July 8, 2004, 12:00 AM

How CustomInk uses online feedback to boost sales

Not all analytics applications are automated. Personalized T-shirt retailer CustomInk.com launched an online feedback feature two years ago and attributes increased sales and a better shopping experience to the low-tech analytics approach.

Not all analytics applications are automated. Sometimes good old customer feedback can help in improving the web shopping experience. Personalized T-shirt retailer CustomInk.com launched an online feedback feature two years ago. When it receives customer feedback online, it automatically routes the comments-positive or negative-to employees, managers and subcontractors. The tactic has improved customer service and product assortments and boosted sales, CEO and co-founder Marc Katz tells InternetRetailer.com.

CustomInk doubled sales in 2002 and 2003 over the prior years. Although much of the increases came from natural growth and marketing efforts, Katz says, he figures the feedback feature-which CustomInk places in the top-right corner of its home page-also boosted sales. “We know the increase in sales from the feedback feature was significant, about 10-20%,” he says. The site sells more than 1 million T-shirts a year, he adds.

Katz says the feedback tool helps to make customers feel more comfortable about using CustomInk’s self-service method of designing imprints for T-shirts and accessory items, including baseball caps and coffee mugs, because they can see right away how difficult or easy the process has been for other customers. “It’s great for a web business where you don’t have face-to-face contact with customers,” he says.

But the feedback feature has also provided additional benefits ranging from motivating employees to expanding product lines and improving the presentation of product information. Although the actual screen-printing of and fulfillment of products is done by subcontractors who receive orders forwarded over the web from CustomInk.com, CustomInk employees do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to coordinate schedules for printing and to assure customers’ designs are prepared properly to receive a quality screen-print. When customers enter comments on the site about the quality of the finished product, the delivery experience or other matters, the comments are automatically e-mailed to the employees who worked on their order as well as to managers, customer service reps and subcontractors.

Managers will commend employees regarding positive customer feedback and discuss how to improve operations when feedback is negative, Katz says. “It’s a powerful motivator,” he says. Likewise, managers can review pertinent comments with subcontractors regarding the printing and fulfillment processes.

Every customer comment is also reviewed by customer service reps, who send an e-mail response to customers. “It lets us have meaningful dialogue with customers,” Katz says. “We’ve learned countless lessons regarding sizing and the products we carry.”

CustomInk has used some customer feedback to introduce new products, including personalized polo shirts and foam-rubber cup-holders, Katz says. In other cases, it responded to customer concerns by introducing a zoom tool to let customers see the speckles in some shirt designs.

The feedback feature, which CustomInk developed in-house, has also proven to be an effective tool for helping customers choose the right size garment, especially when different styles vary in fit, Katz says. Based on customer comments regarding the fit of particular garments, CustomInk now informs customers in product descriptions when a certain style tends to fit unusually tight or loose. It is also developing a lineup of photographic images of models of various sizes, to show how particular garment styles look on different people.

Before putting the lineup on its web site, however, it will search its feedback database for customers who have expressed concerns about the fit of certain products and send them a link to view the lineup. “We’ll go back to the exact people who expressed problems picking sizes and ask them if the lineup will help,” Katz says. “That lets us move ahead with the lineup project, which is very labor-intensive to put all the pictures together, and be confident that we’re not wasting our time.”

CustomInk seeks feedback in brief surveys, which are e-mailed to customers a few days after their delivery confirmation. Customers are asked to rate, on a scale of one to seven, five aspects of their shopping experience: the web site itself, customer service, the product before it’s printed, the printing feature, and packaging. They’re also asked to add any written comments into a text box.

The retailer gets a high response rate and found that incentives like coupons were not necessary to elicit responses, Katz says.

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