Self-Service — With or Without a Smile

With another Halloween now behind us, the 2000 holiday buying season is officially open for business. To avoid the mistakes of last year, e-tailers are making every effort to ensure that their inventory is stocked and customer returns aren’t an afterthought. This year, instead of ad budgets that might put them in the poorhouse, e-tailers are also making heavy investments in customer service.

On the surface, this makes sense. Last year’s customer-acquisition investments, without commensurate emphasis on customer conversion and retention, were like filling a bathtub without first plugging the drain. However, truly great customer service — the kind that involves people interacting with people — is expensive, it doesn’t scale well with a growing business, and consumers are almost universally unwilling to pay for it.

Self-serve gas stations and customer service voice mail systems are just two examples of what happens when consumers favor price over service. In a previous article, we’ve advocated offering just enough customer service with the illusion of something greater. Yet the most effective and efficient customer service option is to empower your customers to easily help themselves.

E-CRM — The E-Customer Relationship Maze

With vendors pitching expensive e-CRM solutions as the answer to abandoned shopping carts and other lost online sales opportunities, some e-tailers are integrating call-center features into their sites — offering the voices of customer-support reps to back up their online help buttons. However, this solution is costly and overblown for most e-tailers. Instead of commissioning expensive systems and hiring additional staff to guide users through an unusable web site, it’s much cheaper and more effective to address a site’s usability problems — so that users don’t need these systems and support to begin with.

Here we define usability as that which enables a productive relationship among business, web site, and user to accomplish specific tasks — such as locating information, making an informed decision, or completing a purchase or transaction. So why aren’t more sites focused on usability improvements?

Unfortunately, web usability is still largely unappreciated and misunderstood. Businesses often incorrectly presume they know everything about how their users think or what they want. It’s almost a guilty admission for employees to suggest that they don’t know.

Usability can also be a scary prospect for a company accustomed to having complete control over its brand and image. Usability studies often empower customers with the destiny of their site design and architecture — placing it in the hands of their users instead of their internal web or marketing staff. Web-design tradeoffs must often favor how the outside world views and interacts with your business, not how you would like it to think of your business.

Rules of the Usability Road

There are classic examples of this, such as slow-to-load, image-laden pages designed by the brand-conscious marketing department — frustrating potential customers seeking a quick and easy experience. And then there’s the Jackson Pollack home page that bombards users with link graffiti from every corner of your business — leaving them dazed and confused before they even set foot in your online store.

While there are plenty of books and articles on the art and science of web usability, the following are some of our favorite usability principles and truisms.

Test, test, test.

Define sets of common visitor types, common scenarios, and common tasks for your web site. Your mission is to experiment and learn how to simplify how these visitors accomplish these tasks. The good news is that a single first round of user testing on a handful of subjects will uncover most of a web site’s major problems.

Information overload is a frequent problem — especially on the home page.

Instead of a sea of tabs, links, and flashy icons, it often helps to tailor a user’s navigation options to those items most frequently requested.

Don’t do it just because the most popular sites do.

The most popular sites frequently get it wrong. Furthermore, what works for one business may not work at all for your web site. Your customers may be very different, and they may visit with very different goals in mind. Learn what works best for your users and your site and use it.

Use consistent navigation.

Not to contradict our previous point, but be aware of common site navigational standards used on other web sites. Each web site presents a user with an entirely new user interface. This can be utterly confusing if users had to learn new sets of navigational cues and options with every site. Imagine using a specific word processing application where the menu options jumble around every time you launch it.

While the primary tasks for your site should be unique to your business, cues such as “proceed to checkout,” metaphors such as shopping carts, and concepts such as home pages and search engines should be fairly conformist and intuitive.

Also, users should always know where they are in the overall process. Plan on some of your users getting lost at each step so that the next steps are always clear. There’s a reason why fire codes require well-lighted exit signs placed throughout public buildings.

There is no such thing as user error.

The customer is always right, and that’s more true than ever online. Web sites should not expect users to get better; web sites must get better to serve the user. Of course, the corollary to this is that there is no such thing as a good error message.

Usability frequently takes a backseat to other business priorities. “It is too much effort to put a test together.” “It takes too long for a company needing to launch on Internet time.” While e-tailers investigate whether they can afford e-CRM solutions, they should also recognize that they cannot afford to ignore usability.

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