Does Your Site Frustrate Customers?

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The adage "you only have one chance to make a first impression" may be timeworn, but it is as relevant as ever in the world of e-business.


A customer's experience with a company's Web site makes a powerful first impression -- so powerful that it is often the deciding factor in whether customers grant a company a second chance to capture their attention and perhaps a share of their pocketbooks.


Because customer interaction via the Web is so critical, the Global Best Practices benchmarking services group at Arthur Andersen examined the elements that make for a good customer experience on the Web.


We surveyed more than 100 Web sites that had been identified by media outlets as noteworthy for one reason or another. Our testers spent more than an hour surfing each site: clocking download time, sending e-mail queries, testing customer service support features, reviewing privacy policies and so on in an effort to capture the typical user's experience.


From these surveys, we developed performance benchmarks and identified hallmarks of a positive customer experience. We're using this data to allow other companies to benchmark their Web performance and identify areas for improvement.


A Web site's first test of effectiveness is whether its purpose is immediately known. The best sites give users a clear, quick understanding of what they are about. Often this is accomplished with a simple tag line under the company or site name on the opening page. One site that does this well is andale.com. Underneath the company name on the home page, a somewhat complicated business is clearly articulated with a succinct tag line: "Selling Tools & Management Services for Online Auction Merchants."


Not only is quick identification of the Web site's purpose important, but so is a quick, easy route to the information that users are seeking. Companies should ask themselves what their most important, popular offerings are and should ensure that users can reach them in no more than three clicks. The median performance in our survey was two clicks away, and the best sites had the most in-demand information one click away from the home page.


Almost all the effective portals, for instance, have breaking news on the home page, and many shopping sites list their sale items or best sellers there. Other sites use advanced search engines to allow customers to query by multiple parameters right off the home page, thereby mitigating the click frustration that could otherwise set in.


Another aspect of Web design that can frustrate users is link accuracy. Links that don't work can cause a loss of confidence in a company's ability to provide the goods or services being promoted. Still, these things happen, and the best sites we examined offered e-mail addresses created specifically for customers to report site problems.


An area where many Web sites still fall short is customer service.


"Too many companies neglect basic customer service details that they would never overlook in the 'real world,' " said Susan J. Leandri, managing director at Arthur Andersen's Global Best Practices group. "The irony is that online customers expect an easier experience than they would get in the real world."


Customer support information was among the problems found in our survey. A "contact us" or "help" link is sometimes buried, forcing already frustrated customers to weed through multiple pages or to scroll endlessly to find a phone number or e-mail address. The best sites display this information prominently on all pages -- usually at the top of the page -- making it easy for customers to send queries or comments.


When users do send e-mail, the moment of truth arrives. To most surfers, e-mail response time is an indicator of a site's quality and a test of whether the customer wants to continue to patronize the site. Sites that take an unusually long time to reply may provoke users to move on. And an automated, canned response is no substitute for a customized response that answers the customer's specific question.


In our survey, it took companies a median time of just more than 12 hours to return customized responses -- a pretty good turnaround, though some might argue that it should be even faster, considering this is Internet time. But some sites fared much worse. One popular brokerage site with a good reputation took a patience-straining 18 days to respond to a simple e-mail query. In another case, a major retailer took nearly two weeks to answer a question about whether the retailer carried a well-known brand of purses.


The most effective sites delivered lightning-quick automated responses saying they had received our query and would get back to us within a set amount of time with a customized response. Many companies also used the automated responses to refer users to their frequently asked questions or help section in case the answer could be found there more quickly.


One of the best sites for customer service that we tested, biztravel.com, offered numerous customer-support features: live online support 24/7, immediate automated responses followed by a customized response within two hours, and e-mail queries that allowed users to specify how soon they wanted a response and the preferred response mode. The latter is particularly useful for home-based customers who have only one phone line and want the company to call after they have ended their surfing.


Another feature of good Web sites is their stickiness factor. If your company's business model relies on repeat traffic from a core set of users, it's imperative to make frequent site changes that will bring users back. In our survey, 60 percent of the sites had "what's new" or similar feature such as "today's tip" or "buy of the week." Features that create a sense of community also draw users back. A good example is travel site fodors.com, which allows users to post a travel question, then notifies them by e-mail when their question has received a response. This drives traffic back to the site.


Finally, privacy and security policies are critical. Sites that want to illustrate their concern for users will prominently link to these policies from their home pages. They also create separate policies for these issues, not simply embed one into the other. The best sites place links to the privacy policy prior to asking users to submit personal information and to the security policy near transactional information.


These are just the survey's highlights. Overall, our experiences convinced us that many Web site shortcomings could be sidestepped if companies tested their sites regularly with average users under normal conditions. They also need to establish internal mechanisms to respond quickly to problems.


Companies that launch a Web site without understanding the customer's experience risk making a bad first impression -- and losing customers for good.


• Jeffrey A. Berk is manager of benchmarking development and services at Arthur Andersen Global Best Practices, Chicago. Reach him at jeffrey.a.berk@us.arthurandersen.com.
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