Are You Ready for the Holidays?

The holiday shopping season is already upon us. Is your site ready?

Jupiter Research (a unit of this site’s parent corporation) forecasts online holiday sales will grow from 2002’s $13.8 billion to $16.8 billion this year. Good news for e-tailers! But will it be good news for your business?

Last time, I mentioned my growing frustration with online shopping. I have no problems ordering specific items I know I want. But as soon as I have a question about product specifications, shipping, or return policies, my shopping screeches to a halt. During one recent online shopping session, I gave up and drove to a store (a competitor of the site I tried to buy from) where I could deal with a live person.

At the time, I chalked it up to a bad day. But Jupiter’s report, “The State of Customer Service, 2003,” confirms my experience and dulls the glow of a big holiday shopping season for e-tailers. There will be winners and losers in the scramble for holiday shopping dollars, and customer service will play a big factor.

According to the report, “91 percent of high-value buyers said they are less likely to make repeat purchases after a dissatisfying service experience with an online merchant.” The report also finds big spenders gobble up support resources at a higher rate than the little guys. So when customer service responds to an email, it’s more likely to be from someone with money to spend.

Combined with Jupiter’s finding that “46 percent of sites Jupiter sampled in December 2002 failed to meet consumers’ email response expectations,” there’s trouble brewing for some sites.

If you’re not providing good customer service, you’re doing serious damage, short and long term.

Imagine a shopper, filling her online cart with gifts for the whole family. Before she submits her order, she needs to know one small detail about one gift, such as the size of a pillow or age-appropriateness of a toy. She sifts through product specs and FAQs to no avail. Is she going to place her entire order on hold while she waits 24 hours or more for an answer to her email inquiry?

No. She’s probably going to surf over to your competitor’s site. Or maybe submit the order without the last item. Either way, you’ve just missed a piece of the holiday action.

You analysts out there may not have much control over site content and customer service. But there are still things you can do. Start with your analysis plan.

How can you determine cause and effect of your site’s holiday revenues?

Look at last year’s holiday shoppers. Check to see if they’ve been back this year. Check old customer satisfaction surveys to see if they reveal any clues about why a customer may have defected. Select a representative sample of lost customers, and delve into transaction logs to determine on a case-by-case basis where the problem might have occurred.

Even if it’s too late to change things for this shopping season, it’s never too late to start planning next year’s approach.

Periodic anonymous inquiries to your own customer service department supply a powerful bit of evidence. I regularly pose as a potential customer, email a question, and evaluate what comes back. Was the answer timely? Correct? If not, according to Jupiter, profits may be in for a double whammy: lost revenue due to a decline in repeat visitors and cost increases as customers switch to your toll-free number to get their questions answered.

A bad email experience can be costly. In addition to the 91 percent who are less likely to buy from you again, Jupiter says 60 percent will tell others about their bad experience and 59 percent are less likely to shop in your offline store. The consequences of bad customer service can be far-reaching and have a long-term impact on your revenue and profit.

Are you ready for the holidays? Is your customer service up to snuff? Does your site clearly tell shoppers whether their purchases will arrive before Christmas? Are your shipping prices clear? Is your return policy easy to access and understand?

If you don’t have direct input into site experience and customer service, stay abreast of the issues and monitor your company’s progress. Collect evidence to support your case. Don’t relax for a minute.

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