Keep E-Customers Coming Back

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Too many companies, even Fortune 100 corporations, still rely on the beauty of their Web sites to drive business. As the novelty of shopping online disappears, it will be increasingly difficult to drive and keep business this way. As a result, we must offer customers an experience that is more than just skin deep.


While one unsatisfied shopper used to cost one customer and 10 of his closest friends, a bad shopping experience these days could mean the loss of hundreds of customers. No doubt, the look of your Web site is critical, but it's the infrastructure that gives Web marketers and designers the ability to offer experienced cyber shoppers a positive and memorable shopping experience.


As quickly as today's standard of online customer service is advancing, so too are shoppers' expectations. Creating a positive experience requires deeper access to information. Below is a sampling of standards for building that good experience. While some may seem obvious, you'd be surprised at how few sites have these capabilities - the e-commerce powerhouses included. Read on and see how your company scores.


• Real-time inventory access. The Web's biggest drawback in selling durable goods is the waiting time between a customer's order and receipt of goods. Thus, it's critical we not keep the customer waiting any longer than necessary. If a customer buys the last large denim shirt, then the next customer wanting that item needs to be told immediately the item is out of stock, when it will be available and alternative items that are in stock.


• Timely and accurate order status. After a customer orders a product, he needs to be able to check on its status. The usual "en-route" response is no longer good enough.


• Ability to make changes to orders. Customers are fickle. Because of their retail and catalog experiences, they expect to be able to add to, alter or cancel an order until the product goes on the truck. So, order flexibility is crucial to making customers happy.


• Multichannel order entry and customer support. The name of the game is "Make It Easy." Even if you're one of the largest Internet retailers, don't expect customers to only shop online. Customers should be able to receive the same personalized customer support over the phone as they do over the Web and vice versa.


• Personalized upsell. Online catalogers use automated data mining to recommend products based on the customer's - and similar customers' - purchasing profile. Just as in retail, you cannot leave it up to your customers to find everything they might want.


• Real-time customer support. No one likes waiting for an answer. Customer support technology, such as live chat, will soon be a requirement. It's the nature of consumers to expect immediate answers to questions.


• Customer-centric credit approval. Does your processing system approve the whole order or only the part available for shipping? The customer's credit should not be tied up if the item is backordered.


• Shortened delivery time. Shipping is one of the most significant expenses associated with selling direct. Fortunately, technology allows innovative companies to shorten shipping time at no extra cost and, in many cases, at lower costs. One way companies do this is through a network of strategically located distribution centers. This allows an order to be shipped from the center closest to the customer, which means the customer gets his order quicker without having to pay more for the service.


And that's just the short list. Direct marketers must provide customers with deeper access to inventory, shipping and purchasing profile data. This level of service requires an infrastructure that integrates all departments and extends outside the organization to envelop the entire supply chain.


The standard is clear: world-class customer service puts the customer in control. Many companies don't realize what that means, or how to get there, but it's simple. We must demand an ongoing, integrated development effort between our IT team and marketing department. IT must enable marketing to build customer-rich experiences, and marketing must challenge IT to push the technology envelope even further. And as service providers, we must challenge each other to continue raising the bar.
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