January 19, 2001, 12:00 AM

Want Loyal Customers? Invest in Good Service

Online consumers expect a site's customer service to do more than help them sort out problems after the sale. In fact, 90% of online shoppers consider good customer service to be critical when choosing a Web merchant, according to a new report from Forrester Research.

The firm says Web shoppers seek and expect customer service at each step of the transaction. Exceptional service pays big dividends by increasing overall satisfaction, which in turn encourages repeat visits and word-of-mouth recommendations.

"Retailers are still struggling to find ways of developing loyalty on the Net. One big piece of the loyalty puzzle is customer satisfaction," says Christopher M. Kelley, an associate analyst at Forrester. "A satisfied customer wants to share the positive experience, which helps drive traffic to a retailer."

A well-staffed, responsive service department, a simple returns procedure, and easy order tracking are customers' three primary expectations, according to Forrester. Sites that fail to effectively answer customers' concerns lack the foundation of solid customer service.

Some sites aim to set themselves apart by going above and beyond the traditional call of customer service with unexpected touches. They include delivery and shipping options, detailed product information, and product recommendations.

Forester says its findings show that 37% of online consumers use customer service more often than shoppers in physical stores, primarily because of its ease-of-use and quick response time. They also appreciate the ability to seek customer service from home. Web shoppers turn to e-mail to resolve their customer service issues, with the telephone their next favorite method.

"Once excellent proactive customer service is in place," says Kelley, "merchants must build their brands around the promise of a satisfying experience."

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