A Web Site Is Not a Vending Machine

As e-tailers battle to prove that their sites are secure shopping environments in the wake of several nasty viruses, many continue to overlook a more obvious problem — the lack of real-time online customer service.

Today, web sites sell everything from books and computers to vacations and financial services. Yet many operate under the premise that every facet is automated; databases are ubiquitous and artificial intelligence replaces the need for human interaction. Many don’t believe it’s necessary to have human beings behind the virtual storefront running the shop.

I disagree.

Many e-businesses seem to forget that although they can automate many processes, they are still interacting with human beings on the other end of that web site. Every person is unique with special needs to be addressed — the same as in any traditional retail setting.

In an online business environment, not only is it impossible to anticipate the countless range of shopper responses and special orders that may pop up, but human beings, well… They tend to be human! They want to interact with someone who knows the site’s products, whose judgment they trust and whose recommendations they will truly consider.

As many e-tailers take a closer look at the online shopping experience, they’re realizing that sites like Amazon.com work well because they offer an effective, often simple, user interface design. However, the reality is that the majority of today’s web sites are hard to navigate, and little (if any) customer service support is ever provided. Sometimes, web sites don’t even offer an 800 customer service number and bury their email address in some distant corner of the site. Even in cases when a customer actually finds an email address and sends a message for help, it can take hours or days to get a response. If that answer is incomplete or incorrect, then the entire process begins again.

One of the most counterproductive approaches to e-tailing is asking a customer to wait or come back for an answer tomorrow. They won’t. Shopping on the Internet isn’t going to a brick-and-mortar store where the next store may be miles away. On the Internet, the next store is literally seconds, or a mouse click, away.

Avoiding the Vending Machine Trap

E-businesses must understand that the Internet is not a vending machine. A vending machine sells simple products with zero need for human interaction. When buying a can of Coke from a vending machine, it’s not necessary to speak to someone. When you put quarters in to buy that can of soda, you know precisely what you are going to get.

Most online products don’t fit into that category, however. The proliferation of online booksellers is in large part due to the fact that they offer simple, basic products at a low cost and low risk. A customer shopping online for books knows the product that they will receive is always the same, regardless of whether it’s purchased from Vendor A or Vendor B. Compare this to buying a computer online. Or clothes. Or any product that leaves room for custom tailoring or uncertainty.

With these types of products, the need for one-on-one interaction to help consumers find and learn about their potential purchase is glaringly apparent. In fact, according to a recent study by Forrester Research, 41 percent of online customers say they would be more likely to “check out” and actually buy something if they could consult and/or interact with a human being during the process.

The Power of Real-Time Interaction

Real-time interactive sales and customer service is a solution that makes e-commerce work by humanizing the online experience. It enables customers to communicate with e-businesses at critical moments, particularly the point-of-sale. Real-time interaction fills the online customer service void, influencing customers to fill, rather than abandon, shopping carts. It creates a scenario in which customer representatives can answer questions as they arise, help consumers find what they’re looking for, or quickly suggest alternatives. This bridges the gap between the level of customer service generally offered in brick-and-mortar stores and that of online merchants.

Real-time online customer service also addresses another issue. Most people purchasing goods online are doing so from home on the same line as their telephone. Thus, if someone is shopping at a site with no real-time online customer support, the consumer must disconnect from the site to have their question answered over the phone. With real-time customer service, people can stay online and find and buy what they need on the spot.

This approach also allows service representatives to provide consumers with links that immediately transport a consumer to products of interest during their online inquiry. This is a win-win situation for e-businesses and shoppers alike. It gives the dot-coms a proactive sales tool, while allowing consumers to find what they want quickly with less hassle.

An additional bonus is the anonymity that real-time customer service offers. Consumers can ask what they consider to be personal or silly questions in a setting that is not as personal as a phone call.

Just like any brick-and-mortar business, if you fail to provide people with a proven, real-time customer service solution to help them find what they need when they need it, you’ve lost them as a customer — perhaps forever. Implementing such a solution is a small price to pay for increased customer satisfaction, loyalty and the higher sales that result. Don’t provide it, and rest assured your customers will have no qualms about clicking over to your competitor’s web site and finding what they need there.

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