Bumps in the Sales Road, Part 3

This is the last in a series about snags customers hit in the online sales process. My extended online shopping spree (brought to an end by the recent arrival of my American Express bill) was fraught with obstacles. Between holiday shopping and a home spruce-up, I had many items to purchase in a short period of time. I was dismayed to find how difficult it was.

The first column covers availability of product information and purchase assistance. The second covers the ease (or lack thereof) of resolving problems, determining shipping costs, and checking product availability. I’ll conclude with intrusive ads and delivery problems.

Intrusive Ads

True story: I’m reading product information with the intent of making a purchase, and up pops a dancing, bow-wrapped package, blocking the very paragraph I’m trying to read. Granted, the pretty package informed me shipping was free for a limited time only. But I already knew that.

Balancing the need for advertising against content and commerce isn’t new, so I won’t digress into that subject. Let’s leave it at this: If you’re selling a product on your Web site and use pop-ups or other types of ads, conduct a review. Do the ads (or even product-related pop-up information) interfere with the purchase process? If so, the problem may be easy to fix. Perhaps it was simply a lack of communication between the product and advertising departments that led to interference.

Some readers may have longstanding conflicts between product and ad sales departments. Regardless, your company’s failure to remove purchase obstacles must be addressed if you intend to maximize profits. If you have no customers, who will see your ads?

Shipping Problems

For the majority of us, shipping problems are largely outside our control. They happen. Your job is to plan for them, and make them easy for customers to resolve.

Another true story: I ordered eight wicker chairs in early November and specified they were not to be shipped until December 1st. Imagine my dismay when I returned from a week-long Thanksgiving holiday and found the chairs, delivered early. The boxes sat in the rain in below-freezing temperatures for days. How was I supposed to return the damaged chairs when the boxes were ruined? Because it would be harder to return the chairs than to fix them myself, I chose the easy route. I remain to this day unhappy with the company.

The experience is a reminder. Consumers rarely get mad at the delivery company. You are held responsible in the consumer’s mind for any mistakes FedEx, UPS, or the post office makes. And don’t assume every consumer will report every problem.

What can you do if shipping is largely out of your control? First, review the problem-resolution process (discussed in the last column). Make the process easy. Next, implement a follow-up survey or other tool to get feedback from customers. Did their packages arrive on time and undamaged? This is a critical point in the sales cycle. It may be your last chance to save a customer who, at this moment, is telling six of her friends how unhappy she is with your company.

Nielsen//NetRatings reported in a January 5 press release online customer satisfaction increased in 2003. “During the 2003 shopping season, 63 percent of online shoppers were satisfied with their overall shopping experience, a five-point increase from 2002.”

I suppose that’s good news. Who are these consumers? Why were their experiences so much better than mine? Is it possible consumers expect less than they did last year? I don’t know. What I do know is I encountered so many problems during my two-month online shopping spree that I chose to conclude my shopping offline.

Consumers are smarter. They’re starting to understand how we marketers (and other corporate folks) think. They know we choose not to fix certain problems. They know many large corporations view them as statistics rather than as people. And, most frightening of all, they’ve figured out they can use their dollars as a vote of sorts. Consumers recognize their lifetime value as customers… and use that knowledge to pressure us to change or perish. Yikes!

What are you doing to remove obstacles in the sales process? What are you doing to retain those hard-won customers? Are you focusing on customer acquisition and leaving usability, the sales process, and customer satisfaction out in the cold?

It isn’t my intent to take a pro-consumer attitude with this series. But I realized through my experience I’ve been thinking like a business person for so long, I’m jaded. Mind you, I understand as a marketer some of your companies’ problems require system overhauls and lots of money. I understand politics and corporate red tape. I understand you must balance the cost of change with the benefit of increased profits.

But I’m telling you as a consumer: I don’t care. I’ll just shop at your competitor. The company makes it easier for me.

Put on your consumer hat and explore the question, “Would I be a satisfied customer of my own company?” What you learn may surprise you.

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