Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Keeping your online customers yours - forever

An e-commerce website, if anything, is extremely slippery.

It is not enough to add stickiness factor to your website. Besides the content, a trustworthy functional experience is extremely important for your customers to be loyal and to continue business.

At the end of the day, the online experience of each individual customer equates to your profitability, loyalty and brand equity. You do not want to take chances that compromises any three of these. Listed below are few key considerations to keep in mind to ensure that your online customer remains yours forever - that is, if you are a serious high-traffic website:

Error Messages Do Not help

A troubleshooting manual, an FAQ page or 'Send Feedback' button do not help when customers encounter error messages on your website

A most carefully drafted and user-friendly error message is not any better than the error itself. Consider an offline customer. If your doorway is under construction and you have clearly put instructions on how to enter your shop - it is quite likely that a customer will approach the next door shop. Just remember, it is way too easier for your online customer to move to a (next door) competitor site.

The key is to pro-actively keep your site error-free and take immediate action on every instance of an error reported.

Your Customers are not your Support Engineers or QA testers

They are not the most technology savvy users either. Do not treat them any different from how you would treat an offline customer.

Take for an example, I am flying a helicopter. I would most definitely like to get instructions about how to keep my helicopter flying or to land safely, if something goes wrong mid-air. But, on an e-commerce website, If I receive an error message during navigation / transaction, then I would have to be in my most generous mental states to make a complain about it. In most likelihood, I would silently move away from the site to a competing site.

The key here is - do not ask your customers to help you fix your websites problems. Fix your website problems, pro-actively, sooner than your customers encounter it - again and again.

Do not under-estimate ambiance and service

In a restaurant, for example, unless your returned food is repeatedly ignored, you will give another chance, if the ambiance and service is delightful to you.

Similarly, in a website, make sure that the few minutes of user experience there is as delightful as the ambiance of their most favored restaurant. This requires a lot of insight into user behavior and an understanding of the online design principles. In my experience, simplicity always wins. Most customers, do not need gazillion functionalities - they make key repetitive interactions with your site. Know these behavior and make your site to adapt to these behavior.

As for an offline customer who dis-likes polyester, you will not take him to the polyester dress section, instead show him/her more cottons, if that is what the liking is for. Similar personal attention should be given for an online customer. And not just the preferences should be noted for content displayed on the site, but also for the most used actions. I like the Microsoft metaphor of keeping the less used action items hidden. If they were all to be kept expanded through out, there would be no space left for writing, for instance in Microsoft Document.

The key here is - give your customers what they want. Step into the shoes of EACH customer and think through their minds to give them an experience that brings them to your website again and again - and also give tolerance to some error messages, that they may encounter occasionally.

Do not test the Patience of your Customers

Patience is a virtue. But, your online customers forget that just while they are online.

What makes your website the most slippery is trying your customer's patience. The number of clicks required to get a task performed, complicated navigation, redundant questions and irrelevant requirements - these are some of the aspects of a website that unreasonably try user's patience on a website. Avoid them, where and as much as you can.

The key here is - Identify and implement the state of equilibrium between form and function, when it comes to designing your website. If you give due importance to one over the other, you will make your website more slippery for some while trying to appease few others.

Take Away
Security, Privacy, Performance etc are some other key considerations that you should be vigilant about while maintaining a high traffic website. The points mentioned here are not comprehensive. They never can be. This dynamism in the phenomenon of user-website interaction makes the task of online marketers equally challenging, as well as rewarding.

A good insight and knowledge of your customers and a pro-active approach can keep your customers yours, forever.

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