Every online entrepreneur must understand the simple rule of doing business on the Internet and how to succeed online: customers rule!
Consumer power drive today’s economy. With a simple click of the mouse, the customer can decide whether your business deserves his dollars or not. They can either hit your “Buy” button, or click the “Back” button to go to your competitors. A recent Bain and Company study finds that over 2,000 customers in three retail segments — apparel, groceries, and consumer electronics/appliances — suggest that 10 percent of customers cite better service as the reason they shop online. With the information explosion on the Internet, the balance of power has shifted from the manufacturer to the retailer, and now down to the consumer, as consumers become more jaded, cynical and savvy about marketing.
One of the biggest mistakes made by online retailers is thinking that the basic principle of satisfying customers is now passe in the “new economy.” Take the now-classic case of Boo.com, a well-oiled and much-hyped luxury goods e-tailer during the initial dot-com period a decade ago. The demise of Boo.com was a result of its focus on technologies that, while innovative and ahead of its time, were too cumbersome and complicated for customers. It mistakenly thought that the warning on its homepage: “This site is designed for 56K modems and above” (yes, that was the age of dial-ups and modems) could appease potential customers of its slow-loading graphics. There was too much style over substance, that for many, it was more trouble than it was worth to actually buy something. After only six months and burning nearly $200 million, Boo.com, the poster child of Internet excess, had to say goodbye.
In the online world, only the businesses — whether big or small — that serves their customers right will be left standing. The key driver of online success (or failure) is customer experience. As the novelty of online shopping wears off, online customers will place more focus on the quality of service. Despite all the venture capital financing received, even big businesses will fail if it does not serve its customers correctly.
Small businesses should take heed: you have a fighting chance if you treat your customers right! You may not have the huge capital, the best technology or the hype and publicity of these well-oiled big online businesses; others do not even have staffs! However, you can still compete effectively online by focusing on your customers, figuring out what they want and need and making life easier for them. Focus on getting the basics right: superior service leads to satisfied customers; satisfied customers lead to referrals and referrals are the most effective way to build a wide customer base. Look at the example of the small business RedWagons.com, and how they succeeded with their online niche business.
The crucial thing is to learn to integrate customer experience in your business strategy. Here are the three steps on how to succeed online:
1. Identify your customer’s goals and your goals.
The first step is to identify your best customer segment and understand their needs precisely. Not all customers are profitable, so tailor your offer to your best customers. To do so, you need to get clear answers to questions like:
Who are your target customers?
Know the demographics of your visitors. Demographics are a powerful information to help you better respond to your customer needs. With this information, you can set out your site to your target market by clearly defining your site’s business plan and marketing goals.
What do customers want from your site?
Remember, not all customers are profitable, so you need to identify your best customers and tailor your offer to them. Make sure to understand what your best customers really need and why they have defected. By learning the purpose of your visitors, you are in a much better situation to provide them with what they want. The better you serve their purposes, the more they will appreciate your site.
Why are they visiting your site and would they return after their first visit?
Do everything to entice your customers to identify themselves to you, such as special discounts or other incentives. Despite privacy concerns, you would be surprised by how much information customers will willingly volunteer if they think you are trustworthy! Study online competitors, off-line competitors, and any “comparable” dot-coms that are facing similar issues in a different market.
What technology do they use, what features are they familiar with, and how long do they want to spend at our site?
A lot of online businesses fail because either their designs are far too bandwidth intensive, or it did not do its homework and has zero knowledge of the customer’s ability and usage of the site.
2. Your company’s mission should be to provide great customer experience.
You must commit yourself to creating the best possible customer experience for your site. Some brick-and-mortar organizations making a crossover to e-commerce have ingrained behaviors and attitudes that hinder delivering superior customer service. If other people are involved in your online business from independent web designers, to programmers or marketing personnel make sure that everyone shares your vision.
If you have employees, it is best that you assign one of them to be your customer service champion whose main job is to oversee how the company is continuously improving its service. Linking rewards to service is also an effective way to promote better service.
Your organization’s goal should be to provide a great customer experience that makes it quicker and easier for customers to buy your products or services.
Use objective data. Solicit customer feedback, run survey forms, or get a friend to evaluate the site. Gather and use information to improve your relationship with all of your customers, including social media. Refrain from sending them with frequent direct mail or with unsolicited e-mail. As much as possible avoid selling your customer information to anyone: it will anger your customer for violating your promise of protecting his or her privacy.
On the Internet, showing brochures and sales promotions alone is not going to cut it with the consumers. While competitive pricing is the first step, the role of every online entrepreneur is to become relationship-focused if his or her business is to survive. In terms of technology, it is crucial that online companies invest in technology but there is no need to go overboard. Use available technology to improve customer service and manage costs.
3. Keep an eye on customer experience.
It is essential to continually monitor and improve customer experience. Watch (and respond to) customer e-mails, actively listen to feedback and comments, and occasionally involve outside experts to give objective guidance.
A great customer experience can result in strong word-of-mouth exposure, positive publicity, and increased revenues. However, customer experience is never perfect. Building a greater customer experience is not an event, but a continuous process towards online success.