Asleep at the Wheel?

We need to talk.

Much has been written about the impact of the Web on customer loyalty: low switching costs, easy price and product comparisons, yadda, yadda, yadda. The performance bar is raised now that consumers have so many choices right at their fingertips. It’s not a new topic.

Yet usability, customer service, and site performance issues abound. Why? Should I lower my expectations? Am I the only idealist who’s disenchanted? Is there a support group for frustrated Web veterans struggling to accept that businesses are repeating the same mistakes on the Web they make out there in the real world?

Reality is sinking in. Businesses are bringing their offline problems into the online realm. Of course, it was inevitable. The warts have been showing for a while now. In a depressed economy, the warts often go untreated.

That doesn’t make it easier to accept. The idealist in me is frustrated businesses continue to underestimate the impact the Web has on customer satisfaction and loyalty. Companies spend millions annually on research but don’t fix simple navigation problems on their Web sites. Companies with top-of-the-line traditional customer service have hopelessly outdated online FAQs.

The Web may be a cost-effective way to do business but not if your site drives away customers. The point was driven home recently during a conversation about the beleaguered airline industry. An associate mentioned his decision to shop for a new airline. He’s a 15-year member of Delta’s frequent-flyer program but is giving up his Medallion status to start over with a new airline. Sure, it happens. But those of you who travel know how loyal frequent flyers can be.

What struck me was the final straw for my friend — Delta’s Web site doesn’t retain his search data when he looks for flights. He hates having to re-enter every piece of information repeatedly within a single session as he checks different flight combinations. He got so frustrated one day, he began thinking of all the other things he didn’t like about the airline. Voilà! Many thousands of dollars in airfares are going to a competitor. Could this have been avoided with a better search interface?

Another example: two popular genealogy sites, one with clearly superior data and search functionality and a higher subscription fee. But the better site has the slowest page-load speed I’ve encountered since dial-up days. It’s like a time warp. I kept a magazine handy to have something to read while pages loaded. So, I visit the inferior (in my humble opinion) site first, find as much information as I can at lightening speed, then switch to the other site to fill in the gaps. Will Site A fix its speed problem before Site B copies its data and functionality? Or will Site A be retired to the dot-com graveyard once Site B copies its strengths without adopting its weaknesses?

Why does this still happen, with all the knowledge and experience we’ve gained? Even newbies have scant excuse for delivering a poor Web experience. Enough grizzled veterans are around. No company need find itself in the position of trying to figure out this “Web thing” in a void.

Many of us are desensitized to problems our Web sites live with. You’ll complain about a particular site’s problems, oblivious to the fact your own shares the same faults. Yet another usability report informs you of a recurring issue. Instead of thinking, “I need to fix that,” your reaction is, “Nothing new here.”

It’s human nature. When problems exist over time, we grow to accept them.

Yes, the Web is part of the real world and offline business problems will inevitably occur online as well. But don’t go down without a fight. I’m going to reevaluate my priority list — should you? An issue you’re desensitized to could be the final straw that makes loyal customers reevaluate their purchase decisions. Look for new sources of feedback. (Hint: New employees are an overlooked source of perspective.) Look at your site with new eyes today.

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