It’s no wonder that ecommerce is a trillion dollar industry that continues to grow each year: online businesses don’t cost very much to start, they can be launched overnight, they can reach an unlimited number of customers, and who doesn’t like the prospect of working from home or from a trendy office space?
While online stores, content publishers, community membership sites, and freelance services offer business models that certainly have their conveniences, they also come with a unique set of challenges. One of those challenges is effectively communicating when it may not be as easy as calling a client on the phone or meeting a customer face-to-face.
Here are a few tips on how you can set expectations for your clients and your customers through your online business.
With an online business, you may be conducting work locally, nationally, and internationally. You’ll be interacting with people who are 3 hours behind you, as well as those who are 12 hours ahead of you. Establishing set business hours and posting them on your site can help your customers contact you at the most appropriate times, as well as save you from phone calls and emails when you may not be available.
Your hours of operation don’t have to be the standard 9-5. You can include a lunch hour, part-time hours, weekend hours, or seasonal hours, though in addition to your personal preference, you may want to consider your customers’ schedules. A business that operates on the opposite schedule of its customers may have difficulty meeting their customers’ needs.
If it’s unlikely that you’ll stick to your business hours, regardless of how you set them, consider posting how long it will take for your customers to receive a response from you instead. You could also request that your customers schedule appointments for phone calls or Skype sessions.
The urge to respond to a new email is a powerful one. Unfortunately, succumbing to that urge will not only put a dent in your productivity, it can set unrealistic expectations for your clients and customers. By consistently replying to an email within a few minutes, you’re setting a standard – that you’ll always reply to an email within a few minutes. You may then be sent questions that need to be answered or tasks that need to be completed at a significantly faster pace than what you’re realistically able to do. The few times you take an hour, or a few hours to get back to a customer will seem like a much bigger deal than it actually is.
You should also avoid sending emails during times you’re generally not available, as customers will get the impression that despite your posted business hours or communication policy, you really are glued to your computer or phone. They’ll continue to send emails, and they’ll keep expecting a reply.
While you should continue to answer urgent emails as soon as possible, there are solutions for setting better communication standards via most of your other messages. Consider setting up an automatic reply for nights, weekends, or other times you’re not available so that your customers at least know you received their message. If you’re concerned about missing something important, include an emergency contact number.
If you’re just itching to catch up on a crowded inbox on a Sunday afternoon, consider drafting your emails and scheduling them to send first thing Monday morning.
Lastly, with all email messages, keep in mind that your customers can’t see your face or hear your tone of voice. As your words are only one of many components that makes up communication, it’s extremely important that you learn how to express yourself well through writing. Sarcasm and jokes don’t always translate. Text in all caps and exclamation points can be construed as either anger or enthusiasm. You’ll be able to communicate more effectively with your customers and clients when you take the time to craft messages that are clear.
If your online business offers a service, it’s extremely important that you have a signed contract before you begin a project. This goes double for customers and clients you haven’t worked with before. While most people think of a contract or letter of agreement as a legal document that protects both parties should a situation occur, when written the right way, it can offer so much more than that.
Your contract is like a roadmap for the services you plan to provide. It’s a chance for you to outline your assignment in your own words, and an opportunity for your customer to either agree that you’re on the same page, or redefine the project. This simple step will largely increase your chances of satisfying your customer the first time. It will also prevent you from having to complete a project over should it not be what the customer intended.
Your contract is also where you can define terms for communication, including what methods you’ll use (email, phone, etc.), how often you’ll use them (daily, weekly, etc.) and when you’ll be available to discuss the project (weekdays 10am-6pm, etc.). Even if this information is included on your website, adding it to your contract can help to ensure that your customer has seen it and understands it.
You’ll also want to include your payment terms in your contract. Specifying how much your service will cost, when payment will be due, and what payment options are accepted, can help to avoid any miscommunication or confusion later.
Even before your customer purchases your product online, even before they contact you about a quote for your services, you can help set expectations right on your company’s website.
Let’s say you’re looking to hire a graphic designer for your new small business logo. One company’s website simply lets you know they’re a graphic designer. Other than an online portfolio and a number to call for a quote, there’s not much else to go on. Another website not only specifies that they do logo design, it takes you step by step through the process. It answers frequently asked questions, it showcases past work, and it gives you a range of what you can expect to spend. You’re more likely to choose the second company.
By adding all this information to your website for anyone to view, a potential customer can decide for themselves if what you have to offer is what they’re looking for, without having to get you involved. (This will prevent you and potential customers from wasting one another’s time.) Because your customers will know exactly what they’re purchasing, they can click those “Hire Me” or “Buy Now” buttons with confidence.