Excellent customer service is the biggest and least expensive favor you can do yourself and your business. To stay viable, any business depends on both new customers and on repeat customers. And as big as the internet is, you will keep running into the same people/customers over and over. Your reputation with those past customers will help you obtain and keep new customers, and will follow you throughout your business life.
The old adage that "the customer is always right" isn't correct, of course, but it should be your guiding light in dealing with your customers. Even if you have a situation where you must disagree totally with your customer, you need to do it in a win/win way. No one likes to be backed into a corner or told that they're dumb or a deadbeat (even if they are). You need to be assertive but not aggressive, and allow your customer to walk away from your discussion feeling he has been treated fairly, and that you're an okay person.
Even online, word of mouth (and this includes feedback, in auctions at any rate) is our best method of advertising. I can't stress enough how valuable it will be to you. Guard it carefully, and return the favor by praising your customers every chance you get.
Part of your customer service should be to spell out very plainly and exactly what your selling terms are whether you allow returns for any reason, or only if the item is not as described, or if you don't allow returns at all. If there is a time limit for returns, state what it is.
Same thing for your shipping charges. Try to build your materials expense into your shipping charges and don't stick a handling fee on it separately. Handling fees are very subjective and arbitrary, and can leave buyers feeling taken advantage of, particularly if they are not spelled out precisely. If you accept non-U.S. orders, specify that foreign shipping will be different than U.S. shipping. Tell what shipping method you use, and if there is a choice.
Spell out what payment methods you accept, and if shipment will be held until a check clears. Ship promptly. And ALWAYS pack safely; the bit of extra effort and expense will repay you time and again with no disappointed customers receiving damaged shipments, and no refunds for same (and it is, of course, your responsibility to get the item to the buyer safely in mail order situations as title does not change hands until the buyer receives the item in the same condition as when bought). Not all buyers will read all of your conditions, of course, but if those conditions are in your terms, you have a "legal" leg to stand on.
Along that same line of avoiding dissatisfied customers, describe, describe, describe (it's just like condition, condition, condition). The better you describe your books, the less chance you have of returns (or of a dissatisfied customer who doesn't return a book, but badmouths you). It takes a few minutes more per book, granted, to spell out precise condition, but it pays you back in two ways: satisfied customers, and more buyers. Who would you buy from without seeing a product: someone who said "oh, trust me, it's in very good condition" or someone who took the time to explain to you the precise condition you could expect, giving details on both the good and bad aspects of the product? Always put yourself in the buyer's position, and treat them as you hope to be treated. You will gain many more sales being truthful than you will lose through spelling out faults. A good description method is to thoroughly spell out faults, but also thoroughly spell out the good things about your book: does it have a straight spine, is it tight, is it clean, is there no writing in it. It certainly doesn't hurt sales, either, to give a short synopsis.
Communicate with your customer. Again, it only takes a few minutes to explain delays, problems, progress, expectations, etc. Most people will work with you, if they know what is going on.
One of the best methods of communicating, when in an adversarial position, is to kill with kindness. Never, ever allow anger to show up in your communications, whether by voice or email. Again, be assertive but not aggressive. You can explain calmly that such and such is not acceptable (particularly when you have spelled out in your terms what is acceptable), and suggest a constructive way to remedy the problem. Criticism, if not accompanied by a constructive solution, never solves anything. Never get personal, never flame anyone. In fact, just never treat any customer in a way other than you would want to be treated, yourself. Think of email as dealing with your customer face-to-face, and don't write anything you wouldn't say to his face. If you're angry, compose your email but don't send it Stop and think for a couple of hours before pushing "send".
Try to find a way, always, where that win/win situation makes your customer feel he has saved face. He'll come away from the encounter with respect for you, and many times turn into a good, repeat customer. By defusing the anger in the situation, you may often find your customer then joining in and helping you find ways to resolve a problem. Winning is not the most important thing. So you get to keep $20 or $200 but if you've made an enemy, that money is not worth it. A satisfied customer will spend much more than that with you, over a series of transactions, and will recommend you to others. A dissatisfied one will spread the "bad" word that will cost you other customers.
To sum up: treat your customers as you'd wish to be treated, and treat them in a way that will keep them as repeat customers. They, as your reputation builders, are your most valuable asset.
Shirley Bryant is the owner of Authors & Artists. She specializes in literature, modern firsts, signed and / or limited editions, authors' first books, horror / sci-fi / mystery, earth sciences including plants / animals / ecology / environmental / archaeology / anthropology, Native American, mythology, antiquarian books, and a selection of (mostly sci-fi and mystery) paperback originals.
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