Offline/Online Disconnect

Greg recently needed to book ground transportation for a business flight to Newark. Being a good corporate citizen in this new era of dot-com profitability, he has often used a national shuttle service, SuperShuttle, instead of a more expensive taxi. Calling SuperShuttle’s telephone reservation system, he got an earful of heavy promotion for their new online reservation system. So he decided to check it out.

SecondClass.com

Clicking the “online reservations” graphic on the site, Greg was taken to a simple sign-in web page. Beneath a badly dithered company logo (that looked like it could use the services of a lint brush), the web page opened with the following:

    For making reservations quick and easy, take a moment to register as a SuperShuttle frequent user.

Pardon the Keanu Reeves impersonation, but Whoah! Greg hadn’t even used the service yet, and he was asked to commit to becoming a frequent user. He just wanted to get to the airport not join a health club.

But since it appeared that he wouldn’t owe his estate to people who flex in front of mirrors for a living, he clicked to register for a new account. The resulting web page presented no fewer than 18 different text boxes and selection widgets to successfully complete his registration.

This was a lot to ask of someone who had seen nothing of the benefits exchanged for time and personal data. But what caught his attention most was the following line:

    To reserve a reservation, we need your Credit Card Number and the expiration date. Your Credit Card will not be charged. Please be sure to bring your credit card or other method of payment with you on the van.

SuperShuttle customers making telephone reservations are not required to provide credit card or other payment information in advance. So why the double standard for web users? How does this benefit SuperShuttle?

Let’s look at a common customer profile for SuperShuttle: A college student who needs to fly home on a budget, uses the Internet heavily, and lacks the job experience to secure a credit card. SuperShuttle.com may as well tell these potential customers to link off to Amtrak.com.

Can You Create Me a Special, Fake Swiss Bank Account While You’re at It?

His curiosity piqued, Greg sent an email to the site’s webmaster to determine the company’s motivations. He received an unusually cordial reply for a webmaster, indicating that SuperShuttle received several comments from “some of our loyal customers, such as yourself, regarding this requirement.” In response, SuperShuttle.com created a special, fake credit card number for this purpose.

Greg throws away new credit card offers every other day. So that’s not the issue. After probing further, he received the following reply:

    Regarding your question of why we ask for a credit card, our management determined entering a credit card number would deter individuals from making bogus reservations.

Apparently, no one bothered to point out the obvious to their management – that bogus reservations are just as easy to place with their telephone reservation system. If any of their managers had previous experience in the pizza delivery business, SuperShuttle.com wouldn’t be asking for credit cards.

More importantly, SuperShuttle.com wouldn’t be asking for credit cards if their management embraced the web rather than feared it.

Double Your Standards

Yet SuperShuttle’s management approach to the Internet is not atypical. Many established offline companies with shiny, new dot-coms view the web with suspicion and mistrust the unfortunate side effect of making web customers feel they are treated with suspicion and mistrust. And if SuperShuttle can’t trust you with a reservation over the Internet, why bother trusting their web site with your credit card?

Of course, online consumers are guilty of a similar irrational fear of the unfamiliar thinking nothing of handing over their credit cards to minimum-wage restaurant employees, but breaking into a sweat when exchanging the same information over an encrypted Internet connection.

But consumers don’t stand to lose nearly as much as businesses that put up barriers to their potential customers. If a business is serious about reaching customers online, it must do everything possible to attract them.

Viewing SuperShuttle.com from another perspective, what loyal Gateway telephone customer would frequent a local Gateway Country store if it meant showing a valid credit card every time they wanted to step foot in it?

You’re Once, Twice, Three Times a New Customer

The inconsistency in how customers from different channels are treated can be subtler. For example, Staples offers three different inventories with three different sets of prices among their physical stores, catalog, and Staples.com web site. While the brand may look the same on the surface, to consumers it’s almost as if they were shopping at three different companies. (We also never checked whether purchases at one channel could be returned through another.)

The whole point of chains and franchises is to leverage the expectation, trust and consistency associated with a brand’s image and consumer experience. Staples fragments and diminishes their brand relationship with consumers by operating as three different businesses with the same fagade.

Do businesses have to integrate their online and offline efforts and treat customers from multiple channels the same way? Not necessarily, but those that don’t will face serious competition from the businesses that do.

Maybe SuperShuttle won’t be the first to allow customers to reschedule their online reservations over a cell phone. Maybe Staples won’t allow customers to purchase online and return items to the nearest physical store. But competitors that do stand to win a lot of new business and customer loyalty at those companies’ expense.

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