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The New Look of E-Commerce : The Customer Experience

he key to improving customer experience is to understand and cater to the expectations and needs of your online customers. A good first step often involves usability testing, where customers sit down and react to the site based on their goals. Surveys and focus groups are less effective.

For many firms, e-commerce has evolved into a highly sophisticated science involving new technologies, techniques and even new approaches to measuring marketing and sales effectiveness.
Customer experience is one of the new areas that marketers have had to grapple with since the dot-com bust signaled a reality check four years ago.

The scramble to improve the online customer experience evolved out of the failure of feature-driven Web sites on the one hand, and the emergence of Web analytics technology on the other -- which allowed firms to quickly see results and competitor behavior.

"Everyone takes notice when a new home page causes a dip in sales, or a marketing campaign delivers lower-than-expected results. This leads to fast, pain-relieving course corrections," Harley Manning, vice president of research at Forrester Research, told NewsFactor.

Bottom-Line Issue

Many of the retail e-commerce sites that rank highly in Web-site usability, such as Amazon , eBay , Lands End, Expedia , Hilton Hotels and Victoria's Secret, have climbed to the top by obsessing about the customer experience and acting on assessments about customer or visitor behavior.

Usability testing is now a regular part of e-commerce development in retail, banking and financial services and is gaining ground in other sectors. Still, some industry verticals are slow to get the message.

"The auto makers tend to be slaves to their offline ad campaigns," says Manning. "They'll do things like design beautiful sites that don't help customers make a buying decision, then pat themselves on the backs when the latest J.D. Power survey confirms that customers do indeed think they have beautiful sites. But who cares? Do they want to win art contests or generate leads for dealers?"

Forrester and other analyst firms are promoting customer experience as a bottom-line issue, which is driving a universal acceptance of usability as a legitimate business metric from the CFO downward. Web managers who underestimate the importance of good Web usability will suffer the consequences -- competitor sites are within easy reach of today's Web surfer.

Competitive Pressure

Many firms are demanding that their ad agencies or Web boutiques, which typically lack in-house usability experts, conduct usability studies on their site development projects. These traditional print and Web-marketing consultancies are looking outside to meet their client's needs for including usability as part of Web-development offerings.

Clients and users alike have lashed out against inaccessible Web sites. Web boutique SBI.Razorfish was sued by its client IAM in 2000, for delivering a Web site with an unusable navigation system. America Online (AOL) was forced to settle with the National Federation of the Blind for not complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act in making the famed AOL browser accessible to users with disabilities.

Increased Revenue

Studies have shown that adherence to usability standards and guidelines can drastically improve the revenue potential of a Web site. Customer conversion rates can increase between 30 and 50 percent following a usability intervention. Revenue can increase 50 to 100 percent or more on retail e-commerce Web sites.

For example, RVSearch.com, a retail vehicle-listing Web site, saw an 83 percent increase in consumer-listing conversion rates after usability research was used to re-design the site.

"In the first month, we saw revenue double -- a 100 percent increase in sales. Renewals were up 13 percent in the post-site-deployment period," said David Scifres, vice president of e-commerce for the Affinity Group, the parent company of the site.

"After six months, consumer-listing sales increased by 200 percent, which we attribute to the usability driven re-design. This translates into a four times increase in consumer revenue," he told NewsFactor.

Independent research also is showing more compelling reasons to make calculated and precise shifts in site enhancement or re-design. Stanford Research's ongoing large-scale study regarding perception of credibility on the Web shows that ease of use is the top contributing factor to perceived credibility of Web sites.

In addition, the Poynter Institute's recently released eye-tracking study gives valuable clues as to best placement of content, advertising, multimedia elements and page layout, based on how users react to page-design elements.

Improving the Customer Experience

The key to improving the customer experience is to understand and cater to the expectations and needs of your online customers. A good first step often involves usability testing, where customers sit down and react to the site based on their goals. Surveys and focus groups are less effective, since they focus on customer opinion and not their actual behavior.

Having the right content in the right place and at the right time can also be an effective tool for improving the customer experience.

"Giving Web visitors the content they need to make a decision about your product is vital," Richard Day, CEO of software company ColumbiaSoft, told NewsFactor. "Our Web visitors and customers report that they like the depth of information that our Web site provides.

"More importantly, though, we try to provide the right amount of content at each level, based on how far the user wants to go. This includes things like flash demos, data sheets, and screen-shot walkthroughs of our product. Mixed-content formats sequenced at different levels of visitor exploration have been highly successful for us."

Perhaps the most strategic usability research is the user-needs analysis or field study. This involves behavioral observation and contextual interviewing of users in their work or home settings. From this field research, customer "personas" are created that represent the goals, roles and tasks that are most important to customers.

"Creating a shared understanding of customers and their goals by embracing personas ... is the thing to do if you do nothing else," says Manning. "Personas get you cross-company buy-in on who the most important customer segments are and what they want and need, which in turn provides an instant litmus test for whether you're making good design decisions or bad ones."

Marseille,10 18 2004
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