Branding With Customer Service

How many e-tailers have contacted you to tell you about a new product you might be interested in, or have checked in to see if they could be helpful?

Not many.

With e-marketing now firmly entrenched in the global marketplace, more people than ever are going online to shop, creating new channel opportunities for retailers. And, just like offline, it’s not easy to keep them loyal.

These days, Web developers purport a myriad of technology formulas promising quick successes that go up in smoke because they forget the key component: the customer. Many of the traditional basics that have guided successful customer interactions, relationship building and loyalty for decades remain true for both offline and online marketing media. It is worthwhile to revisit some customer marketing basics in the context of e-shopping.

Create a physical shopping experience in the virtual world. Space planning, interior design and store layout for sales-driven merchandising are essential to a successful physical shopping experience. The online equivalent, the interface, is critical to an effective user experience and the accompanying positive results.

Interface design can play an even more important role online, where no one exists to tell you how to get from point A to point B. Yet many e-tail sites are thoroughly confusing to the user who is trying with difficulty to explore and find something to buy.

While physical stores have proven methods for helping a customer, what works for one e-tailer may not work for another. To be sure your site is working to the optimum, usability research can be the answer. Usability research allows you to track how potential shoppers use your site to make a specific purchase by observing the paths they take and the ease with which they get where they want to go.

As a check, navigate your site routinely to identify strengths and weaknesses. Is a click-through button in the wrong place? Nomenclature confusing? Shopping cart easy to find? Does the site need a search on every page? Usability research answers these and other key questions that can make or break the results you achieve with your site.

Educate the customer. Shoppers are most often disappointed when their expectations are not met. Don’t make promises you can’t fulfill. One reason people go to the Internet is for ease of access and speedy fulfillment. If your company can’t provide that, shoppers will go to a store that can. For example, some e-tailers are attempting to migrate shoppers from their catalogs to their sites. To do so, they may make merchandise available only online. This may backfire, as research has shown that people may shop a catalog or site prior to going to the store for what consequently becomes a larger purchase.

If you’re not clear about your offer, you run the risk of alienating a shopper with whom you’re trying to build loyalty. If you are in the fortunate position of having a store, catalog and a Web site, use those channels to reinforce one another for your brand. To prevent disappointment, educate your consumer on what you offer online vs. in your catalog vs. in your store.

Keep it simple. Too often, Web developers and e-tailers forget that the real lure of a Web site has little to do with “flash and dash” and everything to do with ease, clarity and simplicity. Will this change with broadband? Maybe. But broadband is not your biggest concern today. Having a workable Web site is what matters.

Make it personal. Think about how good you feel when you get a personal note from a salesperson regarding your last shopping trip, an upcoming sale, or new merchandise that’s just come in that may hold some interest for you. It’s no different online. And the technology exists to deliver on it.

One great personalization technology that helps sell merchandise and reduce returns is My Virtual Model, currently used by Lands’ End and JCPenney, which configures a 3-D model to a customer’s size in order to view how an item of clothing fits and how the fabric falls. Any e-tailer that doesn’t take advantage of this and other opportunities is losing out on building brand loyalty with its customers, not to mention increased sales.

Allow your customers to take advantage of the medium. If you are a retailer with multiple channels (store, catalog, Web site), make your customers aware of the usefulness of all media, from the ease of returns to a store nearby, to the ability to purchase and track purchases 24 hours a day. Retailers such as Banana Republic are discovering the advantages of offering online purchasing in store with kiosks. Helping customers shop fluidly among different media is key to fulfilling customer satisfaction and preventing disappointment.

Communicate in real time. The ideal mode of communication is still face-to-face interaction. Replicating this relationship online can take a variety of forms, including the creation of real-time messaging. E-mail remains an advantageous mode of communication that e-tailers should explore. For example, it has the ability to respond to a customer query in a more timely fashion than by telephone.

E-mail marketing has demonstrated a 10 percent return on average with pre-existing customers vs. a 3 percent return on snail mail. Also, one-on-one chat capabilities give you the ability to guide the consumer to certain pages of your site. Easy purchase tracking allows customers to view the entire transaction process. Finally, putting all contact information on every page of a retail site gives consumers access to the retailer, providing them with another way to connect with a company and form a relationship with the brand.

Create the “candy” aisle. Impulse or value-added items, often located near the checkout counter at stores, should also be found at your online checkout — the point where your customer reviews the list of purchases and clicks the “place your order” button. This area also offers the opportunity to recommend special promotions with a one-click feature that can enable the customer to buy at the last minute.

Some things never change. There is a misconception that branding is the new answer in the digital age. Don’t even think it. Branding was the key to success long before the advent of the Internet, and a happy customer remains at its core. That’s why maintaining your customer service standard is critical online. People can get even more frustrated and less forgiving with a faceless Web site than in a face-to face physical interaction. Every message you send, experience you provide or promotion you offer has always built your brand’s perception in your customers’ minds. Any e-tailer will do well to remember to return to the basics.

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