Study: Successful E-tailing Takes Common Sense

Opinion: A service industry group outlines nine steps for improving the online experience for customers.

The service industry consulting firm Service Excellence Research Group March 3 released a comprehensive report entitled, "Influencing the Online Experience."

Based on responses from 503 customers and 311 companies on both the consumption and supply sides of the online experience, the report reveals nothing so much as the fact that successful online retailing largely requires common sense on the part of the retailer.

The report concludes with nine steps to improve the online service experience. A brief run-through of each step should prove my assertion that successful online retailing relies far less on technical expertise and the latest Web 2.0 and 3.0 bells and whistles than it does on the same common-sense, tried-and-true principles that have underpinned customer service since the days of non-monetary barter.

Step 1. Understand the experience your customers expect. The fundamental rule of any business is "know thy customer." It's not enough to know what products they want, or even what prices they will bear. You must know the experience they desire. Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts both sell coffee, but you would never mistake the store location of one for the other. The experience provided by a retailer's Web site should be just as distinct and tailored to their general audience's tastes as the experience provided by their brick-and-mortar stores.

Step 2. Define the elements of the experience you intend to deliver. Do you sell a product that lends itself to browsing or accessorizing, such as books or fashion? Your online experience should include a lot more elements, such as cross- and upsell recommendations and links to other pages and sites, than the experience on the site of a retailer selling a more narrowly defined product, such as auto parts.

Step 3. Identify the content and tools required to fulfill customer expectations. Do you sell products favored by young, hip technophiles? Make sure your site includes a lot of graphics and animation. Do you sell products favored by retirees? Large typeface and intuitive navigation are what you should be offering.

Step 4. Success criteria is key to a positive experience. Without some concrete numbers to crunch, such as rates of customer conversion or shopping-cart abandonment, you won't really know how well you're nailing the online customer experience you offer. Hopefully you knew this one already.

Step 5. Identify other resources that infringe on or inhibit your ability to deliver the intended experience to customers and prospects. The Internet is a big place. Whatever products and services you offer are being offered on many other sites. Check them out and don't be afraid to borrow ideas that seem to work. Again, this is something you should have been doing from the moment you entered the e-commerce space.

Step 6. Fight to maintain control of the experience you deliver to customers and prospects. It's a lot harder to tightly control what happens on a Web site than it is to tightly control what happens in a store, but you still have to do it. You have many stores, so a bad customer experience in one will probably not seriously damage your brand. You have one Web site. A bad customer experience on it can kill you.

Step 7. Make investments that improve the customer experience. If I have to explain this one, you're probably already having your bankruptcy clearance sale.

Step 8. Experience your experience. Mystery shopping isn't just for brick-and-mortar stores. Thoroughly walk through your site and test every feature. Assume you have no Web-savvy tricks up your sleeve and don't use any device other than what is clearly offered on the site to resolve problems or issues you come across.

Step 9. Rinse and repeat. Do you do your laundry once and assume it will stay clean? I hope not. Likewise, going through and cleaning your site once is nice, but it will start accumulating "stains" again soon enough. Repeat these steps on a regular basis. And if you honestly answered "yes" to my laundry question, find yourself a Web site that sells heavy-duty detergent, and use the express delivery option.

Dan Berthiaume covers the retail industry for For more industry news, check out's Retail Site here.