There’s no question that e-commerce has changed the way we do business. Whether B2B, service industries, or retailers, the use of the Web has radically changed our customers’ expectations about convenience, speed, price, service and comparability. More and more customers are using the Internet not only to make purchases, but also to find information on products, services, costs, and features before they buy; and they come to your store or business armed with that additional information. Suddenly, power has shifted dramatically within the customer relationship. Now they know as much as you do, or more!
Ironically, the positive aspects of conducting business online (like cost-cutting and customer convenience) may be detrimental to the long-term health of your customer relationships. Why? Because, when doing business on the Internet, there is no human contact to facilitate the development of a genuine customer relationship between your business and your customers. That is why it is absolutely essential to regularly review your e-commerce strategy to ensure it is grounded in the fundamentals of customer relationships.
Let me explain. Online customer relationships must be centred, as are offline relationships, on feelings and emotions, rather than merely on the functional aspects of click-through rates, page impressions, and repeat visits. In the early days of developing a presence on the Web, the focus was on creating value at the lower three levels of the drivers of customer satisfaction model — that is, on the core product, price, convenience, access, and other aspects of technical service delivery (see our previous Customer Intermarketing newswires, e.g. What Drives Customer Satisfaction? for more discussion on this topic). Specifically, we thought being inexpensive, convenient, accessible and efficient were the most important components of our online presence. Indeed, many reviews of “excellent” sites evaluated the almost exclusively a site’s functionality. This speaks volumes about the misdirected focus of companies doing business on the Internet.
It’s indisputable that functionality is a necessity. But operating a functional Web site will not in and of itself lead to the establishment of genuine customer relationships. Relationships are not functional; they are emotional. Much of what drives customer satisfaction has little or nothing to do with the functional aspects of what we are selling. To be successful on the Internet, companies have to get beyond being functionally acceptable. Why? Because functionality, being grounded in technology, is most easily replicated by the competition.
The increasing use of the Internet, however, means that the “social” component of customer interaction is becoming systematically displaced. This would not be so troublesome except for the fact that an overwhelming number of online companies do not seem to recognize the importance of customer emotions in their customer interactions.
Research conducted by the Bristol Group revealed some interesting facts about the nature of online relationships. Online and offline consumers of products such as clothing, books and CDs had virtually identical levels of satisfaction. However, online consumers felt much less “close” to the retailers with which they had conducted business, and the online relationships were less likely to last into the future. While many customers value the convenience, access, and efficiency offered by the online e-tailers, they place greater value on the interpersonal, emotional aspects of their offline retail relationships.
There is a general perception among companies operating online that the Internet addresses the accuracy and efficiency of service delivery. While this is true, many ignore the considerable value that is added by contact with the company through its employees. In the astounding world that has been created on the Internet, companies need to compensate for the loss of human contact through the creative design of their Web sites and through the provision of parallel and back-up customer interaction systems.
It is also critical that companies use their Web presence to create value for visitors and customers at each level of the Drivers of Customer Satisfaction model. The focus should be at least as much on the higher levels as on the lower ones. Companies must ask themselves what their Web-based interaction with their customers accomplishes in terms of what you put them through. What is the value of the interaction to the customers; how does dealing with you on the Web make them feel?
The Internet performs best at presenting a core product or service. In fact, many firms have limited their involvement on the Web to providing the most basic of service or information – the equivalent of putting the corporate brochure up on the Web site. Without differentiating the offer from competing sites, the firm is essentially commoditizing its offer and competing largely on price, which is the principal appeal of many e-business sites.
It is the provision of support processes and services that is the focus of most Web site evaluations that are addressing the issue of functionality. How easy is it to navigate the site and to conclude business? At this level, the emphasis is on the technical aspects of site design, the speed of the site, ability to navigate efficiently, availability of desired information, and ease of loading graphics.
The technical performance of the site is evaluated on the basis of whether the visitor was able to obtain what he or she wanted, in a timely manner, and in a form that was acceptable. Is it possible to complete the transaction, to obtain the information, and to actually have the product delivered when needed?
The interaction with the company and its employees can also be facilitated by a firm’s Web site. The ability to send an e-mail message (and to get a prompt response), to make contact through a 1-800 number or by live chat, to create a more personal contact between the customer and the company are all part of the delivery of service at this level.
Of course, the customer’s emotional response to the company is evoked at each of these levels. The most common negative emotion that seems to be produced around the use of Web sites is frustration. This is exemplified by the plethora of abandoned shopping carts at a huge number of e-retailing sites. If you’re serious about building genuine customer relationships AND doing business online, you’ve got to get beyond the functional to the emotional aspects of building genuine customer relationships on the Internet. If you don’t make an emotional connection with your customers, if you don’t ensure that your e-commerce strategy is centred around customer relationships rather than mere functionality, your site will never reach its potential as a tool for building genuine relationships between your business and your customers.
The next issue of Customer Intermarketing will continue our discussion about Building Genuine Customer Relationships on the Internet, including our practical tips and strategies for making your e-presence a customer relationship builder.
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