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Online shopping experiences: Joyful of woeful?

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First Published: Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology – December 21, 2007.

I just finished my holiday shopping online. It was the last day I could order online and still get free shipping on my gifts before Christmas. That’s important, but not nearly as important as the overall experience. Compared with shopping in the new Natick Collection mall, shopping online is pure joy. But not everyone shares my excitement of online shopping, and they may have a good reason.

It’s obvious that if you’re an online retail business competing with mall-based retailers, you have some immediate advantages. No long lines, no parking nightmares, no packages to carry — and my personal favorite, your customers can shop online in their PJs. So why do so many people still flock by the millions to the overcrowded malls each year? It’s simple. It’s about the experience.

Yesterday morning there were at least two dozen people at my local post office desperately trying to mail off their family holiday cards. The service at the post office is horrible. That happens when you have a monopoly. A few miles away at the Best Buy, dozens of uniformed helpers, complete with rock-star headsets, rushed to the aid of panicking parents trying to decide between the Xbox 360 and the latest PlayStation. The distinction between these two retail locations is so clear it needs no more explanation. But online, the distinctions are less obvious and even harder to get right.

One thing that is hard to deny: Online shoppers have unrealistic expectations of what retail sites should be capable of offering. Big-name sites, like Amazon.com have held the bar so high for so long that unless your site offers all the features customers have come to expect they will probably be disappointed. This is ridiculous, of course. Not every site needs to be like Amazon.com to succeed. The reasons why Amazon is ahead of the curve is the same reason Apple Inc. has made the retail experience a highly profitable one. They are focused on designing a shopping experience that addresses our deepest emotions and not just our pricing concerns.

Designing a positive customer experience is big business these days. Target is a leader in the world of the customer experience and it’s all about emotion. Target understands that buying an affordable outfit designed by a famous New York designer is satisfying on several levels. Combine this with a reasonably good level of customer support and you’ve already distinguished yourself. The challenge for online retailers is that product and reasonable customer support is not enough.

If your customers are not coming into the store, then you have a lot more work to do in building a relationship with them. In fact, even if you plan to be an online-only retailer, you may have to consider creating offline opportunities to build relationships. Online retailerThreadless.com has a thriving business that’s growing by the tens of millions each year. So why are they building a store in downtown Chicago? Because they have realized there is only so much you can do across the web.

So how can online retailers build strong relationships and create positive experiences with their customers? Here are a few pointers:

  • Create happiness, not just efficiencies. Using the web to improve efficiency of inventory management and delivery does not always translate into more loyal customers. Loyalty cards are not the answer either. Apple has no loyalty cards, but customers camp out overnight in anticipation when a new store opens. Loyalty is a result of combining both emotional and rational experiences to create a singularly enjoyable experience.
  • Reduce obstacles. If customers have to fill out 15 fields just to start shopping, you’re sending the message that your needs are more important than theirs. I’m not advocating that you create security risks, but careful placement of required actions can reduce friction and improve flow.
  • Make customer service a priority. Answer the phone after one ring and answer e-mails immediately. I was recently directed to a support voice mail that told me I would get a response within 24 hours. Is this 1970? Unless you are selling aircraft engines, 24 hours is an unacceptable time to keep a customer waiting.

This raises the question, how expensive is customer service? If you call the help line and all you get is the dreaded outsourced and unhelpful service center, then customer service is expensive. If your call center solves problems and increases happiness, then it’s priceless.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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