The customer comes first

Written on 23 April, 2008 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories E-commerceSmall Business

One of the saddest trends among ecommerce websites is the tendency for online businesses to treat customers as mere statistics or numbers on a sales graph.

But customers are far more than ‘clicks’ or ‘conversions’.

You may not have any direct involvement in each individual sale, with your website taking care of most of the heavy lifting, but customer satisfaction is as much an issue online as it is in a high street shop.

What does the customer want?

A common mistake is to design a website based around what you want rather than what the customer wants, placing the business interests above those of the target audience. If the website is designed for your convenience over the customer, they may find the experience unsettling. A customer won’t buy because it helps you. They are there to serve their own needs.

When designing your site, view it through a visitor’s eyes. Set up the shopping cart to make transactions as easy as possible for the customer, provide confirmation emails and listen to feedback.

It is also not uncommon for businesses to attempt to ‘trick’ online shoppers. Using underhand techniques to bring traffic to a website, sourcing information to inundate unsuspecting people with partner offers and of course – spam.

Spam is the most obvious example of online businesses caring less about the customers and more about the law of percentages. Working on the principle that thousands of emails can generate a handful of responses, spam is purely a numbers game, where the individual doesn’t matter.

But many legitimate online businesses view customers in the same way. If enough traffic sees a poor product, chances are that some will take the bait and buy. The inadequacies of a business offer can sometimes be overcome merely by throwing more and more traffic at it.

Then again, there are some business offers that will never find a customer, no matter how many people see it.

Focusing on the sale, not the result

The disconnected nature of online shopping allows for a greater risk of inadequate services and products, or in extreme cases, fraud. After all, when you receive your item in the post, often it is too much hassle to return it if it doesn’t quite meet your expectations.

But viewing online customers in this way can be very damaging in the long term.

Customers are not commodities, but it is easy to view them as such. As your only experience of them is as numbers on a report or clicks on a purchase button, the human face behind each of these actions is forgotten.

But the customer doesn’t forget. Repeat business is essential, yet customers won’t return if they feel exploited, disappointed or confused by your transaction.

Adding personality to online nusiness

This impersonal new form of customer service is testing some businesses to come up with new ways of interacting with their audience. Some of the more interesting websites I have seen use copy as a conversation, with every step of the transaction prompting friendly and conversational style of dialogue, more in tune with in a face to face situation.

Other businesses are injecting a bit of personality into their websites with blogs, video and images to add a human touch.

But appearances are one thing. Delivering on the service is another.

Don’t fall into the trap of treating your online customers as any less than the customers in front of you in your shop. After all, online customers have the whole internet to complain to.