I’m a big believer in the potential of the Web. I prefer to do my shopping, research, sourcing, etc. on the Web and conduct a dialogue via e-mail.
However, there are various impediments which have been placed in my (and other users’) electronic path. Until it is recognized that having a Web site that says “place your order here” does not constitute electronic on-line commerce, it is unlikely that the Web will become transaction oriented.
Too often, the rules that would normally apply to starting a new business unit are cast by the wayside. These rules include the basic tenets of doing business, i.e. why customers would chose to shop at your ‘store’ rather than take their business elsewhere. For years, we have railed against those organizations which created Web sites in total isolation from the underlying core business. With electronic commerce, these issues take on an increased importance.
I have prepared a simplified list of these common-sense rules which are generally and flagrantly violated at most on-line sites that I have seen.
1.) Make shopping convenient. Customers don’t go into real stores for inconvenience. If finding something is harder on line than in a mortar-and-bricks store, or takes longer (including driving time to and from), then customers will take their business elsewhere.
2.) Make shopping friendly. Customers don’t like stores with impertinent clerks. Web sites with impertinent pages are equally as bad. Test things before you go on line. Forewarned is forearmed.
3.) Be responsive to your customers. On-line customers expect prompt e-mail replies to queries. Several hours is good. Next day (early) is tolerable. No response is deadly. Even if you don’t sell products directly, you have an obligation to ensure that you answer your customers’ queries.
4.) Provide a reason to go on line. Access to a huge selection that couldn’t be inventoried in every mall is a
primary raison d’être for electronic commerce. Don’t offer outtakes. Customers will go elsewhere.
5.) Don’t put barriers in the way. Making customers answer a few questions where the answers are readily hand is a good way to get to know your customers. Putting non-user-selectable login names and passwords, or asking for information that isn’t easily available, is akin to having your store hours from midnight to 8 a.m. only.
6.) Imagine the shopping experience from the shopper’s perspective. Make certain you test the site using typical customers. See how they react and if they enjoy the experience. Look for the on-line customer to test the limits of the site.
7.) Most importantly, take advantage of the medium. Give your shoppers something they cannot get off line, such as forums, articles and reviews on products, an opportunity to see works-in-progress. Deliver information to your customers even when they’re not at your site (for example, using the “push” model of information delivery).
8.) Don’t leave anything to chance. And don’t outsource the entire project. If on-line commerce will be rucial to your company’s strategy, integrate it into the strategy and manage it like any other busines unit.
My own experiences speak to this issue.
I am still waiting (from mid-December 1996) for 3M to respond to my e-mail and follow up e-mail several days later enquiring after the availability of certain Post-It Notes. Hewlett-Packard (also from mid-December) never answered my enquiry about obtaining service for a certain HP-brand server. On a more positive note, The New York Times has an e-mail agent that sends responses to e-mails about their Web site. Several days later, a response from a human usually follows.
Warn the customer of limitations.
I purchased tickets on Delta’s new on-line Reservations Desk. Unfortunately, the site never warned me that my group discount (5%) could not be used on the Web. I spoke to several sympathetic people at their various phone centers. One advised me that there was a special telephone number
for questions relating to reservations from the Web site, which she herself didn’t know, but which was definitely listed on the Web site, “somewhere.” It isn’t. The Reservations Desk itself is a great concept. However, there are no warnings as to its limitations (no group discounts, for example).
I tried purchasing some clothes on line (I don’t remember the site name). I wanted to order two of one type of shorts, and a shirt. The very rigidly-designed order form would only let me order one of each. I declined.
No response in any medium:
Customer service should be endemic. It should not just occur in one area of the company. From an experience trying to purchase a disk drive, I learned that bad Web service might be symptomatic of the entire organization. I went to the Web site of a large computer distributor, where I had my very own customer number and everything (and with whom I had been dealing for at least the past 10 years). They recently launched their Web site and it looked promising.
First thing was to gain admission to the site. I had not yet used the site, so I entered my customer number as
requested and waited. What I received was a message saying that this number was not valid for this purpose, and that I could call a toll-free number to speak to a customer service representative. The message further advised that someone would call me tomorrow (I was doing this on a Sunday) in any case.
I called the telephone number. I then waited on hold for approximately twenty-five minutes (it’s not that I’m patient, but I have a good speakerphone). At minute twenty-five, the system hung up on me!
The promised telephone call never came, and I actually forgot about the fact that I still needed to purchase this disk drive until Wednesday. So I tried the Web site again, entering the requested information including my very valid customer number (which I had just used in an old-fashioned, analog transaction a few weeks earlier). The results were the same. Down to the very fact that I called the toll-free telephone number, it hung up on me after about twelve minutes, and the phone call that the screen message promised never did arrive.
On Thursday, I resolved to try a different tack. I called the company’s toll-free order line, entered my ustomer number as requested, and was transferred to a representative’s voice mail. I left a message, indicating which hard disk drive I was interested in, with my phone number, and waited. Although
the representative’s voice mail promised me (in her own voice) a prompt return call, that never occurred.
To those who might say that the company was just having a bad day, I say balderdash. If the site was not ready for commerce, it should not have been sitting there at the distributor’s URL. Most stores don’t open their doors to customers when the shelves aren’t stocked or the clerks aren’t trained. That goes for the Net as well.
There is no excuse for not testing your site thoroughly. The types of problems I encountered simply should not have happened. All they will do is turn consumers off from the technology. And since the company who launched this site was a leading supplier of technology products, it is even more heinous a crime.
Epilogue: my brother purchased the hard disk drive at one of the discount chains. They didn’t ask for a special account number; they didn’t promise a call back the next day. They did have the merchandise in stock and the ability to hand it over, in a shopping bag, using an old-fashioned plastic credit card to validate payment.
Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).