December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

10 customer-costly mistakes that Internet merchants keep making

I’m a professional browser-it’s my job to spend time hanging around Web sites. Unfortunately, what I too often see is Internet merchants getting the same things wrong time and again. The errors range from seemingly small omissions, such as failing to post a telephone number, to bigger navigation problems, such as missing buy buttons or hidden shopping cart icons. Yet none of these problems is minor to a frustrated customer trying place an order. These errors amount to big turnoffs that might as well be links to your competitors’ sites.

Here are 10 of the most common mistakes. Some sites have recognized the errors of their ways and have deployed fixes or redesigns. So I’ll refrain from naming them to protect the reformed.

1. A penalty for shopping online

Otherwise impressive sites seem to lose track of the fact that an effective e-business strategy dictates that all sales channels should be seamless. And that includes pricing. Dell Computer Corp. snail-mails promotions to new and existing customers, offering its products at special prices. Yet when you hop online, the special offers are nowhere in sight. And if you call Dell’s customer service, you learn that the discounts don’t apply to Web orders. Trouble is, the company’s ads never specify that.

Even more unreasonable, some retail sites levy a service charge for Web orders. EddieBauer.com, for example, assesses a $3 service charge, along with a quite understandable shipping fee, just because you’re buying electronically. I don’t understand this practice.

One of the big corporate wins from e-commerce is that the cost of the sale is lower than in a brick-and-mortar store or through a catalog. When penalize people for buying your merchandise in the most cost-effective manner? If the aim is to recoup site development costs, do it by maintaining customer loyalty, not by levying a fine.

2. No call to action

Better known as the “what now?” mistake, this typically occurs when a customer has clicked many levels into a site and hits a wall. No “buy it now” button, no “return to shopping” tab, no traveling navigation bar. No signposts whatsoever. You’re forced to back up, return to the home page or start over.

One e-retail site I visited had an enormous number of dead-ends. Though the site was supposedly designed for selling, I drilled four levels in before I saw an order button. Effective sites let you buy something or head back to your shopping cart on every page.

3. No phone number

We live in a world of many channels. Only the “dot-com guy” claims to live by the Web alone. The rest of us-especially people new to the Web-still want to pick up the telephone when we have questions. Too many sites don’t seem to understand that.

Prominent sites like Egghead.com don’t list a phone number anywhere. A friend of mine wanted to buy an item costing several hundred dollars, but wasn’t sure it would work with another piece of equipment. Egghead offered the best price-all he needed was an assurance that the item would work. When he couldn’t locate a phone number, he switched to a competing site that listed a customer service number, which he promptly used to settle the compatibility issue, even though the competing site charged a higher price.

Think about it: Do you really want your customers to think of your business as a faceless, voiceless enterprise they can only reach by e-mail-with hours and even days passing before their questions are answered? Will that give them confidence to order products from you, to entrust their credit card numbers to you?

4. Information underload

One reason why online customers need to make phone calls is that product descriptions and supporting content often don’t give them enough information to make a decision. FultonStreet.com generally does an excellent job of describing its products, but misses some important details, such as cooking or heating instructions. The lobster bisque I ordered did not come with instructions for preparing it, such as adding milk or water. Nor did the site offer help. I took a guess and simply heated it up. It was fine-and delicious-but I’d still rather not guess.

5. Mixed messages

Most Web sites serve multiple audiences: customers, partners, suppliers and advertisers. But all too often, they fail to differentiate content for the intended audience. AutoConnect.com, a site that provides listings of used cars with information on dealers, has a section called “Finding a Dealer.” It’s where customers go to find a dealer, but it’s also where dealers go to sign up for the network. As a result, the section contains some information of no interest to either group.

6. Search engine failures

A client hired my firm to evaluate its Web site. I thought the site was pretty good-if only would-be customers could find it. I first tried to locate the site by using various search engines such as Yahoo! and Alta Vista, tapping out every descriptive word and phrase about the industry and the client that I could muster. My search pulled up long lists of hits, but not one of them matched my client’s site. However, my search had no trouble producing any number of hits for my client’s competitors.

Lesson: Make sure you’re listed with as many search engines as possible, then carefully review key words-and your competitors’ key words-to be sure customers can find your site.

7. Inconsistent look and feel

If Web sites were only one or two levels deep, design consistency wouldn’t be an issue. And if complex Web sites with multiple product lines and applications were developed an maintained by a single group, inconsistency wouldn’t be the problem it is today. But many e-commerce sites representing large companies were developed piecemeal, with additions having their own look, feel and sometimes even navigation. Though each of these product lines may be accessible from the home page, you get the feel of completely different sites the deeper you travel.

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