Time for a Pre-Holiday Tuneup

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Last year, an overwhelming number of Internet shoppers in the United States reported problems with their online shopping in the pre-holiday rush.


Botched deliveries topped the list of consumer complaints, according to the Better Business Bureau. About 78 percent of all online shopping carts are abandoned before checkout, according to Datamonitor, New York, a market research firm. Therefore, with the recent dot-com shakeout and a floundering Nasdaq, many are questioning the fate of online shopping this holiday season.


Despite these speed bumps, it seems online shopping is here to stay. Many say that not only will customers shop online, but customers may start their holiday buying season earlier than ever this year. Jupiter Communications, New York, recently predicted that online shopping revenue would climb to nearly $12 billion for the holiday season, an increase of nearly 66 percent from last year.


This is good news for some, but it still may not be all that simple for online retailers. Many do not take into consideration that much of this online spending is sporadic and that most shoppers do not exhibit the kind of loyalty that can ensure a site's longevity. If online retailers cannot find a way to keep shoppers coming back to their sites and to encourage repeat clicking and buying, they may find themselves ghosts of Christmas past come 2001's holiday season.


This holiday season, online retailers need to learn from their past mistakes of poor customer service. They need to improve customer satisfaction but, more importantly, they need to begin to build customer loyalty, as loyalty will be the key theme for the upcoming holiday season.


Smaller competitors and sites new to online retail looking to make a splash will need to differentiate themselves through efficient and effective customer service. Only by making online shopping convenient and hassle-free (as it was intended to be) will online retailers impress customers who will, in turn, tell their friends and relatives.


Many companies have turned to electronic customer relationship management solutions to help them plan, build, operate and measure their investments in online retail. E-CRM solutions provide effective service that involves managing each customer interaction to ensure a consistent experience and an outcome that is in line with each customer's wants, needs and expectations -- as well as being in line with the economics a business desires from a relationship with that customer.


The customer experience that is consistent across all interaction channels (such as the Internet, e-mail, telephone, Web chat, fax, etc.) and across all areas of the company a customer interacts with (sales, service, marketing, etc.) is most effective.


E-CRM provides three main benefits that can make a company's holiday sales merrier: customer service, consistency and customization.


Customer service. Customer retention and repeat business from loyal customers will indeed be cause for holiday celebration for those companies prepared to put customers first. Companies that set strategies to relate to their customers through all channels, particularly contact centers, or through Web, fax, e-mail, catalog orders and even postcards, will reap increased revenues as well as happy purchasers.


Customer service on the Web, as in traditional retail sales, is crucial. Customers will not return to stores or Web sites where they have been disappointed by errors or other difficulties.


Consistency. Web pages with a consistent look and feel across all business units demonstrate to the shopper that this place has its technological act together. A company must present one face to the customer across all functional units. Information and pricing must be uniform so that a customer doesn't see one price for a product on the Hot Items page and a different price on the order form. If a product is to be available on Dec. 1, the shipping department needs to know so that its Web page can align itself with the company's marketing site.


One way to ensure consistency is to share meaningful communication across all business units; as a result, the problems of siloing, where business units and their Web pages store good information but neglect to share it with other business units or departments, can be avoided.


Customization. Everyone likes personal service in which a customer's individuality is recognized. While the Web can seem impersonal, companies need to manage their customers' information so that a customer knows he is not a stranger at a site.


When a customer enters a site, he creates a profile for himself and is recognized when he makes repeat visits. The portal allows the company to remember the customer's preferences, his buying methods and his needs, so he can be served the information he wants without having to sort through irrelevant, time-wasting material.


This personalization creates loyal customers who know they can return to a site and accomplish their purchasing goals without struggle and frustration. If a site is not customer-sensitive and well-organized, time-consuming frustration eventually leads customers to exit and move on to a clearer, more cohesive and easier-to-use Web site. An eCRM solution smoothes the way to retain satisfied customers and increase sales revenues and volume.


By improving customer service, consistency and customization, your Web presence can be a boon for sales this year as you fill your returning customers' gift sacks and enjoy the sound of your ringing cash register.


The following is a top-10 list of Web preparations for the holidays:


• Verify infrastructure readiness. Can your infrastructure handle the seasonal load?


• Check scalability. Is site performance consistent under light and/or heavy traffic?


• Analyze product availability. Is the product on hand? Can it be delivered?


• Determine warehouse capacity. Can your warehouse hold the necessary inventory?


• Verify order fulfillment capability. Can you track your inventory from its putaway location?


• Enhance interdepartmental communication. Can your call center representative locate an order placed through the Web site?


• Streamline shipping procedures. Is there a faster, better way to deliver the product?


• Confirm real-time service. Is your Web customer service the same quality as your bricks-and-mortar service?


• Evaluate call centers. Can your staff handle both e-mail and telephone responses?


Strengthen customer service. Are your customer service representatives adequately empowered to serve the customer and create customer loyalty?


• Denise Wipert is senior consultant at eLoyalty, Chicago, a global business/management consulting and systems integration organization focused on building customer loyalty. Reach her at Denise_S_Wipert@eloyaltyco.com.

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