poolandspa-1.gifA Guide to making your Web site a means for great customer service and communications

By Pamela Mills-Senn, Contributing Writer

Although a web site can never take the place of great in-store or over-the-phone customer service, it can be a highly effective way to supplement the service you're already offering. The Internet allows business owners to easily communicate with potential customers as well as assist existing ones.

However, in order to reap the maximum relationship-building benefits from your web site, you need to take a very calculated and thoughtful approach, says Alex Kahl, president of Kahl Consultants, a small business web design and Internet service firm located in San Rafael, California. Otherwise, your efforts could backfire, causing people to not only shun your site, but your business as well.

"It's important to know how you're going to use the Internet to help your business, rather than just throwing up a web site for the sake of getting something out there," he explains. "When you build a site, you're opening a virtual door to your office or store, and you have to maintain control over this and be able to respond. You wouldn't let a customer walk around your business unattended. The same is true for your web site."

This touches on two key components when it comes to using the Internet as a customer service tool: design and responsiveness. You have to make your web site inviting and easy to navigate, and you need to react, in a timely fashion, to customer questions and complaints.

CREATING A USER-FRIENDLY SITE

"When we first put our site up, in addition to the marketing aspects, we did think about customer service," says Noel Spilbor, service and retail manager for Atkinson Pools & Spas, a pool and spa builder and retailer with two locations in South Carolina (one in Pleasant and the other in James Island). "We wanted to give customers another way, in addition to phoning or stopping by the store, to get in touch with us. We also wanted to provide a lot of information on the site, the same as what they could get in the store. This makes it very convenient for people. They're not locked into our store hours. They can communicate with us from their desks at work."

But at the same time, he continues, they wanted to keep the site simple. "There's nothing more annoying than going to a site and finding hundreds of things you have to click on, or having the site take forever to load."

This is one reason why they're still mulling over the inclusion of a repair request form on the site. Although they currently have a "request quote" button that users can click to obtain brochures or service quotes, their initial goal was to have a form that would collect detailed information about repairs or problems in an almost interactive manner.

"But we don't want to just throw forms up on the site if what we have is working, which it seems to be," says Spilbor. "The goal of enhancing customer service would be defeated if the site was difficult to use, and we're just not sure this complicated of a form is necessary, even though it was a big part of our original plan."

This is also the reason behind John Anderson's decision to focus on e-mail as a way to communicate with customers about repairs, rather than though a form posted on the site.

"We had a repair form on our first site, but this didn't work for us," says Anderson, president and owner of Anderson Pools & Spas, Inc., a pool and spa builder and retailer (he also builds and retails supplies for wild bird stations) located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "My experience with forms on the Internet is that they give you more information than you need. Instead, our customers email us with questions, sometimes including a phone number asking us to call them about a problem. This has proven to be a much better method."

It's smart to be judicious in your use of forms, script, graphics, and bells and whistles in general, says Kahl. "One of the most common mistakes that people make is forgetting whom they're designing the site for. People get excited about all the technology that's available. They want flash this, and frames that, but you have to always keep the users of your site in mind, and use the technology that's most appropriate for them. You have to concentrate on creating a site that people will want to visit again and again. Once way to do this is to keep the wait time to load down. People are sometimes willing to wait 30 seconds or even a minute for a site to load," he says, "but when it crashes because the site is overloaded, they tend not to revisit."

One highly attractive feature to design into a site is a FAQ section, says Darlene Cary, co-owner of Mind's Eye Presentations, a web-design company also located in Murfreesboro. Cary, who designed Anderson's site, says that this is the most accessed page on his site.

"It's by far the most popular," Anderson agrees. "What we try to do with this section is give people an education and make them wiser buyers, no matter where they decide to do business. I think this gives us a great deal of credibility."

Another good move, says Cary, has been creating a link from Anderson's site directly to that of the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Visitors can click on this link and be immediately connected to the BBB where they can obtain a report on the company. This feature, she explains, is open to all BBB members in good standing. It allows prospective customers to confirm that a company is reputable, which makes people much more comfortable.

Other design features you may want to consider include:

· Having full contact information and clickable email located on every page. "People should be able to go to any page and find contact information," says Kahl.
· Locating your most favored form of contact ("Do you want phone calls? Do you prefer email or faxes?" Cary asks) at the top of each page, and displaying your most valuable information "above the fold" (the area that is immediately seen without having to scroll down the page).

And be sure to test and retest your site, under the conditions of the average user, says Kahl. Find any bugs before you start promoting your site. Also, keep track of site statistics, says Cary. This will allow you to determine what pages customers are visiting the most and what may need beefing up.
RESPONSIVENESS

If you're using your site in a customer service capacity, you have to be certain that you have the manpower to respond to questions and requests whether these arrive via phone, fax, or email (the likeliest route). You also have to specifically designate this responsibility, rather than approaching it on a "whomever, whenever" basis.

A good design can cut down on the amount of email flowing into your computer, Kahl says. If it's hard to find information on a site, the tendency is to just dash off an email-the high-tech equivalent of calling 411 instead of looking the number up in a book. But even an efficient web site will bring you more email simply because more people have access to you. And not all of these will come from current or even potential customers. Anderson for example, says he gets a lot of email from people in other states asking him questions about their pools or inquiring as to how they can find a builder in their area.

"The emails come to a central computer," he explains. "We look at the web site daily and route them to the appropriate department, although," he adds, "I'm usually the one to answer the questions. This is the only downside I've seen when it comes to using the Internet for customer service. You've got to answer the email, and sometimes this is at 10:00 at night."

This task can be made easier, says Kahl, by creating a variety of standard responses that can be personalized as necessary. He also suggests:

· Using an automatic reply ("Thank you for your email. We will get back to you in x number of days"). This lets people know immediately that you've received their question or comment, and at the same time, gives you more control over your response schedule. He advises including an emergency number in the automatic reply in case people need immediate attention.
· Listing several different email addresses on the site that will allow visitors to route requests themselves, for example to service, sales, or technical support.
· Keeping replies as brief as possible. Not every email requires a long involved answer.
· Knowing when a phone call would be best. There are certain levels of support where email simply won't suffice.

It's important to monitor both response time and the quality of the information being provided. "You don't have to stand over people's shoulders," Kahl says. "You can either spot check or have all the replies that go out sent as a blank carbon copy to your computer so you have a record."

In spite of the occasional late night correspondence, Anderson says his site is a timesaver. "Let's say a prospective pool customer calls us and we end up making an appointment to come out to see him In the meantime, he can visit our site, see what we're about, and get some questions answered. By the time we get out to his house, he's better educated and has a higher level of trust in us. This makes my job a lot easier. It's almost like a pre-sales call. It's been a great customer service tool."