Got Questions? All You Have to Do Is Ask

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Internet surveys let customers tell e-tailers what's wrong - and right - about their sites.

Another chaotic holiday shopping season is upon us, but many wired consumers are likely to skip the madness at the mall this year. According to a recent survey by Internet market research firm e-BuyersGuide.com, 83 percent of online shoppers (both those who've made purchases, and those who've browsed for products on the Internet) plan to spend more than $100 in cyberspace on holiday gifts. Online shopping revenues are projected to reach more than $78 billion by 2003, according to New York City-based Jupiter Communications, an e-commerce research firm.

But while some consumers may be spending e-bucks, many others are not. "Sixty percent or more of shopping carts are abandoned on the Web," says Jens Schlueter, vice president of marketing and research for San Francisco-based Informative, Inc., an online information services company. Finding out what drives customer loyalty on the Web - and what drives customers away - can mean the difference between toasting a profitable new millennium or closing your store's virtual doors.

So how can an e-tailer know what consumers want from its site? Here's an idea: Ask them.

Online questionnaires can help retail Web sites gauge customer satisfaction, profile visitors, and provide a way to measure traffic for advertisers beyond banner click-throughs. By using research tools such as exit surveys, e-tailers can find out why people are leaving their sites - and why they might not come back.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, which offers an online banking product called Account Link by Web, conducted its first customer satisfaction survey, designed by Informative, in January and just completed its second last month. For the first survey, a random sample of Account Link customers were invited to fill out a questionnaire after they finished their banking sessions. Almost 39 percent of the 1,300 invited customers agreed to take the survey, says Joseph Pullella, marketing project manager. They were asked to rate the quality of various aspects of the service, including the ease of checking balances and transferring funds, as well as provide basic demographic info, such as age, income, and gender. Customers were also quizzed about their Internet and Account Link usage patterns, features they'd like to see on the site, and how they'd rate proposed features, such as online bill payment and an electronic checkbook register.

"Satisfaction with the service was very high - much higher than we'd anticipated," says Pullella. Almost 80 percent of participants rated Account Link "good" to "excellent." There were other surprises as well: 82 percent of users turned out to be male, rather than the expected 50/50 split, and more than 70 percent visited the site either a few times a week or daily. Although the survey was mainly designed as a satisfaction tracking tool, discovering such patterns has prompted PNC to consider using space on the Web site to pitch special services, such as its loan auction program, to this high-frequency group. Customers' preferences were integrated back into the site as well. For example, electronic bill payment - the top feature customers said they wanted on the site - was added in August, Pullella says.

The high level of satisfaction among PNC's wired customers mirrors the general Internet population's opinions about e-commerce. Roughly 88 percent of people who have bought something on the Internet say they're satisfied with the online purchasing process, according to a recent report from Gartner Group's Dataquest, a Stamford, Connecticut-based information technology market intelligence research firm. "The primary key to overall consumer satisfaction with online purchasing is the ease of placing orders or reservations," says Harry Hoyle, vice president of Dataquest's The Interactive Home: Technology & Infrastructure U.S. program. "But it is crucial to remember there is no second chance to win customer loyalty."

In fact, one out of five U.S. households who bought online from last February to April experienced problems, according to Dataquest. Of that group, 49 percent placed orders that never arrived (half even received a bill), and 25 percent couldn't contact the customer service department via e-mail. The Internet's promise of "anytime shopping" brings with it a user expectation for "anytime support," which merchants often can't deliver, Hoyle says. And online shoppers aren't willing to wait for merchants to catch up. According to e-BuyersGuide.com, 13 percent of online shoppers - including both those who've made a purchase and those who are just looking - say they won't return to Web sites where they have shopped, and 9 percent say they aren't satisfied with online customer service. One possible reason for their disgruntlement: 10 percent of products that they ordered online were out of stock.

Indeed, issues such as product availability and the sophistication of a site's virtual "shopping cart" technology are emerging as the next hot buttons in customer satisfaction, says Damian Christianson, project manager at InterVantage, the development company for shoemaker New Balance's retail Web site. But New Balance has discovered a way to anticipate customers' needs. Using cPulse, an online monitoring tool from a firm of the same name based in New York, the shoemaker randomly asks visitors at its site to rate the importance and performance of things like customer support, ease of navigation and ordering, product selection and prices, site security, shipping and handling issues, delivery options, product descriptions, and new product updates.

Although New Balance just launched cPulse in August, Christianson says the company has already gained valuable information about its customers. For instance, although survey participants said they're willing to pay for shipping, they also indicated that price is a big factor in their purchasing decision. The company is still validating the results, but it has started to charge for shipping on Web orders, says Christianson. The questionnaire will be continuously tweaked to find out even more about consumers - such as whether they count shipping and handling as part of the price. "As time goes on, we'll modify and change the questions," says Christianson. "Once we've satisfied customer needs in one area, then we can go and find out what the next area is that needs to be addressed."

E-commerce sites are using pop-up Web surveys for more than tracking customer satisfaction. Women. com, an online community site that offers editorial content and e-commerce services, has surveyed visitors for several years, but recently boosted its research efforts. The surveys are designed to discover visitors' demographic and psychographic profiles for the network's internal use, as well as to share with advertisers.

Along with collecting basic demographic data, the site also asks visitors about their e-commerce habits (whether they've shopped for or purchased anything online recently, for instance), their feelings about privacy on the Internet, and value and attitudinal questions, such as whether they agree or disagree with statements like: "I'm usually the first in my peer group to try something new." Such information provides a picture of the person on the other side of the computer that goes beyond her average age and income, says Regina Lewis, director of research for Women.com Networks Inc.

Understanding whether visitors are more risk-oriented, family-focused, or career-minded helps Women.com set the right tone when talking to visitors, Lewis says, and has resulted in page redesigns. The site's surveys also show potential and existing advertisers how women approach the online shopping process. In addition, Women.com has designed custom questionnaires to verify the impact of advertisers' dollars by measuring brand awareness before and after a sponsor's ad runs on the site.

Not everyone, however, is sold on the value of Web surveys. Richard Jamison, president of Cliffside, New Jersey-based marketing consulting firm Productivity Enhancement Inc., says that it can often be cheaper - and more productive - for small businesses to invest in developing and marketing their site, rather than spending part of their budget on surveys. If the site's a winner, repeat sales figures will prove that customers are satisfied.

Budget constraints will always be an issue - costs for online surveys range from next to nothing (cPulse offers its monitoring service gratis, then sells the compiled results as syndicated industry satisfaction trend reports) to $50,000 or more. An Internet survey with a small sample size - 200 people or less - will probably cost about the same as a telephone survey, says Bill MacElroy, president of online research firm Socratic Technologies, Inc. in San Francisco. But, since server and software expenses and set-up fees for online surveys are fixed, the costs of polling more people online are relatively incremental, compared to the labor and long-distance charges associated with phone surveys, says Charlie Hamlin, president of Greenwich, Connecticut-based NFO Interactive. (Labor costs alone for telephone surveys average $20 to $25 for each 15-minute interview.)

Response rates on the Web can be less than stellar as well, perhaps not surprising since many wired consumers shop online to save time, not spend more of it filling out a survey. While some e-tailers can garner response rates between 30 percent and 40 percent, others may log only 1 percent click-throughs on pop-up surveys, says Steve Cook, senior vice president of client development for Westport, Connecticut-based Greenfield Online, Inc.

And be careful how you read the results. Web surveys, says Jamison at Productivity Enhancement, tend to attract people who either like to answer surveys, or "the very ticked-off." In the end, though, it's probably better that you hear the gripes of your customers - or else they might e-mail their friends and tell them instead.

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