CX Insight Magazine

April 2022

The New Best Practices For Ecommerce Customer Service

The importance of people and relationships in the future of customer service.

by Joseph Ansanelli, CEO and Co-Founder, Gladly

At this point, a tech company saying, “the world has changed,” is predictable. But, of course, the world has changed. Not in a monolithic, overnight, all-at-once way that has become cliche, but in a thousand small ways that have grown from decades-long trends that tangle and weave and grow and ebb.

Customers have changed: transformed over many years by changing demographics, technology, and access. And their expectations for great customer service have changed as well, replacing the exuberance of technology and automation that was the dominant trend through the nineties, aughts, and teens with a renewed focus on the person and the personal.

The future of customer service is not one of tickets and cases, but of people and relationships. This isn’t a small change in the technologies brands deploy, and it’s not a problem of just adding more customer service agents. Building meaningful relationships with your customers is going to require a fundamental strategic shift in how we conceptualize customer service from bottom to top. The future of customer service is about empowering agents to become heroes by giving them the tools, training, and support to truly center the customer.

So, what are the best practices brands need to put in place now to really build customer-centric service experiences? How have brands like Crate&Barrel, Warby Parker, Allbirds, and REI reinvented their customer service to drive loyalty and sales while improving efficiency, scalability, and sustaining growth? Here are five best practices you can put into place today to meet modern customer expectations and win the future of eCommerce.

Service Is About People

No one has ever wanted to be just a ticket or a case number. Customer service, great customer service, is about building relationships and getting radically personal. Doing so, however, isn’t just a matter of building a better ticket management platform. It requires a complete rethinking of how we handle customer service interactions from the bottom up, replacing tickets with people and cases with conversations.

Measure What Matters

As we’ve moved more and more toward a data-driven approach to business, some of that has gotten lost. Letting numbers guide your business decisions is absolutely the right move, but if the numbers doing the guiding are the wrong numbers, you may end up in a completely different place than you wanted to.

Too much legacy customer service wisdom is built around cold, impersonal objectives while ignoring the quality of conversations your agents are having with customers. These traditional approaches create the opposite of customer-centered service. They evaluate customer service success based on business goals and financials, while ignoring that the only party qualified to judge the success of a customer service interaction is the customer.

When deciding on metrics to judge your service by, focus on the three top pillars of customer service: the customer, the associate, and the brand. That’s what Crate&Barrel did, and it found that the financial metrics took care of themselves as long as you had service covered.

Know Your Customer

Tumi didn’t become the best-selling business luggage brand just because they made the best roller case (though they do!). They did it by understanding who their customers were, what their pain points were, and how they could best be there for travelers in need. Their dedication to knowing who their customers were, as a block but also as individuals, helped them build their reputation, and their reputation helped them build their business.

For the future of eCommerce customer service, knowing your customers means more than just having market data on their needs. It means that no matter who they talk to, in store or online, knows them by name and can immediately see their history with your brand without having to introduce the friction of asking. Customer service centers need to have the tools in place to make sure that the support hero in Des Moines should be able to provide the same level of service as the sales manager in the flagship store on 5th Ave.

Prioritize, But Don’t Show Favoritism

Every customer deserves the best customer service. However, the reality of time and support hero constraints often means that your brand will need to triage service requests — there are only so many requests any one hero can handle at a time, and only so many hours in a day for them to handle them.

Brands need to be able to quickly identify which support requests come from customers stalled in the purchasing process, or their best customers so they can match them to the right agents and do so quickly. But they also have to be careful to make sure that they aren’t perceived as playing favorites. This is a delicate dance; getting it right requires investment in tools and training for identifying these VIP customers, and for making the process frictionless enough that no one walks away feeling like they got pushed to the back of the line.

Service Is About Being There

When customers have a problem, they don’t spend time thinking about what channels to contact customer service on. People don’t think about channels. They use whatever feels natural in that moment and in that context. Too many customer service platforms and professionals still focus on adding channels for the sake of being “omnichannel.”

Good customer service isn’t omnichannel — it’s channel-independent, and meets customers on their terms, wherever they are in one seamless conversation that can continue regardless of which medium the customer wants to use at that moment. Great customer service takes it a step further and allows conversations to continue seamlessly as customers move from device to device or across channels to fit the conversation they need to have and their situation in that moment — from chat to phone to text to email back to phone and so on. And all of this becomes part of that customer’s single, lifelong conversation with a brand that a support hero needs easy access to the next time that customer reaches out.

Brands need to ensure that their customer service operations are likewise set up to be focused on conversations and people, not channels. Nothing will frustrate customers more than having to explain their problem again and again whenever they move from one channel to another. They also need to give support heroes the tools to see which channels customers prefer so they know where to reach them when there’s an update. Deckers, the parent of footwear favorites Ugg, Hoka One One, Teva, and others, saw service levels improve by 40% after switching to Gladly largely driven to being able to connect customer conversations across channels and reach them on their preferred medium.

But even though customers want conversations to be channel-independent, brands still need to consider their channel mix to ensure your customers can reach your agents in their preferred manner. It’s not enough to have live chat, phone, and email anymore. Instead, the conversations need to be about SMS as a baseline, and then social messaging, depending on customer profile.

For brands with a large, technology-heavy customer base, that might be Slack and Discord and Telegram. For more general consumer companies, it could be Instagram, Twitter, and Whatsapp. And the big curveball is that this ideal channel mix can be radically different across geographies and buyer personas, making it critical that you can provide a consistent level of personal service, no matter how customers reach out. It’s not enough to just be on all the popular channels — your customer service heroes need to be everywhere, all at once, and able to connect conversations, no matter where they happened.

Help Your Customers Help Themselves

As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” A lot of the most common questions customers contact support for are not questions that need direct agent intervention on.

These queries — “When is my order shipping?”, “What is your return policy, and how can I start the return or exchange process?”, “How do I care for my purchase?” — are important, but they can also be answered just as effectively without any agent involvement, at all. In fact, many can be answered more effectively without human intervention, freeing your agents to become the most effective support heroes they can be.

In providing quality self-service solutions for common customer challenges, you’re achieving two critical objectives: demonstrating to customers that you value their time, and freeing up your agents’ time to deal with higher-complexity and higher-value customers. The former allows you to return some time to customers and save them frustration, building up your brand equity in the process. The latter allows your agents to become heroes as they build deeper personal relationships with your customers and gain the breathing room to start turning service into a revenue driver with upsells and cross-sells. Deckers was able to increase self-service by 60% and customer search success by a full 90% after redesigning their content-driven self-service area and, in turn, dramatically improved customer and agent satisfaction.

Drive Revenue Through Service

The most interesting best practice driving the future of eCommerce customer service is borrowed from the past — turning service into an opportunity to drive revenue. Just like in the heyday of large department stores, modern customer service needs to be part support and part sales. Companies need to be as adept at recommending a matching outfit or a complementary desk lamp as they are in rectifying miships and handling sizing questions.

As we continue the fundamental shift to digital-first and digital-native, maintaining the traditional divide between “sales” personnel and “service” personnel becomes not just untenable, but actively harmful to growth. When your storefront is a website and there are no salespeople to ask questions, service has an amazing opportunity to fill that role. And by transforming a former cost-center into a profit driver, brands on the cutting edge of service have a tremendous upside that positions them for faster, higher growth.

However, it’s not enough to just issue a mandate to sell and conversion quotas to service center managers. Agents need infrastructure and air cover to be an effective sales force. That means investing in self-serve options to divert low-value/low-touch service queries, productivity and automation tools for next-level queries to allow for higher concurrency, and a more inclusive and fluid platform overall to allow agents to see a customer’s full history and make intelligent recommendations that win sales without feeling pushy.

Most important, you have to change the way you look at service center effectiveness and the things you measure that by. Crate&Barrel has a fantastic story about driving revenue through service, but getting there meant rethinking all of the fundamentals of service center operations, from ditching handle time as a performance metric to giving service heroes plenty of latitude in how they contact customers looking for service and what they talk about. In exchange, however, they found that the costs of longer conversations were more than offset by new sales and increased customer satisfaction.

Use The Right Tools

The first step of any renovation is putting together an end goal and a plan to get there. The second step is to collect the right tools. You can build a house entirely with manual hand-tools, of course, and people have for thousands of years. It’s going to go a lot faster with some power tools built for the job, though.

Rethinking customer service from the ground up is no different. It’s not possible to make a ticket-oriented system function in a really truly customer-centric way. You can maybe string together support cases into a cohesive conversation. You might even be able to cobble together order numbers and multi-channel touches into one single interface. It’s not going to work nearly as well as a platform intentionally designed around people first. We may be a little bit biased here, because our platform was built differently from the start, but the simple truth is that trying to fit a new paradigm onto old platforms is challenging at the best of times. With the speed at which commerce is changing, these are far from the best of times, and brands have a relatively small window to turn customer service into a real differentiator before it becomes table stakes.

Finding the right platforms and tools to enable change to happen quickly and smoothly is imperative, since the right partner can make all the difference in change management operations — from training to workflows to reporting and business results. The way people buy, on-and offline-, is changing faster today than at any time in the last 50 years; trying to navigate those changes with legacy platforms is an unnecessary hurdle that can be eliminated much easier than it can be overcome.

Looking To The Future

The world has changed. The world is still changing. Almost exactly two years ago, we all saw just how suddenly everything can turn completely different. As we look into the future, it’s unlikely that the pace of this change is going to let up. In fact, it’s probably a safe bet that it’ll accelerate. Black swan events will become more common, consumer preference will shift on a dime, and competition from emerging economies will shift markets in ways we can’t predict.

Established brands may be able to maintain course and rely on their heritage and traditions to keep them afloat, but heritage only goes so far, and floating isn’t the same thing as flourishing. These best practices will help you navigate some of the uncertainty happening right now. More important, they’ll help you position your brand to be more agile, more responsive, and more customer-focused in the future, allowing you to move and grow, no matter what comes next. And for up-and-coming brands, focusing on these customer service best practices will help you define your brand in the context of service, and begin the process of building a strong heritage.


Joseph Ansanelli
CEO and Co-Founder Gladly

About the Author:

Joseph has spent most of his career as an entrepreneur, building and investing in companies that don’t settle for the status quo. He is currently a partner at Greylock and the CEO and co-founder of Gladly, a company that is reinventing customer service by focusing on people first. The Gladly customer service platform helps some of the world’s top brands, like Crate & Barrel, Warby Parker, REI, and Tory Burch, deliver radically personal customer experiences.


For more information, visit: Gladly.com

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