January 31, 2001, 11:24 AM

Keep the customer satisfied

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In fact, research firms have generated plenty of data and anecdotal information on online shoppers’ beefs. The takeaway is clear: shoppers are finding plenty to complain about, ranging from tardy delivery of items to web site graphic overload. Too many shoppers are stumped by site design, for instance, with clutter in some cases amounting to what Geiger terms the “Las Vegas Strip effect.” Search engine and search paths aren’t up to snuff, leaving shoppers in an endless click and wait cycle that leads to bail-outs. Then there’s the quality of customer support. “It’s one of the biggest weaknesses on the web today,” Geiger says. “About 21% of web transactions involve some component of customer support, but those involving customer support are typically twice as big in dollars-so in fact, about 40% of dollars spent involve customer support. You can see how important that is.”

Geiger’s comments echo the anecdotal findings of e-Convergent, a provider of customer interaction software and services. The Pleasanton, Calif.-based company runs an annual contest to determine the best and worst customer experiences on the web during the holiday shopping season. Hundreds of responses clustered around a few themes, according to Rene White, senior vice president of marketing. “Customers can’t get real-time help while online,” she says. Customers also complain that they don’t get timely answers to email queries, that they can’t track their orders online, and that customer service channels aren’t integrated, with phone reps, for example, having no history on email queries.

And these findings cover only the experience of users willing to go online in the first place and put up with whatever frustrations they find. The customer experience-to be specific, anticipation of a less-than-satisfactory one-keeps millions more from shopping the web at all.

Take the buyers of highly customized sports equipment, for example. “We have products that are discernibly different when people try them, and we believe that experience must be there in order for people to make an effective decision,” says Luke Reese, vice president and general manager of Wilson Golf, Chicago. Wilson doesn’t encourage sales of its clubs online, and uses its own web site to post extensive product information to drive online shoppers into stores.

The challenge

But it’s often the toughest challenges that provoke the most creative solutions. Faced with a shopper audience particularly resistant to buying equipment it can’t see, touch, and try out first, the online sports sector was one of the earliest adopters-and remains one of the biggest users-of advanced technologies to compensate for that lack of tactile experience.

“As technology grows, retailers are going to continue to come up with more innovations and different ways to showcase their products, alleviating some of the touch-and-feel issues and harder merchandising challenges they’re facing online,” says John Lovett, an analyst with Gomez Advisors.

But it’s important to note that while advanced technologies to showcase the product may be the answer at online sports retailers, listening to the customer will yield different answers for other web merchants. Handbag and luggage merchant eBags.com, for example, offered shoppers plenty of images and product detail-but at a cost of speed that led to too many shopper bail-outs. The answer for eBags was to invest in technology that powered up server capacity to speed downloads, a strategy that paid off in higher conversion rates. Whatever the feedback from customers, the key for e-retailers is to translate it into directives that provide a blueprint for the site’s next generation.

At Corte Madera, Calif.-based Restoration Hardware, customer feedback didn’t lead to greater technology investment, but simple enhancements to the home page when the site relaunched in September. Based on feedback from hundreds of customers since last year, the upscale hardware and home gear merchant posted a link to a new section in a prominent spot on its redesigned home page. Named “You spoke, we listened,” the link outlines major improvements to the site that were the direct result of customer feedback. Among them, the site downloads up to 60% faster, offers twice as many products per page, features a running tally of shoppers’ purchases, and streamlines checkout.

Those enhancements didn’t so much require major investment in new technology as a simple lightening up of the site. “We had an extremely graphically heavy home page,” says Jonathan Plotzker, web and catalog operations director. “In the redesign, we lowered the number of graphics and used html instead of graphics where we could-it loads almost instantly. Instead of having a sage green background be a graphic, for instance, we used repeating pixels. Take one pixel that fades green and repeat it as often as you need across the row and suddenly you have an html color that loads instantly instead of a graphic that takes up 10 kilobytes. About 90% of what we did to improve the site was based on what customers told us they wanted - the rest was web development and our intuition.”

Within six weeks of relaunch, Restoration Hardware’s online sales channel was revving up. “The number of people visiting our home page but then leaving has come down by about 75%,” Plotzker says. The conversion rate, which he characterized prior to relaunch as “on the lower end” of web retailers’ 2% to 8% average, nearly doubled. And that’s not all. The site continues to solicit customer feedback after every improvement listed in the section, with a link that opens up an email form addressed to Restoration Hardware, to direct future web site development.

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