When customer reviews aren’t enough to answer questions about products, shoppers at HomeDepot.com can ask specific questions about items directly on product pages and receive answers from other customers as well as from the retailer’s in-house experts—and increasingly from product suppliers, too. The Home Depot Inc., No. 42 in the Internet Retailer Top 500, is one of a few retailers that has been testing a new release of Bazaarvoice Inc.’s Connections product for social Q&A, which the vendor made available to all merchants last week.
Connections appears as a box that links to a pop-out Q&A window within the customer reviews section of a product detail page. Beneath a display of General Electric water dispenser on HomeDepot.com, for example, the Connections box says there are 19 questions and 36 answers about it. The questions range from basics such as to what temperature the water heats, to more involved questions such as how the dispenser works and where to buy replacement parts. While many responses come from other customers, a General Electric representative also responded to each question, usually including a more specific answer and referencing the exact part number in the query. Home Depot says it answers most questions within 24 hours.
This Q&A feature has boosted conversions, says Lyndon Mueller, Home Depot’s director of e-commerce, though he declines to reveal by how much. The tool’s strength is its placement right where customers are considering the product, he says, rather than in a general, site-wide Q&A or inside Home Depot’s How-To community area. “I use the feature myself,” he says, adding that answers he and his wife received influenced their decision to purchase a refrigerator. “Once the question is asked and answered, everyone gets the benefit of that,” he says.
Connections archives and indexes responses so that customers can see if their questions are already answered before creating new ones, says Shawn Gaide, general manager, Bazaarvoice Network. Additionally, the forums help improve retailers' search engine results, he says. "Q&A is increasingly valuable because questions are written in same natural language and tone that people use in search queries."
Retailers receive questions through a custom portal hosted by Bazaarvoice, which includes information such as category, whether anyone has answered and whether a brand—like General Electric in this example—has answered. Brands, which may include the retailer, receive alerts when new questions about their products are added to the forums. They answer customers through the portal and may include their own logos to add credibility, Bazaarvoice says. They can also recommend relevant products within the response. Once someone submits a response, the system notifies the customer who asked the question, the company says.
So far, Home Depot has about 130 vendors signed up to answer customer questions through Connections, Mueller says, and it continues to add more. Additionally, some Home Depot store associates who are experts in certain product categories answer Connections questions, Mueller says. Those associates are an extension of Home Depot’s How-To community, in which expert staffers answer customer questions and provide guides and advice about various do-it-yourself projects in a dedicated section of the retailer’s web site.
“Bazaarvoice gives us an easy way to leverage our suppliers to provide the information that our customers need as they research and make purchases,” says Hal Lawton, president of HomeDepot.com. “By enabling a direct relationship between the brand and the consumer, Bazaarvoice Connections allows us to reduce returns and increase sales, while furthering our value to the customer and their shopping experience.”