Strategic Business Use of the Internet: Part 2 - On the Web, Customer Service Is Not “May I Help You?”

Thoroughness, convenience, follow-through, and brand-specific perspective: these are the ingredients of good customer service on the web.


This is the second article in a three-part series on strategic business use of online capabilities.  In part 1, we examined companies doing business online that have demonstrated a keen understanding of their customers' needs.

On the web, customer service is not “May I help you?”  Good customer service is being able to easily find what you want without intervention.

This may seem mysterious at first, but don't be fooled.  It's true in the physical world as well.  That it isn't immediately obvious means you are an experienced consumer.  You are so accustomed to various retail environments that you are generally unaware of how much of the environment is tuned to provide almost all of the “customer service” you desire, automatically.  Think about how sophisticated retail environments have become, and how rapidly and efficiently they have co-evolved with consumer understanding and expectation. 

For exception-handling and to actually transact most sales today in the physical world, there are people present for facilitation, for “hand-holding”, and for quality control, for security – for “check-out”. 

In our minds we have divided familiar real-world customer service functions into retail marketing, store and product merchandising, inventory management, and various specific names for particular roles and service refinements.  Inevitably, they are all “customer service” in support of sales. 

The very last thing to do on a web site as a substitute for real web-style customer service is to resort to a “chat” or “call customer support.”  That kind of support actually makes visitors feel stupid – unable to find the information they need without assistance.  On the web, their expectation is that the information they need is there somewhere but they just haven't found it.  But whose fault is that?  Theirs?  The call-to-action should be reserved for closure or near-closure interactions, equivalent to “check-out.”  

Providing a distinct “Customer Support” link or contact device of some sort is not web service.  A lot of the time it's dropping the ball.  It means the company is saying “I give up. I don't know what to do.  Let a human intervene.  That always worked before.”  On the web, people expect NOT to have to resort to interacting with another person in real-time.  The web is about empowerment; everything necessary should be there at the customer's fingertips. 

So for credit unions – with the objectives of doing good business through risk management and providing financial services to members -- what actually constitutes good customer service on the web? 

(1) Thoroughness, convenience, and follow-through. 

Provide everything necessary to fully appreciate and complete the task at hand.  For example, if a member comes to a credit union site desiring a new car, how thorough is that site in providing everything a member needs to confidently decide on a particular financial product and then purchase that product?

(2) Brand-specific unique perspective. 

Members grant credit unions much broader latitude of “positioning” in relation to their personal finances and life events, more so than other kinds of financial services providers. That doesn't mean competitors won't try to exploit these “soft spots,” but with credit unions, it should draw authentically as a genuine aspect of the brand identity.  Around this core of authenticity, the value proposition should be communicated clearly: “It's not a commodity we're offering as much as it's a set of services we're providing to help our members get through the financial aspects of their lives better.”  

Banks and other financial institutions are hard-pressed to come across with a message of this kind that is believable.  Their purpose is transparent.  There is a strong temptation to try to compete with banks with the commodity advantage.  The problem with that is they have vastly greater resources, and the real benefits to individuals are relatively minor - so predictably they will win in the long run.  What they are not, and never were, are customer-focused.  They are shareholder-focused.  That is the credit union marketing advantage.  That doesn't mean CUs shouldn't tout lower interest rates on loans; it means whenever they do, they should always wrap it as “another benefit we are able to provide to our members” – along with:   

° Education and seminars - an interest in the financial literacy of the community because it's not taught in schools

° Local needs and common causes involvement – a concern about important social issues

° Life stages financial planning and advice – seasons of life appreciation of individual and family financial needs.

And so on to … Part 3…



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Oct. 16, 2006



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