Human touch will impress Web visitors to buy

E-commerce traders are quick to blame security fears for low interest in online shopping, but the real reason lies in their own poor communications, says Therese Torris

I often hear European e-commerce professionals deplore how slowly Internet users are being converted to online shoppers. “Our Website was set up as early as 1996, and we get lots of visitors, but few people buy,” is an all-too-frequent comment.

Conservative purchase behaviour, payment security concerns, e-commerce’s bad press – these are all factors which combine to explain why European customers are wary of purchasing online. But, frankly, the overriding reason why people are not falling over themselves to buy online is the weakness of what many companies offer.

Too many seem to hide behind their sites rather than use them to engage visitors in an open and interactive relationship. For example, only 29 per cent of the top 100 European commerce sites display their phone number in an easy-to-find spot such as the homepage or navigation bar. Almost half make their details hard to find, and the remaining quarter simply do not give any point of contact other than the obscure “info@company.com” e-mail destination.

No matter how virtual the online channel may be, customers relate to people – and companies with a face, name, address and phone number. Take my advice: don’t tuck corporate communication out of sight in investor relations’ pages that customers never read.

Companies that do not display a customer phone number on their e-commerce site often do so for a good reason – they have no one to answer the calls. But these companies shouldn’t be deceived.

An e-commerce site without the support of capable human resources is a self-defeating proposition. Our tests of the top 100 e-commerce companies show that 60 per cent answer e-commerce requests and queries with a personalised response within 24 hours. Among these, 44 per cent reply within two hours, and 17 per cent of companies in less than half an hour.

Companies unable to respond quickly to customer demands should draw lessons from the US experience. Microsoft’s Carpoint reports that the closing rate for a car sale falls from 25 per cent to 11 per cent if the seller answers the customer request after 24 hours, and to less than five per cent after 48 hours.

This is what it takes to be competitive in e-commerce. A real-time channel requires a real-time service, staffed by real people – nothing less.

Therese Torris is a director at Forrester Research

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