You wouldn't return to a High Street store if the aisles were disorganised, the goods weren't properly priced and the tills wouldn't accept your credit card - and the same is true in the online world.
In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, recent research has demonstrated just how important the online customer experience is to ecommerce success.
The report, by 7, found that over a third of respondents have turned their back on an online retailer and turned to a competitor to make a purchase following a disappointing internet experience. And the suggestion is that this number is set to increase.
“Consumer’s expectations are growing massively as people are more comfortable with online shopping and use it more regularly,” warns Jeremy Vernon, joint managing director at Core Fulfilment. “Overall, consumers shop online for convenience so the convenience factor must be at the forefront of the whole process from using the website, ordering and payment and right through to the delivery. We would counter that, on the whole, customers have high expectations because they are getting such a good service from the majority of retailers.”
Certainly there are plenty of examples of brands that are excelling in the online domain. John Lewis, for instance, has huge success combining online shopping with its bricks-and-mortar stores, including the click and collect at Waitrose stores, which has been hugely popular. Elsewhere, etailer AO is completely revolutionising the white goods market.
And of course, there is the perennial favourite, Amazon.
“Amazon is possibly an over-used example, but it has really strong customer loyalty,” says Chris Fletcher, research director at Gartner. “It continues to provide new services and move into new areas, from music and movie screening to platforms for companies to build their own technologies on.”
Paul Burns, joint managing director at Core Fulfilment, notes: “These ecommerce retailers have set the bar high. Perhaps other businesses find these elements a challenge but these examples are the businesses who are getting it right – and other businesses should have the same focus on the customer and their needs. Overall, yes the bar for ecommerce is being set very high – but we believe all companies should strive to replicate these highly successful ecommerce strategies – which all put the customer at the forefront of their offerings.”
However, with leading etailers seemingly boasting an endless conveyor belt of innovative services, it means that all online stores must not only cover off the basics, but also provide many of the latest bells and whistles if they are to satisfy the modern internet shopper.
Fletcher says: “The need to increase the customer experience can mean a very broad set of capabilities. It’s anything from being able to buy online and return to the store, or buy online and pick up in the store, to the ability to have multiple payment types, different credit cards as well as things like bill-me-later or PayPal. And it’s also important that you develop a relationship with the customer where you understand what they’re interested in, and you understand the products they’ve bought in the past, so that you can promote products actively which fit with their expectations and interests.”
So what should brands be focusing on to ensure their online experience is competitive? Experts shared their advice with MyCustomer about how to ensure a top notch ecommerce experience for your customers.
Increasingly, the websites where consumers buy the most are those with fresh content that predisposes them to buy - and that also keeps them coming back until they are ready to buy.
“In this transformed online landscape where Google’s algorithm updates have made quality content more paramount than ever for competitive rankings, ecommerce sites must be more than simply functional,” warns Kath Dawson, creative director at Strategy Digital.
“Created with a specific set of ‘buying personas’ in mind, they must answer any questions a visitor has around the product, service or sector before they occur to them, in an interesting, attractive and up-to-date way. Downloadable product guides, apps, whitepapers, online tools and video content are all excellent methods of delivering this in a unique and appealing way - and at the same time meeting Google’s requirements.
“Usability and user experience is a huge factor to success, and as such, making sure the site looks as beautiful as possible and works perfectly across all platforms, guiding the user through the purchasing process, is key. Great content will aid this transition, particularly if it fills all information gaps and acts as a marketing tool for the attributes of the product or service on offer.”
An area that shouldn’t be overlooked – but often can be – is the quality of the website’s search capability.
“Many brands don’t realise they have a problem with their on-site search returning horrendous results,” notes Chloe Thomas, founder of indiumonline.co.uk and author of the eCommerce MasterPlan. “One of the common ones in the fashion industry is you call your jeans ‘denim’, and so when someone searches for jeans, nothing comes up. Or on a maternity wear website, you don’t use the word ‘maternity’ in any of your product names because why would you, all you sell is maternity wear. But if someone searches on your website for maternity dresses they get no results, because none of your dresses are called ‘maternity dresses’.
Paige O’Neil, CMO of SDL, adds: “It’s a crucial element to consider – if you don’t want to lose a customer, transaction or upsell, the ecommerce search box is a major customer interaction point. Etailers need to focus on personalisation and optimisation, with easy navigation and easy search features linked to catalogues of products so customers can get the right product, at the right time.”
Thomas recommends running a search on some of your best-selling products to see what results are returned. But she advises against trying to fix any problems yourself.
“It really is one of those best-of-breed technologies you want to bring a third party in to sort out, because it can just make such a difference to conversion,” she says. “There is often also an added SEO benefit as well that these experts can bring into the site by creating better pages and more interesting pages on your website that help increase traffic. It’s a bit of a no-brainer to bolt that on.”
Clear navigation is an essential part of ecommerce site design, and is therefore fundamental to a good online shopping experience. This means that the menus must be logical and enable customers to quickly and easily find what they are looking for in as few clicks as possible. Indeed, etailers are constantly seeking to streamline the online shopping experience further for their customers.
“Ecommerce is constantly evolving and businesses need to keep up with digital trends and shifts to meet consumer’s expectations. Customers now expect clear, simple website navigation and dislike having to opt out of additional offers,” says Guy Chiswick, managing director at Webloyalty Northern Europe. “In line with this, Ryanair has recently overhauled their site and now users can make a purchase in five clicks, down from 17 previously. Amazon has also responded to this by offering 1-click purchasing to Amazon Prime members.”
“Most ecommerce usability issues are highly tied to mobile,” suggests Sucharita Mulpuru, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “The sites don’t always render quickly and the content may not show up appropriately.”
Chiswick similarly believes it is a common problem. “Badly produced websites that are not optimised for mobile are one of the main things that can drive customers away. More and more customers are using mobile phones and tablets to purchase online, and retailers need to respond to this.”
Indeed, with Gartner predicting that mobile devices will overtake PCs as the most common web access device worldwide this year, it is critical that online stores are optimised for mobile devices.
“There is no easy way of hiring more head count dedicated to mobile or having a bigger budget dedicated to it – it is always a hard decision to make. But the heart of it is that you have to dedicate resources that are mobile specific. That is the single biggest challenge from an organisational standpoint that is important to make.”
With the internet being a borderless environment, brands can attract an international audience to their sites, even if they have yet to expand into new territories. But according to research from Common Sense Advisory, 55% of all consumers prefer only to buy from websites in their native language – even when their level of English is good. In fact, for shoppers whose English is limited, the preference to buy only from websites in their mother tongue jumps to 80% or more.
“Many etailers are struggling to really know their customers and give them the personal experience they crave. For any online retailer wanting to sell on a global scale, language personalisation needs to be a key consideration,” notes O’Neill. “Etailers not introducing native language support are really missing a trick, as this provides valuable personalised communication for shoppers from all over the globe. It doesn’t even need to be a perfect translation. The fact that it’s instantaneous and inexpensive is a major advantage and will go a long way in building a loyal customer base.
“One area of content localisation where we’ve seen growth is multilingual chat. Companies are turning to this as they look to build up their global customer support channels, now everyone is living digital lifestyles. The good thing about multilingual chat is that you could be a Spanish speaker in the customer support centre, typing responses in Spanish and they will be automatically translated to appear in the native language of the shopper and vice versa.”
One of the biggest challenges that brands are facing in the modern market is that today’s customer is channel-agnostic, and demands a seamless customer experience across all channels, whether in-store, online or via mobile.
“A key fact for any ebusiness to remember is that online and offline shopping are connected and the experience of shopping in one channel directly impacts the customer’s experience in the other channel. As such, providing a seamless experience across all channels is vital,” warns Bill Loller, vice president of IBM Smarter Commerce.
Unfortunately, this is not necessarily straightforward.
“You hear everybody talking about a cross-channel or a multichannel or an omnichannel experience at the moment, and what that really means is that retailers are trying to blend the experience you get from their ecommerce sites with the in-store experience and the experience you get from a call centre. And it’s challenge,” explains Fletcher.
“On the one hand you’ve got the worst case example where you put an order in online and then you want to change something on it so you call and of course the retailer has no visibility. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very much anymore. But what we find does still happen is that somebody will order online and want to pick up from the store, or they’ll order online and want it delivered to their house then they’ll want to return it to the store. And these kinds of complexities are really creating some headaches for retailers.
“A lot of it is dependent on the back-end systems which are not very glamorous and don’t get as much coverage as they should. But things like order management and distributive order management, inventory and warehouse management systems, the financial management systems all play a really important part of that cross-channel experience.”
But not everything to do with integration is a technical issue, and some efforts to ensure a consistent experience are actually quite straightforward.
“Often it comes down to companies failing to join the dots and siloing their departments,” highlights Thomas. “For instance, they will give a voucher code away, but you can only use it in-store and not online, so despite the fact your order came from online, you have to go in-store to get the voucher they sent you to incentivise you to buy again. This just erodes trust and it erodes the reputation of the business.
“Likewise, if you speak to someone in-store and they say ‘I’m sure we can get that to you tomorrow’ and then you ring the call centre and they say ‘oh, no it’ll be at least three weeks’, you’ve got different people in different parts of the business giving a different response. Customer service for the big companies tends to come down to lack of consistency from channel to channel, from promotion to promotion, things falling through the cracks, which is actually so simple to solve. It’s not a technology problem, it’s not a location problem, it’s not a big problem to solve – it’s simply making sure that one department conforms to the other.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.