In a world where online security breaches and identity theft are constant news, it’s your job as a merchant to make shoppers feel as comfortable as possible with the online buying experience. If a shopper doesn’t think of your site as being particularly safe, he might not visit it, let alone make a purchase from it. High levels of confidence translate directly into sales.

But earning customer trust is a significant undertaking. Beyond building a secure Website, you must infuse the entire shopping environment with elements that convey trustworthiness and credibility — from solid site design to accurate product descriptions to nonobtrusive requests for personal information from shoppers at checkout.

Encouraging consumers to trust your Website involves committing time and resources to communicate the safety of your site, the professionalism of your operation, and the credibility of your brand. There are a host of changes you can begin making today that will help build trust with shoppers, which in turn will result in higher conversion rates and more sales.

Security blankets

A safe and secure Website is the most crucial element to building online trust. While employing the latest encryption technology is now standard practice, what will set your site apart is your ability to communicate and reinforce your commitment to the safety and security of all your customers.

Consider the following improvements:

  • Create a “worry-free shopping” environment. Craft clearly stated shipping, return, and privacy policies as well as security and product guarantees, and link to them prominently. Proactively addressing these concerns is more important than ever; more than half of online shoppers say they’re more likely today than in the past to read a site’s privacy policy due to security concerns, according to a 2005 Consumer Reports/WebWatch study.

    Apparel and home goods merchant Lands’ End, for one, provides links to its privacy and security policies and to its guarantee on every page of the site. The message is reinforced during checkout, where a colored side column makes it tough to miss these links.

  • Never require more information than you need to complete the purchase. Nothing causes consumers more concern about privacy than merchants trying to collect seemingly irrelevant information; customers are likely to wonder whether they’re going to use it for purposes other than completing the order. If you do require anything beyond billing and delivery information, explain why.

  • Display security certification logos from trusted vendors. Certifying your site with services such as HackerSafe, HackerFree, TrustE, the Better Business Bureau Online, and BizRate entails meeting their objective criteria for safety; doing so gives your site an impartial seal of approval. Similarly, displaying logos from security vendors such as VeriSign and ScanAlert communicates that your site’s safety is in the hands of reputable outfits. Using such logos can help boost average conversion rates 14%, according to ScanAlert.

Look the part

Online shoppers will judge your site by more than security logos. Several design and technical factors also convey credibility and encourage customer trust. Best-practice implementation of the following elements is crucial to driving sales:

  • Invest in design. A professionally designed Website lends credibility to your business. Visitors do notice design: Nearly half of the shoppers surveyed by the Stanford Credibility Project/Consumer WebWatch in 2002 said a site’s appearance has an effect on credibility.

  • Pay attention to load time, and avoid downtime at all costs. To meet industry standards, a Web page should load within two seconds for a user on a T1 line. Longer load times and site outages not only frustrate shoppers but also undermine confidence in site security. In a study conducted by Hewlett-Packard Labs, users equated slow page-load times with shoddy technology and therefore doubted the safety of transactions and the overall integrity of the business.

  • Avoid typos and broken links. These errors hurt a site’s credibility more than you might imagine, according to research from the Stanford University-Persuasive Technology Lab. If these fundamentals are wrong, customers are likely to infer that they may not be able to trust your information, prices, or security either.

  • Update site content often. Research shows that Websites that are updated frequently are considered more credible. Fresh content — whether it is new products, timely seasonal promotions, or updated buying guides — implies that you’re paying attention to the site and that it is a viable operation.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it

The 2005 Consumer Reports WebWatch survey found that while Web users were somewhat wary of e-commerce sites overall, most have purchased from sites belonging to brands that have earned reputations for credibility and safety. Here are tips for distinguishing yourself as a trustworthy brand:

  • Communicate your company’s core identity throughout the site. Highlight what sets you apart, be it expertise, unique products, or extensive product and service guarantees. Devise a brief tagline that summarizes your brand’s key values, and promote it throughout the site. As customers build an association with your brand as a reliable authority, their trust will increase.

  • Provide easily accessible customer service phone numbers, and display your company’s physical address on the site to underscore that you are a stable operation. Pet supplies merchant Doctors Foster and Smith, for instance, displays its postal address right on the home page, along with its toll-free number.

Let others do the talking

There is often no better way to build trust in your brand than to allow others to endorse it. Reviews and testimonials from impartial outsiders and expert insiders bolster your brand’s authority and should be part of your trust-building strategy. A few ways to bring these endorsements into the mix:

  • First and foremost, give customers the authority to rate and endorse your products and to connect with each other through your site. Research shows that about 48% of online shoppers seek reviews of products before buying them, and 63% are more likely to buy from sites that provide them. Empowering your customers to rate products and giving them a means to share information and opinions gives further credence to your brand as an authoritative resource.

  • Promote your inhouse expertise. Knowledgeable staff who share your customers’ passions are more likely to earn trust. You should also prominently display endorsements, awards, and news coverage from well-regarded outside experts and organizations.

Get descriptive

Shoppers want proof that their purchases will fulfill their expectations once the boxes arrive on the doorstep. So communicate product information comprehensively, accurately, and consistently:

  • Use concise and uncomplicated wording to make sure your descriptions are easily understandable while still covering all the product’s features. Using a consistent format ensures that shoppers can easily find the product description on the page and also understand differences and similarities among products when comparing them.

  • Providing advanced imaging is critical for shoppers who demand to “see” the product before buying it. Customers now expect to view larger, higher-quality images and more of them — on model, off model, in a room setting, close up. Give shoppers multiple and detailed images to enhance product descriptions — and avoid surprises.

  • Offer comprehensive tools to guarantee a perfect fit. Fit guides, sizing charts, and interactive “try it on” features give customers the information they need to understand how your products will fit them — thereby increasing the likelihood that the product they receive will match their expectations.

Be a service superstar

Your brand is connected with the customer service you provide, so offering thorough and accessible service is integral to any trust-building strategy. Customers want to be able to reach you easily if they have questions about an item; they expect their order to arrive within the promised time frame; and if they need to return an order, they want to do so without any fuss.Close the sale with these service essentials:

  • Display product availability or “in stock” status to ensure that customers know they can get the product they want without waiting.

  • Provide comprehensive shipping information, so that buyers know when to expect the product. For big-ticket items or complex orders involving fragile or perishable items, be as detailed as possible, and make sure shoppers can get in touch with you. Being transparent with shipping policies and processes gives customers clear expectations for when and how they’ll receive your products.

  • Once customers complete their order, stay in touch. Triggering an e-mail confirmation upon purchase and then sending e-mail notification when an order is processed and shipped enables you to maintain a vital connection to customers and boost their confidence in the order they’ve placed, letting them know it hasn’t disappeared into the ether.

  • Offer many ways to get customer service information. Some customers prefer to use self-help tools or read static information on your Website, while others will pick up the phone the moment they have a question. Accommodating these different preferences instills confidence that you’ll be able to provide exceptional customer service. In addition to providing phone and e-mail support, consider enhancements such as live chat and comprehensive reference content.

Keep at it

Can trust be created overnight? Of course not. Building trust is a complicated, long-term process.

Making your site safe, communicating its security and professionalism, and building trust in your brand through the use of community and outside endorsements, inhouse expertise, comprehensive product and shipping information, and diligent service are the first steps in building customer trust online.

Beyond that, you’ll need to commit to remaining relevant and credible in the eyes of your customers. With each satisfactory purchase on your site, customers will trust your brand more.

By communicating openly with customers, you’ll help them form accurate expectations; by consistently fulfilling them, you’ll earn their trust…and the sale.

Ken Burke is founder/CEO of MarketLive, a Petaluma, CA-based provider of e-commerce technology and services.