The 'Five Cs' of E-Commerce

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For all online retail survivors out there, welcome to the dawning of the real new millennium. It is 2001, the year after the dot-com bubble burst.


The holiday season is over, and now it starts getting really tough - tough, that is, for those who were banking on holiday sales to shore up a leaky business model.


No doubt the fallout will continue for some time. But for those who got it right, the future is bright.


So what are some of the hallmarks of the successful survivor? How about customer focus, creativity and profitability?


The Internet is truly a double-edged sword when it comes to customer relationships. On the one hand, it provides the astute marketer with powerful tools such as e-mail and the Web with which to craft the necessary dialogue with individual customers and prospects.


On the other hand, with a vast array of choices available just a mouse click away, it also provides an easy and final exit for any relationship that sours.


Not only do the dissatisfied customers have easy access to many almost identical commerce sites selling whatever offering you have, but they also can quickly spread their dissatisfaction using e-mail, discussion forums, chat rooms and Web sites.


So how can you turn these thoughts into practice? The following guidelines are by no means exhaustive, but they should arm you with some good practices that can be applied immediately and help you avoid the dot-com graveyard.


Be creative. In practice, this means learning what generates the greatest response and conversion rates among your customers and prospects, and then delivering interesting and compelling content that generates the desired response.


To do this successfully, you should understand the concerns and hot buttons that will make customers more, or less, likely to purchase from you. These might include their concerns about timely delivery or transaction security, as well as their loyalty to an existing shopping brand or their price sensitivity.


Once you know what makes your customers tick, you can deliver highly customized messages using e-mail and the Web - and, of course, more traditional media - that will help drive the highest response rates possible.


Another part of creativity is in the design and voice of the message itself. Test different creative treatments and copy lengths, as well as new ideas such as rich media and viral marketing.


Feel free to challenge the old way of doing things to seek a better, more effective way to inform, sell, deliver and support. You will learn this only by conferring regularly with your customers and through extensive testing of messages, offers and media.


This is not a one-time event, but an evolving process. The result should be a continuing, fluid discussion, customized to each customer's needs, interests and perspectives.


Be careful. Last year online transaction security seemed to be the common fear among online customers. This year data privacy is of primary concern. As an online retailer, it is paramount that you respect your customers' privacy. Consider the following rules:


• Do not ask for any customer data unless you can show clearly how customers benefit by sharing it with you. Why do you need to know their mailing addresses? So you can make it quicker for them to complete an online order form. Why are you asking them about their most frequent travel destinations? So you can keep them informed regarding special fares and promotions for those cities. Why are you asking about their household income? Hmm? It is doubtful that they will believe your answer.


• Disclose clearly what customers are signing up for and how you plan to use this personal information. Thereafter, do as you promised. Do not sell it to others, or send unwanted e-mail, or append information they did not give you. If you want to do something different, ask them for permission first.


• Make it easy for them to update this information when they want or to opt out of your program entirely.


Be clever. That does not mean conniving. You need to learn from experience and get smarter about what you do. The purpose should not be to devise crafty ways to entice unwary customers to respond to offers that will ultimately disappoint them. Put yourself in their shoes, figure out what they want and deliver it.


Be convenient. This applies to the entire online sales process, from e-mail delivery through customer support. Make it as easy as possible for your customers to purchase the desired products. Deliver on time and provide easy alternatives for customers to get post-sales support.


This can mean several things. Make your online order forms quick to complete. You can speed the process by pre-populating the information fields that you already know. Amazon.com's one-click ordering is a great example of this.


Ensure that products are in stock, and if they are not, disclose this prior to order completion. Confirm the order using e-mail and send a follow-up e-mail if the delivery status changes.


After delivery, follow up with a customer support e-mail. This can be used to provide a quick returns code and can include support contact information.


The order is only part of the customer experience. Good after-sale fulfillment and support are critical.


For example, you should ensure that you have enough call center operators to handle the volume of calls generated in a very short period following your outbound e-mail campaign. This can be helped by conducting an initial sample mailing to test response rates and timing, and then by batching the e-mail delivery over a number of hours or days in order to manage the responses generated.


In addition, you must respond quickly to all customer inquires, whether by e-mail or by phone.


Be competitive. Customers shopping online are very price sensitive. Unless you have a compelling value proposition, you need to be competitively priced.


A good example is BizTravel.com, which, in addition to offering competitive prices, differentiates from other online travel sites by providing a money-back guarantee against flight delays and cancellations.


Contrary to what the dot-com bubble suggested, e-commerce is all about making money, not just grabbing market share simply for the sake of being the biggest loser in the marketplace.


You are probably getting the picture that the new world of online retail shares some of the attributes of the very old world of retail that predates the drive-through and the mall.


What the Internet gives the retailer is the ability to become, above all, a trusted guide - one that can take the time to discuss and learn; provide exactly the right offering quickly, conveniently and at the right price; and willingly take the item back and replace it if it did not fit or was not what the customer was hoping for.


If this does not sound like your company, perhaps you better prepare for a career change while you still have a choice.


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