Before I begin a disclaimer is necessary for me to feel like I can publish this. You need to know that my own small business is far from perfect. We screw up. We sometimes make poor decisions.
We endeavor to be awesome and try hard to do the right thing, be the best at what we do, and make every customer as happy as possible, but I'm the first to admit that doesn't always happen.
This article is my attempt to share some lessons learned at times when we were NOT awesome. From the rough periods in my company's history some important insights have emerged and I think other entrepreneurs and professionals in all trades can learn from those insights.
So please note, I'm not proud of those low moments, mistakes, or ugly situations but I'm willing to make myself a little vulnerable online in order to share some insights that will hopefully help all of us improve.
Crap Happens But Customers Generally Understand
I'm not proud to admit it, but there have been several occasions in my e-commerce business in which we had orders from customers that we weren't able to ship for as much as 120 days.
That doesn't happen often but it has happened more than once and unfortunately, COVID, international supply chain issues, and the Ukrainian conflict have made these issues more common than any customer should be ok with.
Nobody likes waiting that long. You might imagine we really upset people when they have to wait that long.
Another thing you would think really would drive people crazy is getting a lemon product. A holster that wasn't cut properly or a range bag with a defect, or the wrong product altogether.
Don't get me wrong, there are customers who won't tolerate those things but on the whole, customers understand that these things happen and they care more about how you handle those issues than they do about the reality that your business isn't perfect.
There is one thing however that in 8 years of e-commerce and over 15 million dollars in gross revenue I have learned that NO customer will tolerate. That is simply, feeling ignored.
Some Recent Numbers
In 2022 the median time it took for my company to respond to a customer inquiry was almost exactly 24 hours.
That sounds pretty reasonable considering we don't work on weekends and have a very small staff. However, a median of 24 hours means there were many tickets with much longer waits and many tickets with much shorter waits.
In September for example, we just had a perfect storm. I'll spare you the excuses but our median time to first response went up to 60 hours. Customers lost it. 60 hours is less than 3 days. People couldn't handle it. I mean a straight-up meltdown took place and can you blame them?
What is my point? The same customer who does NOT mind waiting 3 months to get the product they ordered, will start filing a complaint with the BBB if they don't get a response to their email after 4 days.
A Specific Example To Illustrate The Point
This is a fictitious example but it might as well be real. Our customer service team can tell you this basic fact pattern has played out many many times for them.
Imagine you have a customer who has been waiting 60 days for the product they ordered. They emailed you 30 days ago and asked for an update and, acting on the best info you had at that time, you told them it would be 2-3 more weeks. Now it's been 4 weeks since that contact and they are asking for an update.
You would assume this customer would be very frustrated. That almost nothing you could say would placate them. That isn't the case. Their patience and how they feel emotionally about the situation will directly correlate with how quickly you respond to that inquiry.
If you respond within 1-2 days and tell them you still don't have the product and it could be a few more weeks they will likely be ok with the added delay. If it takes you 3-5 days to reply to their email and you provide the same response you can expect some pushback or a request for a refund.
The Lesson to Learn?
I'm oversimplifying it and I'm generalizing but the point is there is a clear correlation between customer satisfaction, even in the face of various challenges, with how quickly and how well you respond to their inquiry.
Customers understand the various challenges that small and big businesses face. They can be understanding of a lot of things but what they won't tolerate is poor communication.
Where possible for example, we try to proactively reach out to customers when the expected lead time on their order changes. Taking the time to craft that email and let them know there is a delay stems the flow of their inevitable inquiries and gives them a more positive impression of your company. This will also ultimately save you time in the long run.
This insight also serves to help prioritize resources. For example, I remember a moment in recent history when it all came crashing down on my desk. Up until that moment, I just didn't realize how far behind we were but we were behind on everything. We had over 1000 customer inquiries that needed responding to, over 1000 orders that needed shipping, and hundreds of products that needed handcrafting/manufacturing.
Given what we've learned about customers we allocated as many humans as possible to respond to customer inquiries until that part of the business was caught up. Then we moved those people into shipping and manufacturing. This reduces negative customer complaints and ultimately will save man hours even if it isn't intuitive.
I hope I never find my business again in a situation where we have to make that kind of decision but the lesson learned can be applied to any professional in any industry.
COMMUNICATE. RESPOND. MAKE THEM FEEL HEARD AND LISTENED TO.