Category: Voice of Customer

2 important concepts for better usability

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe (and data I’ve seen at ForeSee Results supports this belief) poor usability is the #1 obstacle to better conversions on our sites.  Getting usability right is hard — very hard. It requires a mindset that is very difficult for most of us to develop naturally. In fact, I’d argue that our natural development tends to pull us further and further away from the mindset we need to design highly usable websites.

Two concepts we need to carefully consider — and strike the right balance between — are “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world are concepts introduced by noted psychologist, cognitive scientist and author Don Norman is his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, which I just finished reading. The book was originally written in 1988, well before the web as we know it existed. But the principles he discusses about the design of doors, faucets, phones and other everyday things are extremely relevant to web design. To me, chief among those principles are the concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Here’s how Norman explains the two concepts:

Human memory is essentially knowledge in the head, or internal knowledge. If we examine how people use their memories and how they retrieve information, we discover a number of categories. Three are important for us now: 1. Memory for arbitrary things. The items to be retained seem arbitrary, with no meaning and no particular relationship to one other or to things already known 2. Memory for meaningful relationships. The items to be retained form meaningful relationships with themselves or with other things already known. 3. Memory through explanation. The material does not have to be remembered, but rather can be derived from some explanatory mechanism.

Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help us recover structures that we otherwise would forget. Knowledge in the head is efficient: no search and interpretation of the environment is required. In order to use knowledge in the head we have to get it there, which might require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world is easier to learn, but often more difficult to use. And it relies heavily upon the continued physical presence of the information; change the environment and the information is changed. Performance relies upon the physical presence of the task environment.

He goes on to note that “whenever information needed to do a task is readily available in the world, the need for us to learn it diminishes.”

It’s very interesting to look at our sites in the context of these concepts. Imagine a typical customer. What knowledge about how to use the site would she have in her head? How does that compare to the knowledge in our heads about how to use our sites? What’s her educational background, familiarity with web technology and familiarity with our sites versus our educational background, familiarity with web technology and, most of all, familiarity with our own sites?

The reality is, we are not like our customers.

It’s very difficult for those of us who work on sites day in and day out to see our customers’ perspectives. Elitism is the source of poor usability. We all too often consider ourselves to be proxies for our customers. It’s easy to do, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. After all, we are customers of our own businesses, and we see things that work and don’t work for us as customers. We have to remember that we have a lot more knowledge in the head, particularly about our own businesses, than our customers do. And that knowledge in our heads prevents us from seeing our customers’ perspectives. We also easily miss lots of “tree stumps” on our sites that regularly get in our customers’ way.

So, should we just include step-by-step instructions for everything on our sites?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary or even prudent for everything. Norman explains lots of design principles that, if applied, should make many elements of our sites highly intuitive without instructions. But we probably should include a lot more help than we do. We really need to listen to what our customers are telling us and watch them use our sites. It’s the only way to get a better sense of the knowledge in their heads so we can know where we need to include some knowledge in the world.

For example, all too often username or password requirements are not mentioned at the point of entry and customers only find out about them when an error message occurs. Let’s be clear about those requirements upfront.

What type of terminology is being used in navigation? Are customers likely to equate “jackets” with “outerwear” or “stoves” with “cooktops?” One quick way to get a sense of terminology customers use is a review of search terms customers use.

Conventions can be our friends

There are certain conventions that are established enough to effectively be knowledge in the head for most of our customers. For example, navigation on the top of the page and on the left are common enough that we can reasonably expect the majority of our customers to find navigation in those places.If we veer from those types of conventions, though, we have to remember that we’re messing with that knowledge in the head.

But we have to be careful with conventions as there are many site practices that might be second nature to us and not to our customers. I once watched a usability session where on-screen instructions directed the customer (a 40ish or so middle class man) to select “the drop-down box.” He searched around the page looking for a box labeled “drop-down” and didn’t find one. That terminology wasn’t familiar to him. Some of our everyday language isn’t as common as we might assume.

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While many of the concepts from Don Norman’s book have already seriously changed the way I look at the world (I think my wife may be getting annoyed at my now constant commentary on the design of every door we see), I most appreciate the relatively simple concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.” Forcing ourselves to identify what elements of our sites’ designs require which of those concepts will lead us to create significantly more usable sites for our customers. And more usable sites will absolutely lead to more sales. Woo hoo! Bonuses for all!

What do you think? Do you see your site differently in the context of these concepts? Do you have other concepts you like to use?


Social, mobile and other bright, shiny objects

It’s official. Social media and mobile commerce are this year’s bright, shiny objects. I recently attended a couple of industry conferences where those two topics dominated the agendas, and the trade mags and email newsletters are full of articles on everything social and mobile.

Heck, I’ve also written a white paper and blogged about social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I think social and mobile are important opportunities for us to improve our businesses. I just don’t think we should focus on them to the exclusion of some of the core aspects of our sites and businesses that still need a lot of work.

The level of our success with any of these new technologies is going to be limited by the effectiveness of our core site capabilities and constrained by any internal organizational challenges we might have.

Here are some topics I’d love to see get a little more press and conference content time:

  • Usability
    From my vantage point at ForeSee Results, where I can see customer perceptions at many different retailers, it’s clear that our sites have not come close to solving all of our usability issues. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying improving usability is the #1 way to increase conversion. I’m currently reading a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. The book was written in the ’80s (I think) so there’s no mention of websites. Instead, he talks a lot about the design of doors, faucets and other everyday objects and, most interestingly, the psychology of we humans who interact with these things. The principles he discusses are absolutely relevant to web page design. Other books, such as “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and anything by Jakob Nielsen are also great sources of knowledge. I’d sure love to see us cover these types of topics a little more in our conferences and trade mags. Also, how do different retailers approach find and solve usability issues? In the end, if the experiences we create aren’t usable our social and mobile strategies won’t reach their potential.
  • Organizational structure
    How often do we come back from a conference with great new ideas about implementing some new strategies (say, a new social media or mobile commerce strategy) only to run into competing agendas, lack of resources or organizational bureaucracies? Discussing and writing about organizational structure doesn’t have the panache of social media or other exciting new frontiers, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the structure of our organizations can make or break the success of our businesses. When we were first setting up the organization for the new Borders.com, we spent a LOT of time studying the structures of other companies learning about the pros and the cons from those who lived through different schemes. It was hugely useful and more interesting than you might think. Mark Fodor, CEO of Cross View, just wrote an excellent piece for Online Strategies magazine that discussed the hurdles involved in going cross-channel and included a very good discussion about the need for mindset shifts. I’d love to see these topics further explored in interactive environments at industry conferences.
  • Incentives
    Books like Freakonomics make strong cases for the fact that incentives drive our behaviors. I’d love to hear how other companies set up their internal incentive structures. And there are multiple types of incentives. Certainly, there are financial incentives that come in the form of bonuses. But there are also the sometimes more powerful social incentives. What gets talked about all the time? How do those topics of discussion influence people’s behaviors? How do all those incentives align with the needs generated by new strategies to maximize the power of social media or mobile commerce?
  • Data/analytics storytelling
    We have so much data available to us, and we all talk about being data driven. But how do we get the most from that data? How do we use that data to form our strategies, support our strategies and communicate our strategies. John Lovett of Web Analytics Desmystified wrote an excellent piece on telling stories with data recently. There are also several great blogs on analytics like MineThatData, Occam’s Razor, and the aforementioned Web Analytics Demystified. I’d love to see more discussions in trade mags and conferences about how to get the most from our data, both in analyzing it and relating the findings to others.
  • International expansion
    We used to talk a lot about international, but it doesn’t seem to be a big topic lately. Yet the opportunities to grow our businesses internationally are immense. So, too, are the challenges. Jim Okamura and Maris Daugherty at the JC Williams Group wrote an absolutely excellent white paper late last year on the prizes and perils of international expansion. Jim did have a breakout session at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, but I’d love to see more discussion from retailers who have gone or are going international to learn more. Or it would also be good to hear from those who simply ship internationally or those who have decided to stay domestic to learn more about their decision making processes.
  • Leadership
    Leading lots of people and convincing big, disparate groups to do new things is hard. I just read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. There are some amazing tips in that book about implementing change in organizations (and in other parts of life, for that matter). I would love to see more discussion of these types of leadership topics that help us all implement the changes we know we need to make to take advantage of new opportunities like social media and mobile commerce.

I know a lot of these topics are more business basics than retail or e-commerce specific. But the reality is we need to be our absolute best at these business basics in order to implement any of our new ideas and strategies. I personally always enjoy talking to other retailers about some of these basics, and I certainly never tire of reading books that expand my horizons. I’d love to see more about these topics in our conferences and trade mags.

But these are just my opinions. I’d really love to know what you think. As a member of the executive content committee for Shop.org, I’m actually in a position to influence some of the excellent content that my good friend Larry Joseloff regularly puts together. But I’d love to know if you agree or not before I start banging the drum. Would you mind dropping me a quick comment or an email letting me know if you agree or disagree. A simple “Right on” if you agree or a “You’re nuts” if you don’t is plenty sufficient; although, I certainly appreciate your expanded thoughts if you’d like to share them.

Please, let me know what you think of my little rant.


Beyond the Buy Button: The Huge Additional Value of Retail Websites

Sometimes, I think we focus so intensely on the e-commerce sales of our sites that we miss the overwhelming additional value they bring to our businesses. Retail websites, particularly for multi-channel retailers, are more multi-dimensional than any other channel and any other brand vehicle. We fail to recognize the value of these sites beyond the buy button at our own peril.

Some are starting to see the additional value. During her presentation at the Retail Innovation and Marketing conference in San Francisco last week, Express Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Gavales talked about her epiphany surrounding Express.com’s value to the brand. It was Express.com’s traffic numbers that sparked the light bulb in her head. She realized that Express.com got as much traffic in a week as all of the Express stores combined. In other words, half of Express brand interactions were occurring on Express.com. Lisa immediately understood the marketing value of such high levels of engagements from Express’ customers. So much so, in fact, that she came to a conclusion she deemed controversial during her presentation — Express.com should be a marketing vehicle first and a direct sales channel second.

After the presentation, my good friend Scott Silverman, Shop.org’s Executive Director, asked me if I agreed with Lisa’s positioning of Express.com. I rambled on a bit before essentially saying “yes and no.” I’ll now take this space for what I hope is a more coherent answer.

I completely agree with Lisa that retail websites are much more valuable to the overall business than their direct sales indicate. Applying resources and strategic importance to sites based only on their percentage of sales is a mistake that could prove very costly in the long run. Customers use our sites for many reasons beyond direct transactions and our failure to highly prioritize those intentions is a disservice to our customers that will affect our bottom lines. But the value of our sites goes well beyond just marketing and direct sales and simply switching priorities is not enough. Furthermore, I worry that prioritizing marketing higher than everything else will lead to the types of conversion problems I previously discussed in my post “Conversion tip: Don’t block the product with window signs.

Let’s consider some of the many values a retail website provides for a multi-channel retailer:

  • Marketing vehicle
    As Lisa noted, the marketing value of our websites is immense. We are getting tons of traffic, and each engagement is an opportunity to enhance our brands. (Of course, if we’re not careful, the opposite is also true.) Websites are a highly efficient way to strengthen the Customer Engagement Cycle. Both online and offline marketing vehicles can direct customers to our sites to further enhance our messages. Our sites are also a great way to tell people about our stores on both a collective and an individual level.
  • Merchandising vehicle
    Customers come in droves to our sites to learn more about the products we sell, whether they intend to buy online, over the phone or in our stores. Our sites have to essentially be our best and most knowledgeable merchants. They have to lead customers to the right products for them and provide the right information for them to make a selection, regardless of the channel where the purchase takes place.  This is a huge, often untapped, opportunity for quality merchants to reach their customers and sell them the right products.
  • Customer research tool
    This is a bit of a double entendre. As mentioned above, our customers are certainly using our sites for their research. But we can also use our sites to learn more about our customers. There is a wealth of information to be had about what our customers are doing and what they desire. Not only can we see what they purchase, but we can also use web analytics to see what they look at. With tools like those provided by ForeSee Results (shameless plug), we can also know what they are thinking, what they are intending to do, and how they are perceiving our brands. All of this can be done fairly easily and inexpensively in ways that are either impossible or impossibly expensive in the physical world.
  • Customer relationship enabler
    We can continue to build relationships with our customers by applying what we’ve learned above to give them better experiences. The applied knowledge of our merchants combined with the long-lasting memory of our websites should allow us to constantly serve our customers better. As we focus on building those relationships with more personalized site experiences, more informed personal interactions via contact centers and in-store, and more relevant email and direct mail communications, we will build stronger loyalty with our customers.
  • Community builder
    Websites also give us ways to connect our customers with each other. Our brands can act as a central hub for like-minded customers to find each other and help each other find products that meet their needs or solve their problems. How great is that? We can make these connections both via our own sites and via social networks like Facebook. Either way, it’s another way for our brands to provide services for our customers. Our sites can also allow our brands to be more localized by providing additional vehicles for our stores to connect with their communities.
  • Sales driver — in-store and online
    And, of course, we can sell stuff. We can sell lots and lots of stuff online. Our sites are still not where they need to be for maximum usability, so we have plenty of opportunities to improve their ability to sell directly. But we also have lots and lots of opportunity to drive traffic into our stores. We can show inventory; we can let people buy or reserve online and pick up in-store; we can host coupons;  we can help people find a store close to them; we can provide reviews and recommendations to people standing in our stores (whether via kiosks or mobile phones). The possibilities are endless.

These site values are not mutually exclusive. Their value in combination is exponentially higher than any one individual value. Therefore, it’s critically important to consider our sites holistically when determining their place and priority in our strategic plans. We need to consider their combined value when we determine allocation of resources and organizational structure.

Too often, though, resources and executive attention are not apportioned to the site according to this additional value. And we often don’t even measure these additional value points (which might explain the lack of resources and executive attention). If our most important measures of our sites revolve solely around direct sales, we will continue to minimize the importance of all other values of our sites.

I believe the multichannel retailers with the brightest futures in this new decade will be those who fully embrace and leverage the multi-dimensional value of their websites.

What do you think? How is your site valued in your organization? What retailers do you think are most recognizing the additional value of their sites?


3 steps to a more effective retail Facebook presence

Amidst the many clouds of uncertainty surrounding retail use of social media, a few key strategies are starting to emerge. Three recent studies, including a white paper written by yours truly, have examined customer interactions with retailers via social media. Encouragingly, all three studies (Emarketer recently summarized the findings from studies by Marketing Sherpa and Razorfish) have very similar findings regarding customer desires in their social media interactions with retailers.

While the percentages varied slightly, all three studies found customers who “friended” or followed retailers said they were interested primarily in learning about new products and new or exclusive promotions. How great is that? I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see these results because it seems like current conventional wisdom says to avoid being promotional on sites like Facebook in deference to its more personal nature. In hindsight, that conventional wisdom seems a little questionable since it’s unlikely customers are going to interact with retailers like their friends. They know we’re about selling to them — we’re retailers!

More good news: It appears that the customers who follow retailers are really the best, most engaged and brand committed customers for those retailers. I suppose that’s not terribly surprising, but it’s certainly valuable information. Since our findings were part of a larger customer satisfaction study, we were also able to determine that site visitors who also interact with a company on a social media site are more satisfied, more committed to the brand, and more likely to make future purchases from that company than customers who don’t follow those retailers. Our study also found that 61% of people who follow retailers follow less than five retailers. That’s further  indication that people are really focused on their absolute favorite retailers.

We also found that more than 80% of shoppers who use social media list Facebook as a site they use regularly, which makes it the overwhelming social media leader. YouTube came in second place with only 31% of shoppers.

So, to summarize, our best and most engaged customers like to interact with us on Facebook (an incredibly viral platform) and want to hear about new products and promotions. This is a great foundation for a successful strategy!

Without further ado, here are three steps to a more effective retail Facebook presence:

  1. Focus on best customers
    Rather than trying to build our fan base to the highest possible numbers, let’s focus on getting as many of our highest value customers as fans on Facebook. They’re the most likely to become our Facebook fans anyway, but they’re also the most likely to recommend us to their friends. Facebook’s viral nature gives us the opportunity to put our Word of Mouth Marketing on steroids, and developing messages for our best customers gives us a clear focus. We should reach out directly to our best customers via targeted messaged and encourage them to join because we…
  2. Give ’em special promotions and news about products
    These are our best customers. Let’s treat them well and make them feel special. Let’s give them exclusive offers and early notice on cool new products.  Victoria’s Secret does an excellent job here, and it shows. Of the Internet Retailer Top 40 retailers’ Facebook pages I looked at, Victoria’s Secret has by far the most fans at almost 2.7 million at the time of this writing. Clearly, they are delivering on customer expectations, and they’re being rewarded for it by attracting lots of really engaged customers.

    My good friend Adam Cohen, partner and social media lead at Rosetta and blogger at a thousand cuts, (and my go-to guy on all things social media) correctly cautions against too many rich, exclusive promotions as they could be unsustainable as the fan base grows. This is particularly true if the offers start to attract deal seekers who are not our best customers. Good warning from Adam and in line with the excellent old adage “everything in moderation.”

  3. Leverage Facebook viral features
    We’re giving great, exclusive offers and product news to our best customers. Those best customers are the most likely to recommend us to their friends. Let’s encourage them to do so. It could be as simple as letting them know an exclusive offer can be shared with their friends by simply hitting the “share” link.  There are lots of Facebook applications and other techniques that can be used, but I would personally just start simply and go from there.

(Bonus tip) Make sure your page can be found in Facebook search.
This isn’t really one of my key steps, but during my research I was surprised by how poor Facebook’s search is. For example, I searched for “LL Bean” and found nothing. Then I tried “L.L. Bean” and again got nothing. Their page is actually entitled “L.L.Bean” with no space between “L.” and “Bean.” Facebook’s search will only find it if you search for it exactly as it’s titled.  So, my tip is think about how people might search for your brand and then name the page with the most common search term.

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Three separate studies have all found that customers who friend or follow retailers in social media are most interested in learning about promotions and new products. That’s some mighty strong corroboration, and it’s incredibly great news. Judging from the large percentage of retailers with little-to-no Facebook presence, I’m guessing many have been holding pat waiting for a clear direction on how to best leverage social media. While this information may not give the clearest direction for all social media channels, it certainly provides some clarity on today’s biggest channel, Facebook. Different social media channels require different strategies and tactics, and in the end it’s still important to learn more from our customers about their specific needs and desires and then work to satisfy them.

In the meantime, let’s build some really great Facebook pages for our best customers and give them some exclusive offers to enjoy. Please let me know when you’ve got your page running so I can become a fan!

What do you think? What have you learned about Facebook? What tips do you have?


The Missing Links in the Customer Engagement Cycle

customer engagement cycleThe Customer Engagement Cycle plays a central role in many marketing strategies, but it’s not always defined in the same way. Probably the most commonly described stages are Awareness, Consideration, Inquiry, Purchase and Retention. In retail, we often think of the cycle as Awareness, Acquisition, Conversion, Retention. In either case, I think there are a couple of key stages that do not receive enough consideration given their critical ability to drive the cycle.

The missing links are Satisfaction and Referral.

Before discussing these missing links, let’s take a quick second to define the other stages:

Awareness: This is basic branding and positioning of the business. We certainly can’t progress people through the cycle before they’ve even heard of us.

Acquisition: I’ve always thought of this as getting someone into our doors or onto our site. It’s a major step, but it’s not yet profitable.

Conversion: This one is simply defined as making a sales. Woo hoo! It may or may not be a profitable sales on its own, but it’s still a significant stage in the cycle.

Retention: We get them to shop with us again. Excellent! Repeat sales tend to be more profitable and almost certainly have lower marketing costs than first purchases.

Now, let’s get to those Missing Links

In my experience, the key to a strong and active customer engagement cycle is a very satisfying customer experience. And while the Wikipedia article on Customer Engagement doesn’t mention Satisfaction as often as I would like, it does include this key statement: “Satisfaction is simply the foundation, and the minimum requirement, for a continuing relationship with customers.”

In fact, I think the quality of the customer experience is so important that I would actually inject it multiple times into the cycle: Awareness, Acquisition, Satisfaction, Conversion, Satisfaction, Retention, Satisfaction, Referral.

Of course, it’s possible to get through at least some of the stages of the cycle without an excellent customer experience. People will soldier through a bad experience if they want the product bad enough or if there’s an incredible price. But it’s going to be a lot harder to retain that type of customer and if you get a referral, it might not be the type of referral you want.

I wonder if Satisfaction and Referral are often left out of cycle strategies because they are the stages most out of marketers’ control.

A satisfying customer experience is not completely in the marketer’s control. For sure, marketing plays a role. A customer’s satisfaction can be defined as the degree to which her actual experience measures up to her expectations. Our marketing messages are all about expectations, so it’s important that we are compelling without over-hyping the experience. And certainly marketers can influence policy decisions, website designs, etc. to help drive better customer experiences.

In the end, though, the actual in-store or online experience will determine the strength of the customer engagement.

Everyone plays a part in the satisfaction stages. Merchants must ensure advertised product is in stock and well positioned. Store operators must ensure the stores are clean, the product is available on the sales floor and the staff are friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. The e-commerce team must ensure advertised products can be easily found, the site is performing well, product information in complete and useful,  and the products are shipped on time and in good condition.

We also have to ensure our incentives and metrics are supporting a quality customer experience, because the wrong metrics can incent the wrong behavior. For example, if we measure an online search engine marketing campaign by the number of visitors generated or even the total sales generated, we can absolutely end up going down the wrong path. We can buy tons of search terms that by their sheer volume will generate lots of traffic and some degree of increased sales. But if those search terms link to the home page or some other page that is largely irrelevant to the search term, the experience will be likely disappointing for the customer who clicked through.

In fact, I wrote a white paper a few months ago, Online Customer Acquisition: Quality Trumps Quantity, that delved into customer experience by acquisition source for the Top 100 Internet Retailers. We found that those who came via external search engines were among the least satisfied customers of those sites with the least likelihood to purchase and recommend. Not good. These low ratings could largely be attributed to the irrelevance of the landing pages from those search terms.

Satisfaction breeds Referral

Referrals or Recommendations are truly wonderful. As I wrote previously, the World’s Greatest Marketers are our best and most vocal customers. They are more credible than we’ll ever be, and the cost efficiencies of acquisition through referral are significantly better than our traditional methods of awareness and acquisition marketing. In my previously mentioned post, I discussed some ways to help customers along on the referral path. But, of course, customers can be pretty resourceful on their own.

We’ve all seen blog posts, Facebook posts or tweets about bad customer experiences. But plenty of positive public commentary can also be found.  Target’s and Gap’s Facebook walls have lots of customers expressing their love for those brands. Even more powerful are blog posts some customers write about their experiences.  I came across a post yesterday from entitled Tales of Perfection that related two excellent experiences the blogger had with Guitar Center and a burger joint called Arry’s. Both stories are highly compelling and speak to the excellent quality of the employees at each business. Nice!

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Developing a business strategy, not just a marketing strategy, around the customer engagement cycle can be extremely powerful. It requires the entire company to get on board to understand the value of maximizing the customer experience at every touch point with the customer, and it requires a set of incentives and metrics that fully support strengthening the cycle along the way.

What do you think? How do you think about the customer engagement cycle? How important do feel the customer experience is in strengthening the cycle? Or do you think this is all hogwash?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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