Successfully selling online is getting harder. Every day thousands of new sites popup that all want the same dollar you’re chasing. Equally challenging, Amazon owns about 41% of all online sales. How did they achieve this dominance? Well, there are multiple facets to this answer but most boil down to one simple reason – they provide an excellent customer experience. I am often asked, “How do I compete against Amazon?” The answer is quite simple – offer a better user experience. This leads to yet another question – how do you create an outstanding customer experience for an e-commerce website?
Why is customer experience so important?
Why should you, the store owner, care? This is where I advise you to think like a shopper. Not only is the happy customer a lot more likely to buy from you, but they are more likely to buy again, and refer other people to your business. There is no stronger lead than a referral, and those come free of charge which makes the referred customer especially sweet.
Conversely, the angry or frustrated customer is a lot more likely to tell everyone! They are telling their friends and blasting your business on every online review and social media platform they can find. When you anger a customer, you lose more than that order. You lose all repeat business from them, and any potential referrals you might have gotten. Thus the loss of a single sale can have a much bigger economic impact than you think.
So these five steps will guide you to the creation of a store that converts more shoppers to buyers, will earn you more repeat business, and more referrals.
Step 1 – Know thy customer
I cannot emphasis how important this is to the success of your online store. What surprises me is how few store owners bother to make this effort. Early in your business plan, you should have created customer avatars, also known as personas. These are detailed profiles of fake people that represent the different types of customers you expect to sell to. It included demographics, where they likely work, do they have children, are they married, where do they hang out (even online), and most importantly – pain points. These are the “problems” your products solve.
Your personas give you the information you need to identify the policies, merchandising, and messaging for your site. They also help you plan out your marketing campaigns. You customer avatars also help you develop a clear value proposition. I speak about the need for a “Unique Value Proposition” often. Your UVP is the reason why someone should buy what you offer from you. This is what you offer that makes you a better bet than Amazon!
Step 2 – Ensure a smooth user experience
This is where you plan your site navigation, checkout flow, whether or not it makes sense to use extras like upsells “you may also like” or “frequently bought together,” and other website elements. Your plan should take into account your customer personas and how they are likely to shop. Study your competition, especially the successful one. What are they doing? How do they name their categories? Hint doing this right helps your SEO but can also provide a predictable navigation experience which is usually a good thing.
Just as important is what can you do better than your competitors? Focus on these elements and seek to do better, while also paying close attention to what you don’t like so you don’t repeat their errors. Few sites are perfect so take the best from several to create a unique experience. Word every page on your site to be positive and absolutely customer-focused. Anticipate and answer your shopper’s questions regarding products and service.
Speed is also a huge consideration as is the entire mobile user experience. Most stores are seeing more than half their traffic coming from mobile, and yet most site design still starts with the desktop version. They both need to work well and perform quickly! If it has been more than 2-3 years since you last updated your site, it is almost certainly due for a refresh to update site design, possibly user flow, and mobile experience.
Tools likeor can be used to actually watch how your site visitors use your site. These can tell you where there are hangups such as a spot they expect to be clickable that isn’t.
Step 3 – Pay close attention to visual design
There’s an old cliche in marketing. You want to “surprise and delight” your audience. Your site should look professional, with a clean appearance, high-quality photography, and videos that are consistent across the site. Make sure your product photos and banners are consistent in style, and even more importantly shape. Ensuring your product photos are all the same shape and aspect ratio will help them line up evenly on category pages.
When it fits your goals and audience, fun surprises can also encourage engagement and serve to keep people on-site and shopping. Just be sure to not stray too far from convention. I’ve seen sites done with hidden navigation, which makes the hero image look great but is definitely not user-friendly. A product page that doesn’t make it really easy to find the “add to cart” button is another problem. If you wish to go with something truly unique, start with a page that meets best practices, then run A/B tests on a new layout. Note to run an effective test you need a large volume of views to that page – at least 5000, preferably more. Anything less and your data will be unreliable.
Keep distractions to a minimum. This means go easy on the popups. One good email gathering pop for new visitors should be enough unless you are having a sale you want to remind people of! Most of the FOMO (fear of missing out) apps just clutter and slow your site down. They can do more harm than good. One exception that you should build in, is a low stock warning. That’s one FOMO that adds value to your site.
Speaking of surprises, bad surprises like higher than expected shipping costs or a poor return policy can actually kill your sales. If you can afford to use a service like Usertesting.com to run real, objective people, through your store to gain objective information on what it is like to shop on-site, do so. Otherwise, ask friends after reassuring them you need honesty even if it hurts your feelings.
Step 4 – Answer all their questions
The more information you offer up on your product page ideally backed up with visuals (diagrams, multiple photos, closeups, and videos) the easier it is for shoppers to make buying decisions. There are additional benefits to creating comprehensive product descriptions that include:
- higher conversion rates
- lower return rates
- organic SEO
The goal here to eliminate the need to hunt for those answers on another site – a site that is quite likely your competitor! If you have a larger website or multiple sales channels, you might find a(Product Information Management) system helpful.
Additionally, a newer trend is to offer Questions and Answers, user-generated content, where anyone can ask a question and either another customer or your staff provide the answer. In addition to helping to create an exceptionally useful product page, the way people search is increasingly becoming question-focused, so Q&A offers new SEO possibilities. Some of the better product review software platforms offer Q&A built-in. If yours doesn’t, Answerbase offers a low-cost way to add this feature.
Answering all their questions extends to all your customer support policies as well. Be sure you have an easy to find contact us form, ideally backed up with a phone number or live chat.
Provide a good product review, and if your budget allows for it, a store review program. The confidence shoppers get from the experiences of others is a huge factor in how many buy from you.
Step 5 – Offer excellent customer support
Think carefully as you choose and write your policy pages. They should be as customer-friendly as possible! People expect fast and friendly service so you may have to adapt your processes to accommodate your customers’ needs.
Do not make it hard to reach you. The ability to reach you and get a fast reply is a KEY trust factor and absolutely influences how many will buy. Respond to inquiries quickly and detail on your contact us page how soon you will get back to them with an answer. I can’t tell you how often I speak to a store owner who really doesn’t want to be easily reached. It interrupts their work and life. All I can say is that if you need to hire someone to manage customer support, do so. Otherwise, you are losing sales. One warning here, outsourced support via phone or chat can be really useless if they aren’t well-trained to be useful to your shoppers. Typically they aren’t.
Policy pages should be well-written and as detailed as necessary. The voice, or tone, of the page should be positive and friendly. Lots of “no” and “don’t” and other negative words are off-putting. Again, this is a good place to research your competition to make sure your “offer” is competitive.
For example a shipping policy page (and do separate this from returns) should state:
- how fast it gets out the door
- what options exist
- approximately when the buyer can expect their order (range of days from date of order)
- if you have restrictions on some items, list them
- if you ship internationally, spell out exactly who pays any importation taxes and duties, and set expectations for time and tracking – for example, USPS shipments don’t provide any tracking insight when a package is stuck in customs in some countries.
Returns – Yes, store owners hate returns but, for most products, you need one that favors the shopper! This is even more important with higher-priced items and clothing. Otherwise, fewer will have the comfort level to buy from you. Remember we all compete in an Amazon world. Online sales have risen precisely because shoppers know they can send stuff back when it isn’t right. While returns aren’t really feasible for some items, like furniture, in most cases a friendly return policy can result in higher net sales and profits. Easy and free returns help a new customer trust your store. It also shows faith in the quality of your products. Acan actually increase sales.
Tell us about your business
Your About us page is the second most important page on your site. Tell a story. Why did you start, where is your passion, and what value do you deliver to your customers? This is one place you talk about why you are different. Why should I buy from you instead of Amazon? Depending on your market it could be a shared passion for racing Mustangs (a performance car parts site), or the search for the perfect cup of coffee (selling beans). People do business with people. Make your business likable by making sure you and your team are people they want to do business with.
You need to think like a shopper and create an experience that pleases them. One of the reasons you create the personas is to identify what will make them happy and motivate them to buy. Keep in mind that not all customers are the same or do things the same way. You are not necessarily representative of your customers so keep in mind they may think and act differently from you.
Make it pleasant and easy to shop your store, stock great products and you will offer a great customer experience.