How to Staff Customer Service for an Ecommerce Business

By Julie Rains on 18 May 2010 0 comments
Photo: pixdeluxe

Who can calm irate customers in a friendly, non-patronizing way, distinguish atrocious demands and outright lies from perfectly reasonable requests, and quickly solve customer problems without compromising your company's profit margins? A personable, even-tempered, well-trained, and knowledgeable customer service representative can quickly address misunderstandings, investigate possible mistakes, offer appropriate compensation for service failures, answer questions, explain company policies, and more.

Right now, you may be taking care of problems as you become aware of them, transferring inquiries to a sales associate or an operations manager, or hoping that your website gives customers all the information that they'll ever need. So, what should trigger the decision to hire (or designate) an employee dedicated to customer service?

If you're running an ecommerce business, your company can benefit from the right customer service professional anytime.


The right person(s) can not only handle customer concerns, check order status, and explain how policies apply to individual situations, but also generate sales and build goodwill. Duties might include:

  • explaining proper use of products or services;
  • making product recommendations to enhance projects and special events;
  • advising on the availability of custom or premium features;
  • mentioning items of potential or probable interest to customers based on needs assessment, purchasing history, or profile;
  • handling administrative tasks if the volume doesn't require 40 hours per week.

Ways to Interact With Customers

Common methods of connecting with customer service representatives with customers include:

Toll-Free Telephone Support
Speak directly with customers to build credibility with callers, offer immediate assistance, and close sales. You'll need a multi-line phone system so that when call volume is heavy, customers can be given options for holding until a representative is available or leaving a voice message. Sophisticated systems track customer wait-times, monitor conversation talk times, and allow quality checks through listen-ins and call recordings.

Live Chat
Interact through real-time messages and give quick responses to customers, who may prefer to be anonymous and can get answers without speaking (useful for those who may be shopping at the office but don't want to disturb colleagues with non-work-related conversations). This method requires composing messages, waiting for responses, and researching information to assure full resolution during the live chat, which can be time consuming. Live Chat software facilitates communications.

Contact Forms
Customers categorize their needs based on listed options (including "other") found on website forms. Messages can be reviewed and processed in batches, or forwarded to appropriate departments for resolution.

Customers ask questions or discuss problems via email to addresses listed on websites or provided during Live Chat sessions. This approach requires more effort but gives the customer a record of communications.

Hours and Service Standards

Customers typically want immediate assistance and problem resolution, 24-7. But, as a business owner, you need to limit hours in order to control payroll costs. You'll also want to provide management support during these hours so that representatives can speak with colleagues about operational issues, get approval for refunds, and escalate calls if needed.

Start by staffing customer service during your company's regular business hours. Extend hours if you have lots of interaction with customers in different time zones. Add more hours or increase staff dedicated to customer service during peak sales periods.

To make sure that customer service representatives are productive and handle inquiries promptly, establish standards for responding to calls, live-chat messages, and emails. Set guidelines for answering questions and addressing concerns; offer immediate assistance or resolution of more complex issues within one business day if possible.

Evaluate the volume, timing, and types of inquiries to determine if you need to change or increase hours, or add or reduce staff dedicated to customer service.


Customer service representatives should be comfortable spending many hours talking on the telephone and interacting with customers electronically. They should also be knowledgeable of the company's products, services, and policies. Qualifications valuable for this role include:

  • communication, relationship-building, and problem-solving skills that enable employees to make customers feel wanted and welcome, defuse anger, listen, write straightforward but friendly messages, ask probing questions, find opportunities for additional sales, pinpoint problems, and negotiate solutions;
  • product knowledge for the purpose of offering sound advice and answering questions about product ingredients, best uses, applications, etc.;
  • knowledge of company operations to interpret and apply policies to various scenarios, investigate errors, and address or initiate resolution to internal problems, especially those related to order processing, shipping, billing, and claims.

Improve Service

After the customer service function is running smoothly, talk with your representative about recurring problems. Then find ways to prevent these problems or lower their numbers. You might, for example, add details to product descriptions or change packing for certain fragile items. As a result, you'll increase customer satisfaction and give your customer service team more time to focus on driving sales.

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