Keep an eye on the experience

Smart marketers understand that long-term success depends on treating customers to a great experience, one that’s seamless across channels. What’s the best way to do that? This month we’ll look at why you need to go beyond order conversion when you track success, and how aligning your Web and print channels can improve the experience you offer your own customers.

If you chase increases in site conversion without understanding the problems your customers are hoping to solve, any progress you make is likely to be short-lived. Ignoring the quality of experience you offer while doggedly trying to get the sale forces you to compete solely with price and promotion. In other words, you end up buying customers at a premium instead of earning them.

What is customer experience? It’s the sum of every interaction a person has with your company. It includes her first glance at your advertising, her experiences moving between your Website, catalog, and call-center, and what it’s like when she opens the package and uses your product.

Naturally, you hope that your customer’s experiences include placing an order, but you need to recognize that for some segments of the people you meet, this goal is totally irrelevant. Every day, people dial into your call center and visit your Website for many reasons other than buying something.

For instance, customers come to you to do product research, get a price, or check status on the order they placed last week. While your site and call center need to be optimized to convert every prospective order, the best way to keep those sales coming is to help people complete the task they brought to you today. Asking for the sale without listening first can be like trying to sell a watch to the stranger looking for directions.

So how can site owners lead their teams to designing for a great customer experience? First, stop talking about users and start talking about people. The word “user” comes from a pre-Web IT world where developers often lacked sufficient contact with the people who’d ultimately interact with the end products. Applications are built for users. Experiences are created for people.

Next, recognize that there is no such thing as a “Web shopper or a catalog shopper.” Even if you’re a pure-play Internet retailer, there’s a good chance that most of your customers still get in the car to buy milk at the store. And they thumb through at least a few of the catalogs that show up in their mailboxes.

Of course, the dot-com-only example is itself extreme; most readers of this publication sell across multiple channels and, if successful, recognize that customers move freely between them. And while cross-channel paths are difficult to track, customers still expect a seamless experience.

In our firm’s work helping clients create more effective Websites, we find that tracking continuity between print and Web can hold up a revealing mirror. Even when a project centers on helping a retailer make its site more usable and better primed to sell, spending time with this print catalog and dialing into its call center are essential to optimizing the shopping experience on the merchant’s site

In the online retail community, when we talk about aligning our site with our other channels, we’re often focused on the extremes of creative and fulfillment. These emphases are necessary but not sufficient.

At one extreme we strive to present a unified visual brand. We understand that in a world where attention is scarce and first impressions matter, our Websites and catalogs need to look like they were created by the same hands. And the focus on smoothing fulfillment processes across channels is equally sane: Customers are no more forgiving of a botched order placed online than one mishandled by phone.

Despite this necessary focus on the endpoints, there’s real meat sandwiched in the middle, where your customer actually spends time interacting with your catalog and Website. Because understanding the cross-channel experience requires research and direct observation, this work can be resource intensive, but it can also yield high return.

Patagonia, one brand, one customer: Outdoor products merchant Patagonia has held focus groups with Web-only shoppers, catalog-only shoppers and retail-only shoppers, says director of merchandising Kevin Churchill. “It became obvious in the first five minutes of each session that the customer used all three channels to research, try on products, ask questions, competitive shop, and finally purchase the product. To give the customer a different experience on paper versus online would simply not make sense.”

How should retailers think about their own alignment of print and Web? “The ultimate goal should be to have the Website, e-mails, store visuals displays and catalog all coordinated with the same message. The customer does not care that each sales channel has separate sales plans, VPs and managers or different P/Ls. One brand, one customer,” Churchill says.

Wine Enthusiast, customercentric and channel agnostic. For our client the Wine Enthusiast Cos., a multichannel marketer of wine products and accessories, a single customer may touch the brand not only across its catalog and e-commerce Website but through the company’s print magazine and its Website as well.

“For us, there is nothing more important than the continuity between the shopping experience across our channels,” points out senior director of e-commerce and marketing Glenn Edelman. The company’s goal of providing a strong, cross-channel experience spurs it to push past some of the legacy analytic tactics of the catalog world.

“We see fewer and fewer catalog customers using the keycode on the back of their book. So any promotion that’s on-cover and/or in-book will be honored and advertised on the Website, regardless of code used. If we’ve sent them a promotion and they want to take advantage of it, why penalize them if they do not have the code in front of them?”

The site plays a significant role in Wine Enthusiast catalog design, Edelman says. “With the ability to test creative concepts online, and tweak them at a moment’s notice with nearly zero production costs, we’re able to test new product categories that would have been too risky in the past to devote catalog space to.”

Aligning your print and Web media is just one dimension of creating an effective customer experience. Ultimately your strategy needs to touch every point of your enterprise and be driven by the insights you gain from paying active, continuous attention to the people you’re attempting to serve.

Among the customer-listening techniques available are online surveys, usability testing, and follow-me-home visits where you can observe your customer interacting with your site and catalog in her own environment. These methods vary in the resources they require and the value they yield. What’s important is that you find a way to listen to your customer, gain insight, and then take action. It’s the only way to stay in the conversation.

Larry Becker is vice president and principal, Website effectiveness at the Rimm-Kaufman Group, an online marketing consulting firm based in Charlottesville, VA.