Skip to main content

Article 5 min read

Why customer service is so important to online shoppers

Last updated September 20, 2021

Most people think of shopping online as a way to cut costs. E-commerce stores relieve customers of travel time, and retailers of storefront expenses. But people seldom consider the costs that online shopping adds to their transaction. The physical distance between the buyer and seller adds risks to the customer’s plate. If you’re part of an E-commerce business, the takeaway is this: online shoppers face an added burden at every stage of the buying process, and your customer support should be there to ease their research workload every step of the way.

Why do bargain-hunting web shoppers say they’re willing to part with more cash for great customer service? This is the question researchers from Purdue set out to answer in a 2003 study. They found that for potential customers, being unable to examine the product in person leads to a host of problems: clothing may not fit, software may be incompatible, or a purchase may be damaged during shipping. Shoppers must measure themselves and study a sizing chart instead of simply entering a dressing room, or gather system requirements information instead of just asking a sales representative. Existing customers must diagnose problems by themselves, navigate self-help websites, or wait for a support rep to take them off hold.

In light of this, any service an e-commerce retailer can provide to ease the cognitive costs of shopping online increases the customer’s perceived value of the product (Chen and Dubinsky).

What do online shoppers expect from support?
It’s tempting to think of customer service as reactive: something that lies dormant until a customer takes initiative to ask for help with their purchase. But some customers need support before they make a purchase. Plus, not all customers are proactive—many will simply open another store in a new tab to find the information they seek, rather than risking a long wait on hold or an unhelpful support email. Customer service, therefore, should cater to the established customer as well as the potential one, respecting the great deal of research that goes into online shopping by offering a path of least resistance to important information.

There’s a great framework you can use to evaluate whether your e-commerce store covers all the bases on customer service. It’s called the Customer Service Life Cycle (or CSLC). Developed by business professor Blake Ives in the mid-90’s, CLSC breaks the customer-business relationship down into four broad phases: Requirements, Acquisition, Ownership, and Retirement. Below, you can check out a more detailed description of each one, along with some recommendations for offering great customer service to web shoppers in that phase:

Description: The customer decides they need a product, and begins shopping around. Eventually, they decide on the product with the features they need.

Recommendation: Customers at this stage may need to be educated about the product’s purpose, benefits, and differentiating features. Giving them access to a detailed, well-organized help center or FAQ is a great way to help shoppers in the pre-purchase stage determine if a product is right for them—and reassure them that they can reach a human being if their particular question is unanswered. (The Help Center is also a great place to include information about exchanges or returns, so that customers know they have some recourse.)

Description: The customer orders the product, makes the payment, and receives their shipment.

Recommendation: At this delicate stage in the relationship, the customer is assuming risk, and the e-commerce retailer should take measures to assure the customer of a fast and safe delivery. 60% of online shoppers in the Greenfield Online survey mentioned above cited “speed of delivery” as a leading factor of great customer service (“ease of access to information on web site” was a close second). At the Acquisition phase, customers are also asked to make another cost-benefit analysis: shipping fees.

Description: the customer configures, upgrades, and enjoys their purchase.

Recommendation: Here there are opportunities for customer service to play a proactive and reactive role. While customers without a specific question may enjoy perusing a Help Center or forum unaided, those with a specific problem or inquiry should be provided some way to speak with a support agent in real-time: Purdue researchers Chen and Dubinsky found that “most consumers prefer some form of human interaction with E-commerce,” and that people are likely to “shop online more frequently if they receive immediate responses to their questions.”

Description: the customer returns or disposes of the product, potentially replacing it.

Recommendation: The proportion of customers who return for a second purchase is a great metric to measure the quality of your online customer support. Depending on what you sell, customers may have additional actions to perform when they are finished with a product, like upgrading, donating, or removing sensitive information.

The Purdue study concludes that online shoppers are looking for an experience that makes them feel in control of the transaction, from the pre-purchase stage to the end of the customer service lifecycle. Give your customers the empowerment they seek by providing relevant information, an easy-to-use website, and outstanding customer service.

Zendesk Benchmark
The Zendesk Benchmark provides industry-specific metrics that can be used to measure the success of your customer service organization. Over 25,000 companies are included. Visit the Zendesk Benchmark for more information.

For the full infographic that is teased at the top of this post, visit Why Customers Should Invest in the Customer Experience

Learn about Zendesk for retail

Related stories

6 min read

New integrations to help your team blossom

New Zendesk app integrations are here. Learn all about how these integrations can help out your sales and support teams.

2 min read

How AI can help businesses hedge against uncertainty

For businesses, resilience isn’t a mantra, it’s a must have. That’s why many are turning to AI—and their CX teams—to help them navigate challenging times.


Top trends to watch in Software CX

See how leading SaaS companies are getting a leg up on the competition by investing in CX.


How to use AI to reduce service costs in manufacturing

Cutting costs without sacrificing quality can be a challenge. Find out how to power up your manufacturing CX with AI.