An important aspect of e-commerce, or indeed commerce in general, is providing good customer service. It is highly desirable that customers return to place further orders. ICT makes it possible to offer customers and potential customers access to a large amount of information, more than was possible in traditional business.
The simplest way to provide good customer service is to provide the customer with information he needs. This can be as simple as putting a catalog online with pictures and specifications of the available products. But the mere conversion of a catalog to a website is only the simplest form of providing information electronically. Because publishing electronically is much cheaper and publishing on paper, which more information can be made available in this way at only very small additional cost.
A company could for instance not only put its entire catalog online, but also provide a searchable database with product information. Many software companies make their complete database with product effects available to the public, so that customers can find information on known bugs and download the appropriate fixes. It is sometimes even possible to automatically scan for known bugs or obsolete versions and to offer the ability to upgrade.
Using the Internet it is possible for a customer to find out the status of his order at any time. Delivery services such as Federal Express or UPS allow users to enter a tracking number at their website and immediately see where the parcel has been and how far it has to go (WO 00/46728). This makes the service more transparent to the user and thereby more attractive.
Providing access to this data is not trivial for the delivery service provider. He must, at all stages in the delivery process, enter the data into a database, so that the user can access it. This generally requires specialized equipment, such as barcode scanners, for all persons involved in handling the parcel (US 6,094,642).
When sales are made electronically, it becomes possible to keep track of products after the sale. One application is to notify the buyer when the product is (probably) out of stock, so he can then replenish his stock.
For example, Electrolux sells a "Screenfridge", a refrigerator which keeps track of what someone has in the fridge, and which can help users with grocery shopping and dinner ideas. The Screenfridge looks like a normal refrigerator, but is equipped with a computer and a touch screen on the door. It includes a "reader", which is used to read electronic tags which need to be present on food and liquid packages. This way, the Screenfridge can keep track of the products that are put in and taken out of the refrigerator, and when an inventory level of a product is too low, it can generate a shopping list and put that product on it. Other systems use a barcode reader for the same purpose, requiring the user to actively scan the products they put in or take out.
The notification is preferably generated in time for a replenishment to arrive before the product will be used up completely. The service provider can estimate the lifetime of the product based on time periods between past sales (e.g., if the product is bought every month, it is reasonable to assume the product is used up within a month). The buyer can then be warned in time. He can then also be offered the opportunity to place an order to restock the product.
While most customers generally appreciate the fact that they can shop for products without being interrupted by sales assistants wanting to make a sale, at times it can be useful to have someone whom you can ask questions or get advice from. Some sites provide a button on product pages, which when clicked allow real-time chat with a sales representative.
Dutch company CallMe offers a service which allows site operators to add a "Call me now" button to their pages. When the user presses this button, they are prompted to enter their name and telephone number, and within seconds they are called by the site's customer service department. They can then get the assistance they need.
Webpages that contain information on specific products or topics can link to a product-specific area in a discussion board, so that users can share experiences and opinions.
A learning electronic agent can also be employed as a sales assistant (US 6,352,283). The agent is provided with a database of common questions and answers, and uses natural language parsing to determine a user's questions or interests. It can answer questions and suggest products the user may be interested in. The sales agents learns from experiences with previous customers.
A trend that has recently become popular is bill payment. In this model, a merchant or service operator sends the bill for his product or service to an intermediary, which enters it in his database. The consumer can view the status of his bills via the Internet, and authorize payment (US 5,832,460). Payment is typically arranged by the intermediary using a direct debit authorization given by the consumer. The intermediary can charge a monthly subscription fee, or a percentage of the value of the bills it handles.
Bills generally don't have to be paid immediately. In fact, it may be advantageous to delay payment until the most suitable moment. By analyzing the consumer's cash flow, it becomes possible to pick the most suitable moment as the moment his available cash is highest, or at least not negative (US 6,128,603).
When a bill is sent, the consumer may want to dispute one or more items, because he did not buy them, or he wants to return them. The intermediary presents the items on a bill in a list, and provides for each the option of indicating whether it must be paid, or it is to be challenged, preferably using a predefined series of reasons ("not bought", "returned as defective", "discount not applied"). The intermediary then pays only the unchallenged items, and sends out a form letter disputing the rest (US 6,070,150).
When the consumer pays his bills electronically, he effectively authorizes the intermediary to deduct a certain amount from his account. It is important that the intermediary is unable to modify the bill after the consumer has authorized it, so the bill must be protected using some information only the consumer knows (US 6,049,786).