Using e-mail to effectively communicate with your customers
Web Informant #175, 8 November 1999
One of the biggest obstacles to eCommerce is how a storefront communicates with you, the customer. Do it well and you can get tremendous loyalty and lifetime appreciation. Do it poorly and a potential shopper leaves forever in frustration. Consider the following, taken from my own personal eShopping over the past few weeks.
My wife decided to order tickets to an upcoming Brooklyn Academy of Music event and thought of using their Web site to place the order. Bad idea: BAM.org is a misleading morass. Weeks later we find out that because they post Web site transactions once a week manually, we missed out on a popular show that sold out in the time between when we thought our order was placed and when it was actually executed. It would have been a better strategy, had we known that the Web site was so broken, to just call the box office and read our credit card over the phone. Thats the last time I use their Web site when I want to see a show. And the ill will from this experience will be remembered long after we attend any other events, even though until now we were ardent supporters of BAM and enjoyed seeing various shows there.
BAM could have done something very simple: just put a single warning on their ordering pages, telling people that orders arent posted in anywhere near real time and that for best seat selection, go to the box office or call them during business hours directly. Or they could have indicated which shows are close to selling out and thus should have blocked any Web orders all together.
When I called BAMs box office and told them I was with the press, I got a very chagrined staffer who promised to make things up for me and apologized for the poor experience. That was the last time I heard from her.
Now contrast that experience with another. Last week I get an e-mail telling me that stamps.com is open for business and I can print our postage directly from my PC. Having heard about the idea for months, I was anxious to try it out. I like the concept of stamps.com: you dont need to purchase any hardware (unlike some of their competitors) and you can print out postage from a single account at multiple locations, such as from both home and work. The only catch is that you have to be connected to the net when you want to print your postage, which for me isnt usually a problem.
The only trouble was I couldnt get the thing to work on my Lexmark office printer: the eStamps kept printing halfway down the envelopes. When I tried stamps.com at home, I got it to work just fine on my HP laser. Not really wanting to cart my mail and envelopes from work to home and print them out there, I sought out the sites technical support. This happened early one Sunday morning, and I sent e-mail thinking that I would probably not hear from them for a while, if ever. Boy was I surprised when a reply came back within an hour, telling me to try to download a new driver from Lexmarks Web site and even giving me a URL to find the right driver.
When I got back to my office the following day, I downloaded the driver and it worked like a charm. That one e-mail from their support staff made all the difference between a positive and negative eCommerce experience. And while I have some minor issues with stamps.com, Ill probably continue to use their service.
Lets look at a third transaction last week. I had to make plane reservations for an upcoming trip. I tried to login to United Airlines Web site, only to find that they have changed their site and require me to set up yet another new account. At least this time they have finally realized that I should use my frequent flyer account number as the account identifier. But when I tried to set it up it said my password wasnt any good. Sigh: I guess it takes some time to update its database, because days later I was able to get access just fine.
Meantime, I needed those tickets. So I thought I was clever and noticed that United sends me anyway over to the Internet Travel Networks site to make the reservations. Since I use ITN and like the site for its spare but quick look, I went there directly and got my ticket, even getting a great fare in the process. Only trouble, I get two identical e-mails confirming my reservation. Does this mean I have booked two seats? Again, I send them e-mail and again I get a quick reply, telling me that no, just a single seat has been booked. That small response made all the difference in the world, and will have me coming back to ITN for future business, to be sure.
The best eCommerce is all about managing communication with your customers. The stamps.com and ITN sites understand this and have put the effort into prompt and helpful e-mail support. BAM and others still dont understand this, and risk losing customers because of it.
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Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress.