How I Handle Customer Service on a New Feature

Graceful error handling is something that all good web developers pay attention to.  There are too many weird scenarios out there for everything to work perfectly.  Too many browsers, too many flavors of operating systems, and too many people that will do things that you never could have dreamed of.

When we were developing the new Detailed Image we weren’t sure what to do with people who were trying to place an order so large that we couldn’t return a shipping quote from the FedEx or USPS API.  As you can tell from our shipping study, we take pride in accurately quoting and not just trying to get it right on average.  It’s more fair to the customer and it’s better business for us.

After some thought, we decided that we’d send these people to a very nice error page stating that we were unable to generate a quote for them and that we would be in contact with them shortly to provide a quote. We figured that most people who saw the page would be people trying to place orders that would go in multiple large boxes, and we reasoned that those were orders that we wanted to handle on a case by case basis anyway. I had an email notification kicked to me any time someone reached this error page.  I always emailed them back immediately apologizing and explaining that I’d be happy to help them complete the order.  I figured that a lot of these email exchanges would lead to large sales.  I was wrong.

The problem was that the overwhelming majority of people were just fucking around.  Even though they can get a quick shipping quote on the shopping cart page (without logging in and going to the checkout page), some people liked to go to the final checkout page with like 400 items in their cart just for fun.  And they liked to do it over and over and over and over, flooding my inbox with emails every 10 seconds.

Of the other people, I learned that they basically broke down into the same few cases.  I had standard emails that I sent, but the majority of people never replied.  Last week I finally realized that this was a feature that I could put on cruise control.  All of my well refined standard responses could just be displayed on the error page.  No new scenarios had emerged in months.

So I re-wrote the error page, set up a database to record the issues in case we need to go back and track them for some reason, and then got rid of the emails to me.  Here’s what it says now:

Detailed Image Checkout Fail

Those emails were the majority of the DI customer service that I did.  I probably just eliminated 95% of them without any loss in customer experience.  If anything, providing the answers right away is better for the customer.

So why not do this from the start? All of this was a rather long way of saying that I had no idea what the problems would be when we started. So any time you launch a new website or new feature, I think that you need to approach customer service in a similar fashion:

  • Collect every single bit of feedback that you can from every single customer.  Reply to them all, apologize for any troubles, and ask a lot of questions.
  • Create standard responses as soon as patterns start to emerge.  Create a FAQ section. Fix any design and programming issues that are causing repeated inquiries.
  • Once you’ve worked out all of the kinks and no new issues arise for a while (a few months at least), find a way to put the problem on cruise control so that you can save your time and move on.

I’d almost go as far as to say that having a FAQ page on launch of a new venture is worthless.  Just make it really really easy for people to figure out how to contact you. You won’t know what the frequently asked questions will be until they are actually asked.  And from my experiences with all of our sites, your guesses are always wrong.

10 comments on How I Handle Customer Service on a New Feature

  1. TIm says:

    I hate to say it but I got a good laugh at some idiot adding 400 items to their cart just for a good time – no matter how idiot proof you make something, they will create a better idiot!

    Kidding aside, it seems like you made a wise entrepreneurial decision based on your on the fly analysis of the data. Seeing patterns like this is essential to making your job less demanding for low level problems allowing you to focus on higher level work which returns much greater rewards monetarily and intellectually. In a case like the one you mentioned in this post it frees up your time and offers the customers a faster solution to the problem, everyone wins.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      You’d be shocked at some of these orders people add to their cart. We have one guy who loads up his cart with hundreds of pounds of items every time we run a sale. Buffers and gallons and everything else that adds up weight quickly. He’ll sit on the site for hours and keep doing it. But he only placed a few small orders all year long (under $50). Blows my mind. I actually packed a super small order of his the other day and I broke out laughing because up until that point he hadn’t ordered since the summer despite going to the checkout page over and over again every week or two.

      • nethy (netsp) says:

        Maybe he uses your site as a way of estimating shipping costs in general, stuff he might be shipping himself.

  2. Rob says:

    Maybe he’s unemployed and reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally bored!

  3. Rob says:

    Hehe, me too. He should start a business. Anyway, one thing I find really dumb is brand new sites with FAQs. How in the hell do you know what the FAQs will be if you’re a new company? You won’t! They’re just guesses, and at worst wrong, and at best likely to be incomplete.

    All you could ever want to know about us is listed on our website and in our FAQs, mailouts etc. yet we still get people asking really basic questions all the time – I’m talking things from headlines, from our front page and in replies to emails we’ve sent that actually contain the information. For us (with fewer but high value customers than you) we just reply with the same old information, often using template emails. I’ve considered having a catch-all email or perhaps redirecting them back to the website, but In the end I figure the more human and real I can make the contact the more likely I am to convert them into a customer. I wholly understand why you do it your way though – we’re busy if we get 20 customer queries in a week, never mind a day!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      And I agree completely with the way you do it too Rob.

      Even though we do things like this, we could do what you said and go nuts with autoresponders and probably eliminate customer service all together, but we try to strike a balance between being automated and being personable and accessible. Things like this make sense, but there are still a lot of areas where we handle the emails one by one. We just can’t do that in every scenario because we just don’t have the resources (and quite frankly in a situation like this, it’s a win-win by automating).

      Now, if I were in your situation providing a premium service to a higher value customer, I’d totally do what you are doing. I almost think it’s a necessity. There IS nothing like that personal touch.

  4. […] getting a lot less customer service emails since we changed the way we handle errors on Detailed Image and are in the process of getting rid of Amazon and Tastefully Driven.  In terms of customer […]

  5. […] good example of a successful automation is the failed checkouts on Detailed Image.  That’s a win for everyone across the board.  Since we implemented that, the number of […]

  6. […] I think the main answer to this is obvious – more and more people are browsing the web from mobile devices. The second reason, and what threw me off course on the scope of this project, was to simplify functionality. The Detailed Image site when it was launched in early 2009 was one of the few e-commerce sites that really pushed the use of AJAX. Some features, such as a dropdown notification after adding a product to cart (instead of being taken off page), or adding/removing products from your cart, or applying a coupon code, greatly benefit from a usability perspective. Initially, that level of javascript processing wasn’t possible on mobile phones. In 2009 the majority of the people trying to buy from an iPhone ran into issues and couldn’t complete their purchase. If you recall, it was one of the four major reasons that people failed our checkout. […]

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