As the “little guy” just entering the market, the deck is severely stacked against you.
Not only do you have to deal with fierce competition from untold numbers of other small businesses all around the world, who are all trying to do the exact same thing that you are, but you also have the giants of your industry leaving little room for you, the ornery little upstart.
Not to mention Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and the like, who make those giants look like ants.
So, what’s a small e-commerce business to do? You don’t have the economies of scale that allow the big guys to compete on price, and competing on quality, while always possible, is a tough, tough way to set yourself apart.
Indeed, there are few products and services that a small business can easily achieve a high level of quality in comparison to large businesses with large resources.
Which leaves only one thing… customer service.
Customer Service Is Your Secret Weapon
Service leads to retention. Retention leads to growth. Growth leads to success.
That being said, you have to set yourself apart from the crowd — you’re just not going to retain customers or grow your business easily without some sort of differentiator. One of those must be excellent customer service.
Now, what works for one business might not be the right retention tactic for another. First, you need to get your marketing strategy in place to ensure you’re picking the right one for your unique business.
However, once you’ve done that, you need to pick customer service and retention tactics that support your overall strategy, and those tactics often look very different for an e-commerce business — the ideas your customers have about what constitutes good customer service for an online business are just not the same as what’s expected from a brick-and-mortar store.
So let’s jump right into these e-commerce business ideas, look at what makes them so mighty, differentiate them from in-person customer service and retention tactics, and talk about how to apply them directly in your e-commerce business.
#1 The Free Sample and/or Free Trial
Your customers can’t physically pick up or handle your product through their computer screens, and that’s a problem.
That’s where the free sample comes into play.
For those small e-commerce businesses who aim to offer a service, the idea of offering a free sample does not change — your customers still have no idea what the experience of your service feels like, and that’s a problem.
Now, social proof (reviews) can go a long way in convincing potential customers of the quality of your product or service, but, at the end of the day, nothing can quite match up to an actual free sample or free trial of your product or service.
In an age when customers are still wary of making purchases online, nothing has the power to convince quite like a free sample.
How you handle this depends on you, your business, and your product or service. You may find it best to only send out free samples in bulk, or to only offer, at first, free samples to certain customer types or in certain geographic areas. And if you’re offering a service (especially if you are offering SaaS), it may actually cost you very little to offer a free trial.
However, free trials and free samples, on their own, are generally not enough to inspire a customer to stay a customer for life — this is where customer service comes into play.
To really inspire people, you need to not only offer the free trial or sample, but you need to follow up, to make sure your customers are satisfied, to help them with any issues that crop up, and to generally treat them as though they’ve made an actual purchase.
And yes, you should do this even with something that’s free — you want them to buy something, don’t you? Nothing inspires loyalty like a good first impression, and that’s exactly how you should view the free sample or the free trial.
It’s a chance for you to show your potential customers that you are a business worth working with.
#2 The Deep-Dive Product/Service Description (With Reviews)
Even when your customers have had a chance to test out and use your product or service, they’re going to need a lot more than a free sample to ensure they’re comfortable with purchasing a product.
Something that really sets online shopping apart from brick-and-mortar shopping is the ability to really put in the research, to spend a lot of time deciding which product or service is just right for you.
There’s no salesperson hovering over you, waiting for you to make a decision — it’s just you and a computer screen, and a lot of folks like this.
Of course, the danger of this for you, the e-commerce business owner, is that all the information needed to research your product might not be located on your website — if your potential customers have to travel around the web searching for information on your product (and products like it), you have a much lower chance of ending up with a sale.
So do your best to prevent that by providing as much information as possible on your product or service, on similar products or services, and on what sets your offering apart from the competition.
Here are just a few things to consider adding to your website:
- Detailed reviews from all over the web (think Facebook reviews, Google reviews) aggregated directly on each product page
- Multiple, detailed images, with callouts, and the ability to zoom and rotate
- Videos of the product or service in action (including video explanations of how best to use key features of the product or service)
- Extensive descriptions, with bulleted lists of both features and benefits
- Frequently asked questions (with elaborate answers)
- Detailed, downloadable product/service comparisons
You get the idea. Basically, you want to give your prospects as much information as possible to make their decision.
This is customer service. If your customers were in a physical store with you, you wouldn’t think twice about giving demonstrations, discussing the differences between your product and the leading competitor, letting the customer try the product out, and on and on. You would give them as much information and freedom to try things out as possible, and importantly, both you and they would consider this customer service.
Just because your business is online doesn’t mean customer service is relegated to over-the-phone, chat, or email interactions — what you provide on the website itself is customer service.
So give them all the information they need to make an informed purchase.
#3 The Return Policy, a Security Focus, and Quick-and-Easy Shipping
Many modern customers are very comfortable making a purchase online, but just as many are extremely hesitant to do so.
There are many reasons for this, but the main reasons can be boiled down into three categories:
- How robust a return policy is
- How secure and safe a website appears
- How quickly, easily, and cheaply a package will ship
All of these have a marked effect on whether or not visitors to your website will do the following:
- Become first-time customers
- Continue to make purchases
- Become loyal to your brand
Now, every business is different, so the vagaries of your industry will dictate a lot of this, but if your website does not appear to be secure, if it’s difficult to return a product or get a refund on a service that didn’t work out, if it takes forever to get a package and costs an arm and a leg to do so, you’re going to be less likely to attract new customers and less likely to retain existing customers.
So make your website professional, get an SSL certificate, tell customers all the steps you take to protect their data (especially their personal information and payment information), and lock down your website and your database as much as possible.
By the same token, invest in your supply chain — do what you need to do to make shipping both fast and cheap. As far as returns go, give your customers the benefit of the doubt. Make returns simple, straightforward, and give your customers a lot of time in which to make them.
Because your customers aren’t interacting with you face to face, it’s much harder to form lasting, personal relationships with them. They’re going to base their impressions of you not on what you say or how you act, but on your actions, much more so than in person.
In person, you can get away with a more draconian return policy if you’re super apologetic — but the most apologetic email in the world can’t convey the body language and tone that makes an apology count to a customer.
That’s why it’s so critical to be lenient in returns, generous in shipping, and overzealous in security — you often won’t get a chance to explain yourself to your customer.
#4 The Email Marketing Campaign and Rewards System
Email marketing is far from dead — and it’s one of the most powerful methods of retaining current customers and encouraging new customers to purchase again, and again, and again.
But here’s what most people won’t tell you — many customers view email marketing as a positive thing, something that, in the absence of face-to-face interaction, is often one of the few touch points you’ll have with your e-commerce customers.
Personalization helps — and most modern email marketing platforms provide this functionality.
But more than that, customers want access to promotions, discounts, deals, and free gifts that most savvy email marketers provide to their customers.
Again, this is a form of customer service. Your customers normally would be offered these types of discounts in person, or at the very least, they’d be able to access them from a person, face-to-face. Because you don’t have those opportunities to offer such discounts and gifts in person, spontaneously, you’re left relying on email marketing.
But it works — if a customer is continually sent emails, personalized to them, that have unique offers (which should also be personalized to them, if possible), not only are they going to be continually drawn back into making purchases, but they’re also going to be a) reminded of your brand and b) reminded that you care about them.
Other than personalization, another way you can both encourage customers to open their emails and make them feel that they’re valued by your business (and thus more likely to be retained) is through a rewards program.
Rewards programs are powerful, and many customers respond strongly to them. Don’t be stingy, but don’t sell yourself short either — find a balanced program of rewards that allows you to show your best customers that you care, that you’re grateful for their business, and that you want them to keep coming back for more (while keeping your wallet intact).
#5 The Personalized Shopping Cart
My final recommendation concerns shopping carts.
Now, as an e-commerce business, shopping cart abandonment is something you’re going to run into constantly. The savvy e-commerce business owner will understand that shopping carts get abandoned regularly, that email marketing and programmatic/remarketing techniques can be used to encourage customers to complete a purchase, and that many people who put an item in a cart are going to disappear and literally never return to your website.
However, if you structure your shopping cart appropriately, not only can you reduce abandonment rates and increase first-time sales, but you can also use it as a powerful tool to retain your best customers.
Though of course we should be concerned with abandonment, the truth is, our best customers aren’t necessarily abandoning anything — they’re just saving what they’ve found while they continue their research and comparison phase.
That shopping cart is something they’re going to revisit, make changes to, and probably become pretty familiar with over time.
If you personalize that experience for them, if you make it clear, within the shopping cart itself, that you both know who they are, understand their shopping habits, and are actively thinking of ways to help them find more products/services that will suit their needs, they will feel a more powerful connection to both you and your brand.
So personalize their shopping experience. This takes investment, time, and work, but the results are happier customers who feel close to your brand and spend more money.
And isn’t that what we all want?
Want to Inspire Your Customers to Stick Around? Content Is Your Key to Success
Now that you have a clearer understanding of what it takes to retain customers for your e-commerce business (ideas are floating through your head, strategies and tactics are beginning to take shape), you’ll want to consider one other unique opportunity that e-commerce businesses have:
Because you exist solely online, it’s more important for you to leverage the power of content marketing to draw customers to your website than it is for the average brick-and-mortar store.
You can’t live on PPC advertising — you need some great content to draw customers in.
And there’s a little trick I’ve got up my sleeve that will help you do just that.