Last week, University of Michigan research confirmed yet again Amazon.com’s de facto title as king of customer-friendly Web sites. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a quarterly survey, Amazon’s customer satisfaction score jumped 5 percent to an industry-best 88, the highest-ever ACSI score for a service company.
You need not be a bibliophile to love Amazon. It is easy to browse, with many categories broken out. Making a purchase is simple, with shipping charges laid out at the beginning—which means a consumer who does not like the cost can quickly bow out of a transaction without investing a lot of time inputting credit card and shipping information.
E-mails sent to customer service are promptly answered with a personalized response that actually addresses the consumer’s problem. And yes, while Amazon indulges in its share of cross-selling and other promotional gambits—such as the treasure chest of savings where you have to make a decision about whether or not to buy right then and there—the site manages to maintain a tone that is not “in your face.”
Other Web sites singled out by ACSI include BarnesandNoble.com with a mark of 87—a 6 percent increase that marks an even greater improvement than Amazon’s; e-Bay with 82; Expedia.com with 80; and Buy.com with 80. Priceline.com and uBid brought up the rear with scores of 71 and 70, respectively.
“In general, consumer Web sites have gotten a lot better than they used to be,” Gartner research director Adam Sarner told NewsFactor’s CIO Today Magazine. But there is still a lot of room for improvement. Creativity in presentation is missing at a lot of sites—including, Sarner noted, at BarnesandNoble.com. Navigation can always be improved, and the idea of multichannel coordination of customer service is still more mirage than reality at many sites.
Also, while the number of customer-friendly Web sites is growing, they still are not in the majority. “There are a lot of bad sites out there, to be frank,” Sarner said.
The problem often is that management and tech support are so familiar with the site that they think it is easy to use. Then there are, of course, those companies that simply do not want to invest time or financial resources into their Web sites or online customer relationship technologies—an entirely different breed of company altogether.
But for the former group, NewsFactor’s CIO Today has put together a list of features that, yes, might possibly be driving your customers away.
First, the Obvious
Navigation is definitely improving at most sites, Sarner said. But there are some surprising lapses out there. “Look at Disney.com. You log on to try to plan a vacation. Now, there is a time to be cartoony and playful and a time to do some serious vacation scheduling.” Disney.com has not learned to make that distinction yet, he said.
Irksome Little Things
Consistency is another basic consideration that often falls through the cracks, Sarner added. “The whole value proposition of Sony.com is that consumers should be able to look at fantastic products and get an idea of their specs. But the Sony.com Web catalog is still hard to navigate, and in some cases, it can be difficult to get product descriptions.”
But most of all, it is the little things that irk consumers—and that CIOs might not think twice about. Consider the request for a coupon code during the payment process, Sarner said.
“Most people who see that—and don’t have a coupon code—wonder where these coupons can be found and what sorts of bargains they are missing. It’s irritating,” he noted. “Web sites should include a line that tells consumers where they can get coupons, if the consumer is interested.”
Customers who shop online also expect to be able to complain online. Rarely, though, do Web sites accommodate this need. The most common tool deployed is e-mail, naturally. However, over the last few years, e-mail has come to be viewed as a second-rate customer service tool by consumers—and for good reason. Because of the immediacy of most Internet transactions, many e-shoppers have come to expect a much faster response via e-mail than companies are prepared to give.
“There is an expectation on the part of companies that a two-day turnaround is good enough for customers,” Sarner said. “But customers that are buying goods on the Web want an answer right away. And they should get it too—if not instantaneously, then at least a lot sooner than two days.”
Speedy Complaint Responders
Nowadays, most companies are able to use e-mail efficiently for certain tasks, such as order confirmation, but not for others, such as complaint management or out-of-the-ordinary questions.
“Companies want to use technology to handle business issues first,” Kevin Scott, senior analyst with AMR Research, told NewsFactor’s CIO Today. “Then they will turn their attention to such incidentals as online complaint boxes.”
According to Giga Information Group vice president Steve Telleen, retailers that have a long history in catalog and clothing sales, such as Lands’ End (NYSE: LE) , Old Navy and Eddie Bauer, handle customers’ e-mail the best. “Lands’ End, for example, has a policy of responding to e-mails in one hour or less,” he told NewsFactor’s CIO Today.
Consumers expect to be able to return an online purchase to a retail store with no hassle. They expect to be able to configure or create a car, computer, bike or vacation and not have to recreate it each and every time for all the other order capture channels a company has, AMR’s Columbus said.
“Companies can no longer afford to treat their Web site as a completely different channel and business,” he warned.
Sarner cites Gap.com as having a good multichannel operation—but again, it is in the minority.
A good multichannel operation also can ease what has become a touchy subject for the e-commerce industry—shipping charges. Thanks to market-mongering activities of such sites as Amazon and Buy.com, consumers have come to expect free shipping as a right.
Obviously, this is not a sustainable model for any retailer, but the manner in which it has been handled has created a trust issue with numerous shoppers. Many poorly designed sites, especially a few years ago, would spring shipping charges on consumers at the last minute—after they had spent a long time entering their credit card and personal data. Or, the shipping charges would be disproportionate to the purchase made.
Better design and customer-service policies can remedy a lot of these complaints. But they do not address that core audience of consumers who still believe they are due free shipping—mainly because of their belief that shipping has become a profit center for retailers as opposed to just a straightforward business cost.
The bottom line is that consumers do not like shipping charges—whatever belief they might harbor as to their fairness, Gartner researcher Geri Spieler told NewsFactor’s CIO Today. “Fifty percent of shopping carts are abandoned before a sale is completed because of these extra charges,” she said.
But sooner or later consumers will come to accept that they must shoulder some portion of shipping costs, Paul Gulbin, director of business advisory services at PricewaterhouseCoopers, told NewsFactor’s CIO Today. “When catalogs first became popular, people were wary of paying extra for shipping. That is no longer a problem,” he said.
New Customer Segment
In the short run, though, Gulbin suggests that online retailers look to new models of distribution—that is, multichannel retailing—to reconcile consumers’ sense of entitlement with bottom-line cost realities.
“Those companies that establish creative ways of introducing new processes in the supply chain will be the ones that succeed,” he said.
Gulbin points to the business model exemplified by Circuit City (NYSE: CC) as an example. Customers buy a product online, then pick it up at the store. Another vendor that uses this method is Payless ShoeSource.
“It’s innovative and has opened up a whole new customer segment—those people who don’t want to deal with crowds while shopping, want a personalized experience and don’t want to pay more for shipping costs,” he said.
The Trust Factor
But trust is a complex relationship that cannot be established with a mere posting of ability or intent.
Incorrect pricing and other such issues can destroy a relationship far more thoroughly than even the most dramatic instance of hacking. “Having the wrong pricing on the Web site and not honoring its promises is the fastest way to destroy a relationship,” Columbus said. “This happens every once in a while with airlines that make pricing mistakes and don’t hold to them. At the time, the prices look like a great deal and the airline gets deluged with requests—only to cancel it. Many consider it bait and switch instead of a mistake.”
Sarner uses the metaphor of a restaurant meal to make his point about trust. “Sure, you can trick a diner into ordering or paying for a more expensive meal, and you will have made whatever percentage off of that customer. But will you ever see him again? I think not.”