Added by on 2012-10-03

It is difficult to say what customers want because they are all individuals, but what you can find out is what they expect.

There is always a certain level of service a customer will expect. Their expectations are easier to address if you have done the research.

But, if you think it’s as easy as sitting back and letting the computer do the work for you – think again! When customers are serving themselves from start to finish, which is the nature of online commerce, knowing what they want is crucial.

While the Web may be an ideal platform for buying and selling products, customer satisfaction needs to be at the forefront when operating your online store.

According to research, there are five basic actions to the consumer process:

Need identification

Collecting the necessary information to help determine what to buy

Finding who to buy from

The process of negotiation and purchase where the terms of the transaction are discussed

Service evaluation, where the customer will gauge the satisfaction of the overall buying experience.

So knowing what motivates the customer is a priority. Don’t think that just because you can take the orders that the rest will be piece of cake.

It’s not. Used effectively, e-commerce can widen your market scope while attracting new customers. However, used incorrectly, through poor planning, the move could have a disastrous impact on your customer base and your bottom line.

The customer spill-over effect

Research has shown online buyers will avoid doing business with your “offline” premises if faced with lousy customer service through your online store.

According to a Jupiter/Media Metrix Internet User Survey, 70 per cent of shoppers in the US would spend less at the company’s “real-world” store if they were unhappy with service from the company’s Web site.

This is known as the spillover effect and it is an issue e-commerce operators should keep in mind.

It is important to see your offline and online businesses, not as separate entities, but as an extension of each other.

That is why it is so important to make customer service your top and continuing priority. Unlike your “bricks and mortar” premises, there are likely to be more customer service challenges when it comes to e-commerce.

So it is important to customise your approach to meet the buyer’s needs. E-commerce has changed the traditional face-to-face customer/seller interaction.

The online shopping experience is firmly planted in the area of self-service. But self-service does not mean you can afford to be lean on customer satisfaction.

Understanding customer needs

Customers need to be given the necessary information on how to buy and order from your online business in a concise and easy to understand manner. This will give them the confidence to make the transaction.

You need to:

Provide clear instructions how to navigate your site and how to place an order.

Have a simple ordering process which lets the customer complete the transaction without having to go offline. Guide the customer through the buying process as easily as possible. This may mean streamlining your site to reduce the number of “clicks” it may take to reach the checkout point. Also keep order forms simple.

Clearly state your delivery arrangements, your refund and return policies.

Try to offer the same return or refund policies as your offline premises. Make sure you are explicit about these policies so customers are fully aware of their rights.

Provide summary product/service information with links to more detailed information.

Provide graphics or images to help illustrate products. Allowing the customer to actually see the product they are about to buy, instead of just reading about it, will boost customer confidence in buying the product.

Clearly display your privacy policy to give customers peace of mind.

It is extremely important to understand your customers’ needs, to know their expectations and to go that extra step to gain their confidence and loyalty.

Making sure you think about both traditional customer service issues and the new issues, which will arise from going online, is important.

Interactive Custom Clothes (www.ic3d.com) is a good example of how one business has gone the extra step to meet customer needs.

This business sells jeans online. Customers are allowed to specify hip size, leg and seat room, fabric, colour, pocket style, leg silhouette, etc, rather than just being forced to buy standard-made jeans.

Becoming affiliated with other businesses to pass on benefits to your online customers, is also a great idea. For example, an American-based toy business, eToys (www.eToys.com) gave customers an additional reason to click through. It struck a deal with clothing retailer, Gap, so eToys’ customers receive a $10 discount when buying products from Gap Kids or Baby Gap stores.

Ways to lose potential customers

There are a number of ways you can lose potential customers. The following is a list of things you should avoid as they are sure-fire ways to annoy customers.

Make your site difficult to navigate. If potential customers cannot easily find what they want they may just give up and go to another site. Easy navigation from your home page and back again is also essential.

Ask for too much customer information. Asking the customer for too much information can be a big mistake. Some sites try to collect customer information during the checkout process. If you proceed with long-winded requests for information it may spark customers to abandon their purchase.

Restrict payment options. The more payment options you provide, the more chance of making a sale.

Use second-rate shopping cart software. Poorly designed or confusing purchasing or checkout procedures could mean lost transactions. In its initial stage, it may be worth getting a few friends to try out your site by making a few test purchases. Use their feedback to rectify any underlying purchasing problems.

Place your site on a slow Web server. Just as it is important to “seal the deal” in your traditional “bricks and mortar” premises, the same applies online. When the online customer has decided to buy, it is vital the checkout process responds as quickly as possible. Do not give your customer time to reconsider their purchase.

Provide poor product information. If your customers are unsure of what they want to buy, then information is the key. If you do not provide adequate product/service information, how will they know if it is your product they want? However, don’t bog them down with information overload.

Bore your customers. Keeping your customers interested in your Web site for as long as possible is paramount. This will increase the likelihood of them buying rather than just browsing. Also make sure your site doesn’t appear out of date or neglected.

Your future customers

The online customer is somewhat of an enigma and can be rather fickle. It is highly unlikely you will ever deal with these customers face-to-face and if your online business is not up to scratch, they won’t do business with you.
If your goal is to establish a loyal online customer base, then personalised customer service and technology is necessary.
Once a customer has purchased a product online from you, what you do as part of your follow-up service is critical to whether that customer returns.

The current buzzword in e-commerce is Electronic Customer Relationship Management (e-CRM). Customer service management is no longer enough.

E-CRM is not just the process of selling a product, but the ability of your business to attract new customers. It is also about retaining established clients and offering a superior level of service.

And when research shows that repeat customers will consistently spend more as their relationship with your business develops, it makes sound financial sense.

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