Get Real Customers to Test Your Site

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Until now, I thought Priceline.com was the best Web site since Al Gore invented the Internet. I had purchased thousands of dollars of airline tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals through the site. It was straightforward, easy to navigate and delivered an answer to me within the time frame promised. But that was before Priceline "partnered" with Travelocity.com.


Recently I logged on to Priceline to book five airline tickets. From experience, I thought I would simply make a reasonable offer and - boom - it would be accepted. But this time was different.


Priceline rejected my offer of $200 per ticket. So I upped the offer to $250. I got rejected again, but this time I was offered a direct link to Priceline's new partner, Travelocity.com.


Priceline asked whether it could transfer my personal information (absolutely; after all, who wants to rekey all those individual names again). Here I found I could buy tickets for $252 a person. But when I tried to "book it," a reject message kept telling me that the number of children was different from my original order. What? Did my spouse suddenly adopt a child I didn't know about? Did my 9-year-old become an adult when I wasn't looking?


Still, I was convinced I could beat the system - I really wanted those tickets. It turns out there is a little disconnect between Priceline and Travelocity. On Priceline I was asked whether I had any infants younger than 2 traveling with me. I truthfully answered no. But on Travelocity, I was asked whether any of the passengers were between 2 and 11, and I answered yes, as my three children fit that description. It appears that when Priceline conveniently transferred my record to Travelocity, the data field for "number of children" was set up differently.


Now desperate, I called Travelocity's customer service line. When I explained the situation to a friendly representative, he told me he didn't know anything about the Priceline link/partnership and that it would be faster if he just booked the trip himself over the phone. So much for partnerships, convenient data transfer and ease of Web use.


Had anyone bothered to shop the site and try to act like a real customer before launching the partnership? Did anyone try to transfer data from Priceline to Travelocity or do a little "bug fixing" before launching it live?


So, here's my secret tip to all those Web companies that wonder why site visits are down, why conversion rates are falling off, why calls to their telemarketing help desks are increasing and why overall customer satisfaction is lagging: Hire real consumers.


Hire adults with a credit card, a mortgage, a car, 2.5 children and a job - people who really do buy stuff on the Web and who might try to return their purchases or try to ship to their elderly parents in another state or country.


Pay them to spend time shopping your Web site. Have them try to navigate, place an order, change an item in their basket, ask a question midway in the ordering process, call the help desk, use everyday, common Web shopping behavior. In other words, have them act like real customers.


Ensure they provide feedback daily to people who can make changes quickly and fix things that are broken. Then have them try shopping again and again and again.


Go ahead - form your "strategic alliances" or "partnerships." Create links between other Web sites and your own or vice versa, and ask your mystery shoppers to keep shopping and uncovering the flaws.


When you hire several of these people, listen to their feedback. Acknowledge their frustrations. Forget technology excuses - fix what's really broken. And do it quickly. Often, your frustrated customer won't ever return, but at least you'll be ready for the next one who wants to do business with you.


Stop asking customers what they want - they want your Web site to work. They want it to be easy to use, thoughtfully organized and to have a simple ordering process. That includes adding and removing things from a shopping cart, being told that something is out of stock in real time and allowing for changes right up until the last "submit" screen. n


So, what do customers really want from you and your Web site? Hire a real customer and find out. Personally, I'd love that job.


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