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November 16, 2007

7 Golden Rules of Online Customer Service

How do you treat the people with whom you do business? Many times what we forget in this online world where so much of our customer service is automated is that, in the end, we’re still doing business with other people. Do your customer service procedures create raving fans or send people away into the Internet black hole, never to be heard from again, except when you’re bashed on some blog or disparaged in a discussion forum post?

What’s the real price you pay as an online business owner for your customer service? Usually, the “real price” boils down to one thing — word-of-mouth-marketing. If your customer likes the way you handle a situation, he will probably tell tell 3-5 others. However, if he feels he was treated poorly or unfairly, he’ll tell 50 of his closest friends about the bad experience. Sad to say, we human beings love to complain much more than to praise. Why burn bridges with your customer when you don’t have to?

Online business owners often create customer service rules that are based on fear — fear of being taken advantage of, fear of someone getting the best of you, fear of someone not paying you for your time What happens if the entire basis of your customer service standards is fear? Well, then fear-based outcomes is what you’ll get, because you tend to get what you choose to focus on. So, if you perceive that everyone in the world is out to get you and take advantage of you, then you’re right.

Is there a good middle ground to choose that protects both your interests and gives your customer a great experience? There is, and you’ll find it in my simple, 10-second philosophy of customer service. Ready? Here it goes…..treat your customer how you want to be treated. That’s it — nothing high tech here.

To help you evaluate your online customer service for my Golden Rule philosophy, here are 7 standards you should consider:

1. Don’t hide behind the legalese. Don’t expect your customer to page through a multi-page, small print document and read and understand all of your stipulations, especially if they’re written in legalese rather than simpler English. If you put unfavorable or difficult terms in your Terms of Service agreement and your customer signs it, sure, you have legal protection to back up whatever terms they stipulated to with their signature. But, will the wrangling over those terms be worth it in the end? If you have terms that your customer might not find favorable at a later date, be sure and point those out to him in the beginning. Don’t expect him to figure it out on his own, and don’t hide behind the cowardly excuse, “Well, you should have read the Terms of Service thoroughly There’s nothing I can do.”

2. Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes. Would you want to be treated the way you’re treating them? If what you’re doing to your customers makes you queasy and uneasy, that’s your instinct telling you that what you’re doing isn’t just and proper. Moreover, how would you feel if you were treated in this fashion?

3. Make it simple to do business with you. Don’t make your customer have to hire an attorney to understand your contract or to do business with you. I’m not advocating that you completely ignore legal help and advice. However, an attorney’s job is to protect you from ALL liability, even those things that have a very small likelihood of actually occurring. Consequently, this usually translates into a very long document that’s very difficult to read and comprehend. Work with your attorney to transform any contracts or Terms of Service agreements that you have into ones that are easily read and understood by the average person.

4. Don’t do customer support via email. When you’re first starting out, using email to answer service problems is ok, but as it becomes more and more difficult to send and receive legitimate business email, you’ll find that you start to lose inquiries as your business grows larger and as your number of inquiries increase. At that point, think about installing a virtual support desk. This is a website that contains common FAQs and answers, as well as offers your customers the ability to open a ticket to report a problem. All correspondence occurs within the site, so you lessen the possibility of lost email. One of the more popular programs is Kayako,

5. Make it easy to contact you. Nothing is more irritating than wanting to speak to a real, live person for help and all you find is a contact form or an email address. Don’t leave your customers out in the cold. Offer several options for contacting you, whether that’s by email, phone, instant messaging system, live chat on your website, or a help desk/trouble ticket system.

6. Make it easy to stop doing business with you. I learned a valuable lesson from the Director of Admissions when I worked as a student affairs administrator at a small college and was trying to change a student’s mind about dropping out of school. He told me, “Once they’re already decided to leave, their minds are made up and there’s no turning back. Just let them go.” This applies to your customers as well. There may be a small percentage that you can salvage as a customer in this process, but the overwhelming majority have already made their final decision. Don’t make them jump through hoops to cancel their business with you — make it as easy and painless as possible. However, do follow up with a phone call or email or survey to determine the reason for their departure, but don’t force them to go through this process to exit. Remember the AOL service cancellation call that was recorded and posted online that became a huge embarrassment for AOL? Don’t let your cancellation policy become the next big Internet joke.

7. If in doubt, ask your customer what to do. If you and your customer can’t come to a resolution that feels equitable to both parties, ask your customer what he believes is the fair thing to do. I believe that generally people are good and fair and that most will treat you humanely if they’ve been humanely treated by you. The final decision may not be everything that you want, but it’s probably not everything that your customer wants, either. You can use this strategy to end on a positive note, and while the customer may not return to you, he probably also won’t tell everyone he meets that you’re an ogre, either.

Figure out how you can implement this Golden Rule philosophy in your online business. You’ll find it to be a business asset that’s priceless.

Author:  Online Business Resource Queen (TM) and Online Business Coach Donna Gunter helps independent service professionals learn how to automate their businesses, leverage their expertise on the Internet, and get more clients online. To claim your FREE gift, TurboCharge Your Online Marketing Toolkit, visit her site at . Ask Donna an Internet Marketing question at