This will likely become THE topic for the Holiday shopping season, as Web-based shopping becomes even more pervasive. Estimates now range that between 4-6% of all Holiday sales will derive from business Web sites. With easy mouse-click shopping, and the elimination of 800 number calling, mailing delays, and the other attendant problems of traditional mail order purchasing, customers will EXPECT the product to be delivered ON TIME and AS DESCRIBED ON THE WEB SITE.
If you have a business Web site already, make sure that you deliver both products and information clearly. Amazingly, something as simple as slipshod communications can spell the difference between success and failure of a customer relationship. We recently tried to purchase some photographic equipment from a major company’s Web site and discovered that the product did not have a listed price. Curious, we e-mailed the company and requested information about prices. Two weeks later (yes, that’s right!) we received an e-mail stating that the product was discontinued. No other information, no suggestions for alternatives, nothing.
Since we had done a considerable amount of business with the firm, we called their 800 number. (Note please: your customers will likely NOT take this extra effort! Most consumers will abandon ship after receiving a dismissive e-mail!) The sales representative said that, yes, the item had been discontinued, but they still had some in stock at a reduced price. When we asked about the Web site listing, he replied that the Web site was part of a different department, of which he knew nothing.
Moral: Your Web site service should be identical to your other service, whether retail, direct mail or telemarketing. Discrepancies among these will discredit your relationship with hard-won customers.
Something as simple as e-mail helps cement the bonds between customers and suppliers. We recently worked with a client who wanted to make major changes to a four-month-old Web site. When we asked about customer feedback, he replied that he had never checked his e-mail! In fact, he had never installed an e-mail program on his business computer! Now put yourself in his customer’s position: you invested your time in visiting his Web site, took the trouble to send an e-mail, and never received a reply. Would you likely do business with him again, much less revisit the Web site? What will you tell your colleagues?
These are very real problems in today’s marketing climate. Rob McCord, president and CEO of the Eastern Technology Council (www.techcouncil.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) recently noted that, “At its best, the Internet is about relationships, not eyeballs. Smart businesses focus their Internet activities on building more effective marketing programs through customized service and perfect customer segmentation.” Businesses are now viewing an Internet presence as an effective customer service tool. “Companies can improve customers service through an e-commerce solution, although this is not necessarily cheap and simple,” said McCord. “In fact, it can often be very expensive and complex with larger organizations. It’s also important to view customer service as an iterative process making improvements through consistent customer feedback. As you do this, be certain to consider the costs of building an effective customer service program. They can escalate.”
McCord also noted that asking for customer feedback can be problematic, if you are less than sincere. “It’s a bit like the old trial lawyer saying about asking questions: ‘Don’t, if you don’t want to learn the answer.’ If you ask for questions and comments, be prepared to respond DIRECTLY to your customers. They’ll view anything less as a betrayal of their trust in your sincerity. If you don’t respond, you risk making a powerful enemy. Customers today can share experiences quickly through e-mail and discussion groups, so it’s not uncommon for a less than satisfactory customer service experience to gain wide notoriety through special interest bulletin boards and other e-forums.”
At its best, customer service can be a genuine boon to a business. Niche marketer Past Paper (www.pastpaper.com) specializes in very hard-to-find pieces of ephemera, such as vintage newspapers, magazines, advertising premiums, and other bits of Americana. Founder Brett Snyder started building his business years ago through traditional retail media, namely flea markets and a retail store. He noted recently that, “People would come into the store looking for a specific item, such as the Life magazine of the week they were born. If I had the item, the price was secondary. However, most of the people who wandered in the shop were looking for diversions and thought the specialty pieces I carried were expensive. They were right, for a casual shopper. For someone specifically looking for that piece, they were inexpensive.
“You could always advertise in magazines such as Paper Collectibles Monthly or AB (American Bookman), but ads were expensive and missed most of your very narrow target audience. However, thanks to Web marketing I can make my database of thousands of items available through the Past Paper Web site, and thus reachable through standard Web searches. Customers repeatedly tell me that they have been looking for years to find specific items, and were unsuccessful until the Internet came along. Sometimes I’ve had those same items for years in inventory, waiting for the right customers. By making the material available through the Internet I can effectively match up customers and unique items.
“The other key is fast service. We respond to all queries within one business day, which is essential for a medium which delivers instant information. We’ll use e-mail to let customers know more about an item (including Internet pictures of items) and shipping information, including when and how we have shipped their item. Recently we have been promoting our Web site through eBay auctions, where we list hundreds of items every week for sale. It’s becoming our most effective advertising medium, since customers often use eBay to browse for items, then e-mail us for their specific needs. For Past Paper, the Internet has created a giant electronic antiquarian bookstore, with instant information and instant service expected. Follow through is critical to our success, which is what I hear most from customers as they become repeat buyers.”
Other businesses depend on very close relationships with customers. Bill Holland, founder of Holland Arts (www.hollandarts.com) is the nation’s leading authority on the artist Louis Icart, as well as an internationally known specialist in turn-of-the-century artist Maxfield Parrish and items produced by Tiffany Studios. He has published extensively on these subjects, and is a regular participant in antiques and art shows around the world.
A year ago, Hollandl opened the Holland Arts Web site, and to date has received more than 18,000 visits. He noted that, “My client base is expanding dramatically, thanks to my Web site. I have sold specialty collectibles to people as far away as Switzerland and Japan. Even for a niche business such as mine, where many items can sell for hundreds, or thousands, of dollars, it’s still surprising to see the volume of inquiries and sales. I receive an average of five e-mails a day.
“E-mail makes me a more effective merchant. For one thing, it eliminates the guesswork in transcribing telephone messages, since you see exactly what your customer wants. Plus, you have a tangible record of your communications, since everything’s in writing. No more answering machines or telephone tag across continents. A nice side benefit is that my phone bill is notably lower, although that wasn’t the original intent.
“I answer all e-mail inquiries promptly and with a personal touch. In my business, form letters would drive away customers, so I treat everyone as though they were visiting my stand at a trade show. Even on the Web, it’s important to know your client and have them feel comfortable. The Internet is the future, but fine arts will always be sold with personal attention.”
No matter what the business, the difference in Internet experiences lies in attention to the customer. Your Web site is your business commitment and is as much an integral part of your organization as a storefront or catalog or trade show booth. If you invest time and money into developing your Internet business, you will satisfy your customers and improve your business. Conversely, there is a severe opportunity cost: ignore your Web site and e-mail, and you’ll alienate, if not enrage your customers. Be a part of Internet success and mind both the glamour and the hard work every Web site demands.
Jim Shulman is president of Marketing Results, a Web site consulting organization. He may be reached at (610) 648-0617, by e-mail at email@example.com or by the Internet at www. marketingresults.com.