Website Customizing Should Improve the Visitor Experience, Not Detract From It.

I was recently using a site for a large technology product supplier who had built a customized version of their site for a large fortune 500 client.  The idea being that anyone going to the site from the clients web servers would get a somewhat customized experience.  It’s a great idea, by they way, to do this for long term or high profit clients.  Let them know they are a valued partner, not a cash cow.  The extra effort will improve relationships throughout and will encourage that group to buy from the supplier that is aligned with them.  The site had a good user interface and I was able to track down the items I was looking for.  Then came check out time.  My cart had no checkout button.  You read that correctly, No Checkout Button!  After spending the time to find products, research the products, and select the best fit, I had hit a brick wall.  Not wanting to abandon the cart I called the customer service line.  After being transferred twice, I was told that there was an on site rep that could help me.  I called and got voicemail.  Two hours later I got a return call and the representative told me that the checkout feature was disabled because the client company had it’s own internal procedure for ordering.  I was guided to find this internal form and had to type the information, including cryptic manufacturer’s numbers, into a separate form.  Customizing is a great way to add to a relationship but it needs to improve the customers experience.  If it takes away at all, it’s counter productive because users become less likely to buy.

So let’s use the example above to paint a perfect world and grade this site’s performance. 

B – Visual Customization – They did some basic visual customization.  It certainly could have been more as I had to pay close attention to notice, but I’ll give an B just for the  effort.  Many companies never think to do this at all. 

A – Product and Description Availability – No problems finding products and descriptions, so they get an A here.  The grade point average will plummet from here. 

F – Shopping Cart Solution – No checkout button with no explanation as to why.  If a Z were possible that would be appropriate but since F is as low as it goes, F. 

F – Ease of Customer Service – Two transferred calls to a customer service people that couldn’t help and a two hour wait from the account representative.  Customer service was not easy to get nor prompt.

F – Ease of Buying – Filling out a form by hand to information that has already been submitted is the worst thing you can do.  You might as well place a disclaimer saying, “Your time is not valuable and we’d rather waste your time than put a decent solution in place.”

This sale would have been abandoned in almost every case that was not mandatory.  Since the client doesn’t require all technology product purchases to come from this company, I’d bet they have a high rate of abandonment.  Past 95% wouldn’t surprise me and this is a “preferred supplier” customized site.  People should fill this out 100% of the time, not 5%.

So what are the fixes?

First, integrate the shopping cart with whatever the client requires.  If they have a specific form that needs completed, either customize the cart to suit that need or allow the user to export the information and pre-populate the form with the data entered.  If that’s too much effort (realize that you will still be advertising that their time is worthless), at least put an explanation of why there is no checkout and a link to the form for users so they aren’t left wondering, “Where’s the darn checkout button?” 

Second, put the client’s sales rep number in the customer service section.  It at least eliminates being transferred to someone that only gives a different phone number.  If the sales rep is the knowledgeable person who can help with questions, that’s who customers should contact, not a middle man.

With those couple changes the whole experience is improved.  If the information automatically populates without hand typing information, this is at least a B+ experience.  As it stands now it’s a D- and leaves customers with a bad impression.

My best guess is that this site was thrown together to qualify as a “preferred supplier”.  The problem is that the employees still have options and with this solution they are likely to use another one.  “Preferred supplier” doesn’t mean “required supplier” so the effort to optimize the site still needs to be in place.  Even if it were a required supplier, the effort should still be spent because contracts run out and no one likes poor customer service.

In this case, the client probably demanded that the supplier use their form for employees to place orders.  The supplier probably agreed and never put forth the effort to streamline the process.  Worse yet they left it with a dead end.  Client demands are always important but that doesn’t mean they can’t be modified.  The added feature of a shopping cart that fulfills the function of the form without extra data entry is an added bonus to the company.  I’m sure they wouldn’t decline, it would only strengthen their sense that you want to be aligned with them.  Instead the end user is left struggling to make a purchase, and many times it won’t be worth the effort and will be abandoned. 

Customizing a site for a particular group or client can be a powerful way to improve a relationship.  That only happens when it is given the care and effort it seserves.  Like anything else, if you’re going to do it, do it right.  Customize the site and build an outstanding relationship, don’t detract from the relationship by taking shortcuts that undermines the users experience.

– Eric

Patience is Required For Effective Email Marketing

The immediacy in email marketing is a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is how quickly and relatively easily communications can be delivered.  The curse is also how quickly and relatively easily communications can be delivered.  Why?  It means that there is always a temptation to “do it now!”  Any business or marketing panic can result in a poorly planned or ill advised communication due to the ease of sending.  This is the most common abuse of an email list.  Companies aren’t setting out to be evil spammers, they have an objective they aren’t reaching and think they can make up ground on the fly.  Don’t be tempted to send a last minute promotion.  It rarely works because the window for effectiveness has already passed.

So what kinds of panic get manifested in email marketing?  Here are some common ones.  We aren’t meeting projected sales, blast out an email promoting this product for a surge in sales.  We need to show more site traffic, let’s do a quick email update to get people to click through to the site.  We don’t have enough attendees for our event, let’s resend the invitation.  The list goes on but these all have the same root cause, panic at a goal not being met.  While missing a goal is often frustrating, impromptu email communications rarely net results and frequently cause animosity from subscribers.

If email marketing was as easy as blasting out a promotion and waiting for the dollars to roll in, everyone would be successful.  The fact is that it, like any marketing campaign, takes thought and finesse.  Thought and finesse doesn’t spawn from panic.  Mistakes do.  The best email campaigns let subscribers know what to expect and provide something they look forward to.  It’s a relationship being built.  When frantic self-centered messages arrive unannounced it damages the relationship.  Not only won’t the recipient take action on the impromptu offer but are less likely to respond in the future.

So rather than panic, learn.  Use the immediacy of email to your advantage.  You get almost instantaneous reports.  Analyse the data and use it to make the most logical offers.  Instead of rushing to get something out, tally what worked and what didn’t and blow the doors off your next goal.  Provide subscribers value while promoting your business and they will look forward to the communications and take advantage of your offers.  Email marketing is immediate, but that shouldn’t be turned into hasty.  Make a campaign, learn from mistakes, and gradually work toward goals.  A little patience goes a long way and ultimately is the best way to generate revenue from a campaign.

Branding on the Web? Go Beyond.

When speaking about marketing many people want to talk brand.  What is the look and feel of the organization?  How do we build brand awareness?  While branding is a useful tool these questions are frequently too simplistic or not measurable enough to be used as a measuring stick for e-marketing.  The truth is that branding is often an intangible.  Surveys and questionnaires can be used to support whether it’s being established but at the end of the day branding won’t sustain a business.  Branding should be a beneficial side effect of online marketing, not the goal.

I believe in a branding percentage.  Branding activities can only go so far in shaping client’s and prospect’s opinions of an organization.  Marketing branding will make up between 20 – 50 percent of their overall opinion, depending on the level of involvement and size of the organization.  Most of a client or prospect’s positive or negative thoughts will come from interaction with company representatives, otherwise known as people.  People make a significant portion of a brand.  Marketing won’t put a positive spin on a terrible company or a negative spin on a great company.  It’s influence becomes more valuable to the vast majority of companies that fall somewhere in between.  Why do I bring this up?  To show that branding is a challenging and time consuming effort that may or may not have an effect on the intended audience. While branding might not be dead it won’t have the impact of a permission marketing or next step marketing system.

The Internet is tailored to next step marketing.  You can guide people to exactly what you want them to do.  Hyperlinks and forms make that easier to do than any other media can.  The benefit? Rather than having a site that “someday” people will internalize and want to engage, you have an opportunity to generate sales and leads.  Don’t get me wrong, branding shouldn’t be ignored.  You should use your organizations logo and color scheme.  You should use a professional layout with content that supports the core mission.  It’s just that these branding principles are a staring point, not a goal.  A goal is concrete, easily defined, and measurable.  “I want my site to support my brand” is a prerequisite.  “I want a branded site that generates 15 leads a month” is a goal. 

Don’t get too caught up in branding.  It needs to be understood and supported but not labored over.  A good next step marketing plan will brand your business.  It will also provide the added benefit of increasing the bottom line along the way.

– Eric