No More Shoppus Interruptus

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“I'm outta here!� An astounding 65 percent of online shoppers mutter this phrase as they abandon their carts after trying to navigate the abyss of some retail Web sites. Although online shopping seems tailor-made for today's busy consumer, technical failures, slow downloads, and poorly designed checkout processes continue to make for some frustrated online shoppers. In the real world, consumers would simply ask a sales clerk or customer service representative for help. But in the ether, customers feel very alone.

This sense of isolation can translate into lost sales. According to The Boston Consulting Group, nearly 30 percent of Web visitors who experienced problems while trying to shop on a site say they won't make a purchase on that site again. And 10 percent of folks surveyed say that after experiencing the angst of ether, they won't shop online at all. “If [e-tailers] want people to use their sites and actually buy from them, marketers need to embrace technologies that provide customer service and make a customer's experience hassle free,� says Ben Elstein, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group in Boston.

Elstein's advice may seem somewhat antiquated in light of the recent Internet meltdown. With so many New Economy companies in the tank, some businesses are pulling back (or placing on hold) their online strategies. But in the long term, this may be a mistake. Both the Internet and online shopping are here to stay, and creating good customer experiences and relationships “is the first line of defense when the economy is in a funk,� says Elstein.

The potential for increased sales is enough of a reason for marketers to make the shopping experience completely hassle free. And even with the slowdown of the New Economy, software developers are revamping applications like e-mail, simulation technologies, and streaming audio, among others, to enhance the purchasing process. These next versions of digital customer service “helpmates� are just now beginning to make waves in the e-tail sector. Here's a look at what some database and technology companies have to offer.

Giving the Internet a Voice

Three-year-old Audiobase, which develops online audio streaming software, is betting its bottom line on incorporating sound into its clients' sites. “What companies have discovered is that some consumers need reassurance and help,� says Tom Schnugg, vice president of product development for the Sausalito, California-based company.

On the client end, the process of incorporating Audiobase's technology is straightforward: Record a track in any format, and the sound clips will then be encoded into a format called Java Audio Services Delivery. The voice is then activated by the customer, and can be paused or shut down at any time. Marketers can record instructions for product searches, the checkout process, or shipping options that lead a customer through the entire site. Because the application is Java-based, more than 95 percent of Internet users don't require a plug-in — meaning no download time. The technology also “sniffs out� a user's connection speed, processing power, and operating system, and then makes any adjustments necessary by compressing or decompressing the file, says Schnugg.

Audiobase examines a wealth of research to help prove that sound matters. Research conducted for Audiobase by Vividence Corporation, a San Mateo, California Web evaluation company, found that 64 percent of users felt comfortable entering their personal information when audio was included on a site. Only 55 percent felt comfortable doing so without the sound. Respondents were more than twice as likely to succeed in the checkout process with the audio version (43.5 percent audio vs. 20 percent non-audio). And more than three times as many users selected the correct shipping method in an audio version (28 percent) vs. the non-audio version (8.5 percent).

Since Audiobase started focusing on its e-tail audio applications last year, the technology has been installed on a dozen sites, including that of financial giant Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. Visitors to the site can click on a picture of the company's founder and co-CEO, Charles Schwab, who encourages customers to learn more about managing money. Sections of the site, such as Retirement Ahead and Women Investors, are also enhanced by audio, which helps make the strategies and service offerings easier to understand. “We wanted to make visiting our Web site intuitive and simple, like talking to an investment professional,� says Craig Martin, vice president of electronic brokerage, customer acquisition, and business development.

On the e-tail front, The Company Store launched its audio-enabled Web site during the holiday season last year, with the introduction of audio sales assistant Katie. According to Orestes Chinea, the firm's marketing manager, traffic has “skyrocketed� since audio was added to the site. When customers visit thecompanystore.com, Katie greets them and walks them through the site, serving as a sales guide. So while filling out the various fields, users are alerted to common mistakes that often trip up shoppers and stall the online purchasing process.

Visual Aids

For consumers whose VCRs are eternally doomed to the “12 o'clock blink,� help is just a click away. A New York City-based company, called LiveProducts, provides consumers with online manuals and support information for more than 10,000 products. The company also offers customers the ability to comparison shop, and supplies personal “product portfolios� that let registered users keep track of models, serial numbers, and warranty information. So what? A lot of sites offer online manuals and similar services. But this company also presents interactive, functional product simulations that “look, sound, and behave just like the real thing,� says Bill Sims, president and chief executive officer for LiveProducts, which makes and markets the LiveManuals simulation technology.

After customers have tried the products online, LiveManuals.com takes them from the virtual product to the real product in just one click, so they can compare prices and then make the purchase. Consumer electronic giant Zenith Electronics Corporation is using LiveProducts' virtual displays for its line of universal remote controls. Each Zenith remote comes with the LiveManual logo on the package. The company deleted its toll-free help line, installing a 900 number instead, and guides consumers to the interactive manual, which includes demonstrations of many “how to's� that customers often need assistance with.

Typically, seeing an example of how the product should work and which buttons to press is actually of greater assistance to the customer than verbal-only instructions provided by a help line. Since “virtual� appliances, for example, can be duplicated at little expense, these items may allow companies to use virtual versions of their products for focus groups, or to begin marketing the item before the manufacturing process is complete.

Quick-Click Shopping

Bigfoot Interactive, a New York City-based e-mail marketing firm, is looking to reduce the number of steps in the purchase process. Bigfoot, in partnership with Marina Del Rey, California-based Radical Communication, developed e-mail software that allows customers to make purchases directly in the e-mail itself, without going elsewhere on the Web.

“The premise is to make e-mail transactional and target specific,� says Kate Leahy, Bigfoot's marketing director. Though most e-tailers already woo their online customers via e-mail that announces new products and specials, for example, customers are directed to the company's site after they click on the e-mail. Shoppers must wait for the site to download, and then are “inundated� with product choices. With the Bigfoot system, customers will only view one item that will complement a recent purchase.

“If a customer bought a yellow blazer, maybe it's time to buy a pair of complementary slacks or a blouse,� says Leahy. “Customers would get an e-mail showing one of those products, and all they have to do is click and purchase. There's no clutter, and it's an immediate push and sell.�

During last year's holiday season, Bigfoot tested the software with restaurant guide gurus Zagat, and found that those customers who received a transactional e-mail had a five times higher conversion rate than those who received a traditional HTML e-mail linking to Zagat's site.

It's too early to tell just how much these improved customer service technologies will affect the downward spiral of Internet's shoppus interruptus. But what is clear is that e-tailers' commitment to basic customer service functions is good news for marketers and customers alike. If the trend continues, online shopping may yet live up to its promise.

MAKE ME SMILE

According to The Boston Consulting Group, a satisfied customer has a greater compounding effect on the bottom line than most retailers realize.

The most-satisfied customers spent, on average, $673 over the past 12 months.

The least-satisfied customers spent, on average, $428 over the same period.

The most-satisfied consumers completed 9.4 transactions, compared with 6.5 for the least-satisfied group.

Books and health-and-beauty categories are top performers, with consumers saying that they were satisfied with their experiences 31 percent of the time.

The leisure travel and computer hardware categories have the lowest numbers for customer satisfaction, at only 20 percent.

Results drawn primarily from a survey of 2,876 U.S. Internet purchasers conducted during the fourth quarter of 2000.

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