 pose a particular problem. Whereas category 1 people may, hopefuly, become fan boys and rave about the site to a few people, category 5 people may very well rant about the site to even more people.

If we were running a shop instead of a website, we could perhaps notice if people were in trouble, walk over and ask “can I help you?”, very likely converting a category 5 situation to a category 4 one.

What about for websites? The truth is we can do more than most websites do in this regard… Take this scenario:

  1. Website visitor clicks on a submit page; the page returns an error page apologizing for the error and saying a developer will look into it immediately; the visitor swears and goes off to do something else
  2. The error from the page is sent through the logs in the system
  3. A developer-on-duty watches the error logs, sees the error, and from the error message (possibly cookies) manages to make out the username or email address of the person that met the problem.
  4. The developer-on-duty analyzes the error quickly.
  5. The developer-on-duty emails the user, courteously (beware of privacy issues) saying “sorry it’s our fault”, explaining what the problem was, that it’s fixed, letting them know they can try again, and leaving contact details and a note saying that we’re there to help out if they have any questions or other problems. Then follow-up after a while to see if they did get the problem solved, and continue offering help until they in fact have “gotten things done”.
  6. The website visitors receives the email and is positively surprised at the level of support provided by the website, a website that now has a person with a face behind it. Perhaps the website visitor will rave to his friends about it as well.

I’ve tried this before. I even called people that had problems on the site. It works. Fanatic customer service like this really makes fans. And… there’s a good feeling when your craftsmanship creates fans.

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