Online consumers expect customer service to involve much more than post-purchase problem solving. According to a new Technographics® Report from Forrester Research, Inc. (Nasdaq: FORR), Web shoppers seek and expect customer service at each step of the transaction process. Exceptional service actually increases online buyers’ total satisfaction, which encourages repeat visits and word-of-mouth recommendations.

“Retailers are still struggling to find ways of developing loyalty on the Net. One big piece of the loyalty puzzle is customer satisfaction,” said Christopher M. Kelley, associate analyst in Technographics Data & Analysis. “A satisfied customer wants to share the positive experience, which helps drive traffic to a retailer.”

Forrester identified the customer service features that most significantly impact customer satisfaction, including reactive and proactive initiatives. The three most critical components to solid reactive services are a well-staffed, responsive service organization, a simple return process, and easy order tracking. Sites that fail to react to effectively answer customers’ concerns lack the foundation of solid customer service.

Effective proactive service involves going above and beyond the traditional call of customer service duty by offering smart, unexpected touches that serve to assist shoppers throughout the entire purchase process, including shopping, paying, receiving, and returning. Retailers can increase shopper satisfaction by offering quality delivery and shipping options, detailed product information, and smart product recommendations.

According to Forrester Research, 37% of online consumers use customer service more from Web retailers than from the traditional world primarily because of its ease-of-use and quick response time. They also appreciate the ability to seek customer service from home. Web shoppers turn to email to resolve their customer service issues, with the telephone their next favorite method.

“Once excellent proactive customer service is in place, merchants must build their brands around the promise of a satisfying experience,” added Kelley. “This means not only advertising a call center but also bragging about speedy response times and knowledgeable service reps.”

For the Report “Driving Sales With Service,” Forrester asked 17,000 individuals from Greenfield Online’s marketing research panel about customer service issues. Thirty-seven percent of all online buyers — 4.8 million shoppers — have requested customer service online. Ninety percent of online shoppers consider good customer service to be critical when choosing a Web merchant.