Let's face it: most small business Web sites are eerily quiet. Visitors pass through, take a look around, pay their respects to the traffic-monitoring software, and then move on, never to be seen again. One study by Forrester Research shows that 66 percent of online shoppers abandon their shopping carts without completing the purchase.
Because so few of the visitors to any e-commerce site large or small actually buy anything, the standard strategy for success on the Web has been to attract as many eyeballs as possible. The same small percentage of the people who possess those eyeballs will complete their purchase but since it's a small percentage of a much larger audience, the reasoning goes, business is bound to increase.
Attracting eyeballs to a site is great, but a business can't take eyeballs to the bank. And attracting attention in today's loud, crowded business culture is too darn expensive. Besides, no business should bother attracting hordes of visitors to its site if it doesn't know what to do with them once they're there. Instead, it needs to turn all those dearly departed Web browsers into dedicated Web buyers.
AH, THE HUMANITY
The average customer is an ordinary soul who needs the same nudge to buy that every successful retail store supplies. After all, shopping is still a human-oriented activity, and people have expectations of what a shopping experience should be.
Look around your site. Can you tell that this site involves human beings at all? Could it just as easily be a front-end for a database query engine? Many e-commerce sites are as welcoming and homey as a morgue. That's no surprise: Their focus is on the sale, not the customer.
The trick is creating opportunities for visitors to interact with an actual human being or at least get the sense that there's someone behind all these bits and bites. Connie Todd, the owner of the Connie's Kids children's clothing boutique in Chesapeake, Va., now also operates on line at www.connieskids.com. Her retail store has always gotten calls from all over the country, looking for hard-to-find or special clothing. By giving customers personal service, she's earned lifelong customers and friends.
Her site follows the same pattern of building a relationship one person at a time. It features the items from her inventory, and each picture can be enlarged by customers who want to take a closer look. The site also has an e-mail link on every page. But the centerpiece of the site is the toll-free number that is prominently displayed on the opening page. Todd would rather have her customers phone in their orders or call her for help than have them flail around in the dark and finally leave with nothing when the credit-card transaction system times out.
A toll-free number that lets customers call and talk to a human being is an invaluable addition for any Web site. Even simply listing an address on the site will reassure customers and give them some sense of where on earth you are. At the very least, make sure your e-mail address is easy to locate, so customers can send you e-mail with questions, comments, suggestions, or even complaints. And don't forget to actually respond to them.
Finally, there's what may be the killer app for small businesses with e-commerce sites live, instant customer service through the Internet, using a chat-like interface. Some companies are now offering to supply this service for very little money and sometimes even for free.Web buyers.
Even when customers don't need help from an actual person, it's important that they get the feeling that there's somebody there. They want to know a site is legitimate, and that they can trust the people behind it. They also want to know whose neck they can wring if something goes wrong. But you'll never get their business in the first place if you can't instill confidence in them.
One way to draw people to a retail store is the sight of other people inside. A simple "Comments from our customers" page can show newcomers that others like to buy at your site. Some sites also have customer chat facilities to discuss products and related issues. Others, like Amazon, let visitors post their own reviews. If your site feels like a comfortable place for folks to hang out, they will and will be more likely to buy something.
Take a lesson from Wal-Mart commercials, which don't emphasize that Wal-Mart is a global force with purchasing clout and sophisticated transport services. They show just plain folks shopping at stores run by just plain folks.
Another good idea would be to join the Better Business Bureau Online, a trade association, a professional organization, or an industry group. But be willing to abide by the rules they set. When you display their logo, it lets customers know that you've put your name and reputation on the line, and that you won't be packing up the shop and moving to South America anytime soon. (But that's no reason not to consider setting up a mirror site in Spanish.) It's also a good idea to get seals of approval from practices-monitoring groups like TRUSTe or VeriSign. This doesn't mean your site has to be foolproof, but it lets customers know you're trying.
Still, the easiest way to reassure potential customers is having a return policy and posting it prominently. There's been a lot of attention given to the importance of posting privacy policies, and it is important. But if someone distrusts the privacy of their transaction, they probably won't even start one. On the other hand, many shoppers simply get cold feet at some point in the transaction, and they need to know the real terms they're agreeing to.
If you aren't willing to accept the trouble of processing returns and refunds, just say so: It will hurt business, but save hassle.
These are just a few suggestions. They may or may not apply to your particular site, and it's important to ask what your priorities should be. Identify why the customers who abandon transactions do so. This may be an easy question to answer (you're getting e-mail after e-mail asking about return policies) or it may be incredibly difficult.
Products like Web Trends Enterprise Suite from Web Trends Corporation can help you track the behavior of customers and get some idea of when and why they're backing out. They can be costly, but are worth it for companies that know how to interpret the data they're collecting and that are ready to commit seriously to their e-commerce sites.
In some cases, the best answer may be better technology or a new design customers often do leave sites because they're too slow or disorganized. But it will be easy to keep a lot of the business you're losing now simply by making the shopping experience more convenient for the user.
That means giving them choices. Ideally, there should be more than one way for customers to find the information they need. They should be able to search the site for what they want, call a toll-free number, or consult a Frequently Asked Questions list. Privacy and return policies should be posted prominently on the site, but users should also be able to ask questions about these things and get answers.
One final example of how limiting choice can limit your business: Many sites only accept two credit cards, MasterCard and Visa. Think about accepting other cards, like American Express or Discover, and consider accepting checks, money orders, and possibly even COD (as companies like Gateway Computer do).
In other words, don't give potential customers any excuse to go somewhere else on the Web, they will.