November 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Sales-boosting technologies

Every customer counts today. The right technology partners can help online retailers retain the customers they have and attract new ones.

With most consumers using the web regularly, opportunities abound for e-retailers to reach outward to new customers and to delight the customers they already have.

Two ways e-retailers can achieve these goals are by gathering customer feedback, an excellent way to keep existing customers happy, and fulfilling orders globally, which opens the door to serving new customers. Both strategies, which can be implemented through outsourcing partners, can boost sales by improving the customer shopping experience.

“Online retailers face much broader competition today than just their direct competitors,” says Larry Freed, CEO and president of Foresee Results Inc., provider of web-based survey technology to measure customer satisfaction. “Every retailer on the web is competing for market share against retailers in all product categories. Regardless of what they are shopping for, consumers will shop at the retailers that provide the highest levels of customer satisfaction.”

For retailers that sell internationally, satisfying consumers that come from outside their own geographic region is essential. For example, shoppers will want to know that they can view pricing and settle in their local currencies.

“From a shipping standpoint, servicing non-U.S. customers is one of the top issues facing retailers that serve a global audience,” says Saskia Strick, CEO and president of International Checkout, provider of international shipping, fraud detection and customer support services. “It’s not enough to be able to ship internationally, international customers want to know they can reach a service agent that can speak to them in a language in which they are conversant and see prices in their local currency.”

For some retailers, expanding their reach globally is one of the best opportunities to grow their business in the current economic climate. “International orders account for 10% to 15% of our client’s orders,” says Strick. “One client told us their sales increased 12% by simply adding our service.”

A new business

Creating an international sales unit is the equivalent of launching a start-up business, experts say, which is why most retailers expanding globally start with a lean staff to manage fulfillment and shipment. The lack of resources international sales units have to work with often means the retailer ends up getting stretched too thin and falling down on customer service, which is crucial to building a quality brand.

International Checkout handles all shipping logistics, customs requirements and payment-related issues for international orders on behalf of the retailer. Foreign shoppers placing an order click on an international orders button at checkout and are seamlessly routed along with the contents of the shopping cart to a checkout page hosted on International Checkout’s server, but which has the look and feel of the retailer’s site.

International Checkout, which services more than 230 retailers including bebe, Dr. Martens and Organize.com, gathers all the order and shipping information and verifies the authenticity of the customer’s credit card. Shoppers can opt to prepay duty fees at the time of checkout or pay those fees upon delivery. Those choosing to pay later are informed they are liable for duty fees at the time of delivery and will not receive a refund for the order if they refuse a package because of duty fees.

“All the liability issues around duty fees are clearly stated at the time of checkout,” adds Kathy Beteta, vice president at International Checkout.

Feels local

Once the order is complete, International Checkout settles with the retailer and becomes the merchant of record, assuming all liabilities should the consumer whose card was used to make the purchase dispute the transaction.

The retailer then ships the item to International Checkout’s warehouse in Los Angeles. When the item is received it is matched against the item ordered, inspected for damage, verified that it is legal to ship, repacked and shipped to its final destination. From that point on, International Checkout handles all customer service inquiries, provides consumers with access to information to track the status of orders, and facilitates returns and exchanges.

“We keep a list of items that are prohibited by country and we don’t ship those items,” says Beteta. “Every year e-commerce gets more competitive, and pulling the pieces together needed to ship internationally requires a lot of resources and time. We offer retailers a one-stop shop.”

To further enhance the shopping experience for international customers, International Checkout supports 34 currencies and is rolling out automatic currency conversion pegged to the shopper’s IP address. Shoppers logging onto a retailer’s site from another country will automatically see prices displayed in their local currency, rather than using a currency converter to check prices.

“Having a localized feel to the shopping experience is a part of achieving customer satisfaction,” Beteta says.

Why they come

Servicing international customers is not the only way retailers can expand their customer base. Gathering customer feedback through surveys can help retailers gain a deeper understanding of why customers come to their web site. That is critical, because consumers are increasingly using visits to a retailer’s site to gather product information before making a purchase during a later visit to the web site or through one of the retailer’s stores.

“Behavioral data is important, but it does not show a complete picture of the shopper’s intent,” says Freed of ForeSee Results. “Surveys provide a more accurate picture of customer intent across the entire customer base and yield data retailers can use to identify areas and ways to drive customer satisfaction and attract new customers.”

Key to a successful customer survey is to ask questions that get at a consumer’s likes and dislikes about the web site to identify areas that need improvement, as well as areas that deliver a satisfying shopping experience. By identifying the latter, a retailer can find ways to apply the concepts behind those successes to other areas of a site.

“Measuring customer satisfaction is not just finding out about what the shopper thinks the retailer can do better, but understanding the context of the feedback provided so retailers can determine how to apply the successes within their site to a broader audience,” says Freed. “It’s about going beyond simple analytics that show behavior patterns to understand the causation of those behavior patterns.”

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