Ecommerce customer experience: How optimization can deliver long-term returns for your business

 

 

The world of ecommerce is more competitive than ever before. Gone are the days when mom and pop stores had a monopoly on certain items in their local town, now there are hundreds and thousands of online businesses spanning geographical boundaries, all competing for the same customers. The route to market to set up an online store can seem relatively clear – technological advancements have meant that any computer literate person can have a site up and running within hours.

But not only has competition increased, so have customers’ expectations. Digital savvy generations of shoppers are more demanding than ever – and they can afford to be. That want to find what they’re looking for easily and have it delivered to them without any hassle – and all in as enjoyable a way as possible. If they don’t like what one store has to offer, then within seconds they can be browsing another.

Price is still a factor, but with so much choice and so much transparency over pricing, it is no longer the only factor that will determine where somebody shops. If a customer wants to buy a pair of black Converse sneakers, but they have found them for the same price on a dozen different sites, then there are going to be other factors that determine which store they choose.

This is where delivering a good customer experience becomes essential. The digital age has leveled the playing field for retailers in many ways, but an exceptional experience is something that will make your business stand out.

What is customer experience and why should you care?

Delivering a good customer experience is all about taking a holistic approach to the entire process for your customers, considering the pre-sale route, the checkout process, delivery and the after-sale care and communication. As the name suggests, it covers the whole experience of being a customer – any interaction people have with you and your site during and after the journey to purchase. It covers the usability of your site, the communication between your staff and shoppers, the ease of finding what they’re looking for, the delivery options, ease of returning goods, plus a whole raft of other factors – including the ability to surprise or delight them along the way.

Bad customer experiences can be costly. Not only can it prevent you from winning over customers in the first place, it can also stop them from coming back. In fact, 44% of customers said they have taken their business elsewhere instead due to a poor experience, while in 2014 it was estimated that $41bn was lost by US companies doe to poor customer service.

But if bad customer experiences can lose you customers, then delivering exceptional experiences can help you attract more, keep the ones you’ve got for longer and encourage them to spend more with you along the way. Happy customers are more likely to become repeat customers. Customer retention is essential to being able to sustain and grow a successful ecommerce business. Happy customers who’ve had an enjoyable experience are also more likely to shout about you to their friends. Those who’ve had a positive experience are nearly three times more likely to recommend you. This sort of brand loyalty can be priceless, plus the social proof of people talking positively about you openly online can increase your chances of turning other visitors into customers. Those brands that do customer experience well, even manage to turn potentially bad experiences into positive adverts for their business – converting someone who may have complained about the store into a brand advocate.

Creating a positive customer experience can be fantastic for your bottom line. The lifetime value of your customers increases as they will come back to you again and again, so you can afford to invest more in customer acquisition. It can even open up new revenue opportunities for you. We’ve already said that price is not the only decision driver for shoppers, with many also now willing to pay a premium for fantastic customer service, meaning ecommerce personalization is becoming a more prominent factor to ensure a better, more tailored experience. Major ecommerce players such as Amazon and Asos, with their Prime and Premier models, are two examples of sites offering subscription-based VIP delivery options, with huge numbers of customers willing to pay more for the added convenience of next day delivery and fast-tracked customer service.

We’ve looked at the what and the why, now let’s delve deeper into the how,  as we explore how you can create incredible customer experiences in 2017 and beyond, the sorts of experiences that will help you attract, convert and retain customers.

Creating immersive, compelling and engaging experiences

 

Most people shop with their eyes. The same was true before the age of the internet and it’s most certainly the case online. Brick and mortar stores have always recognized the importance of making goods look attractive – just look at the effort merchandisers, window dressers and advertising execs have always put into creating eye-catching displays.

For online retailers, the challenge is perhaps even greater – you’re trying to make a product that the customer can’t see up close, touch or try on look tantalizing and attractive, relying purely on the visuals to replicate the tactile and interactive experience of shopping in store.

This is where visual storytelling becomes a crucial part of that customer experience. High-quality images are essential if you want to capture attention for your products or persuade a user that it is something they want to own. We can also see the importance of visual storytelling outside of your own ecommerce site. For example, more than half of consumers say they follow brands on social media to see their products, demonstrating the importance of creating a unified story for your brand of high-quality images. In 2017, one of the fastest-growing Facebook ad formats is Canvas, an immersive advertising platform that allows you to build attractive and interactive visual advertisements using videos, photos and GIFs. Other Facebook ad formats such as Carousel, Collection or the long-standing large format single image ads are all similarly built around visual product discovery.

 

But the way you use visuals can also do more than just make your goods look attractive. They can also build trust and authority in the way you give an accurate representation of what somebody is buying. Customers trust a product more when they can see it up close.

Using rich media, as well as just static images, creates a more immersive experience. Allowing users to zoom in on products and rotate images to view what they’re buying from 360-degree angles all helps to replicate what somebody might do when picking up a product and inspecting it in store. Many leading fashion retailers use these features to great effect.

Video can also help tell a product’s story in an even more interactive way. According to Facebook, nearly one-third of mobile shoppers say that video is the best way to discover a new product, while Google says that nearly 50% of internet users will search for a video on a product before visiting a store.

Good quality video content can help would-be customers see a product in action and really get a feel for how it will work.

New developments in technology are now being embraced by ecommerce sites, moving visual representation of their products to another level beyond images and video. Augmented reality is one area that has the power to transform how people shop online. The technology was brought right into the mainstream consciousness through the explosive success of Pokémon Go, which overlays virtual creatures in real life scenes, while AR/VR  has attracted $1.7bn of investment in the past year. But how are ecommerce sites embracing it?

Furniture stores such as Ikea use AR to allow users to superimpose new items into their own homes, giving them a realistic virtual preview of what it would look like if they bought it. Similarly, sneaker giant Converse allows shoppers using its app to picture the shoes on their feet before they’ve bought them, with a variety of other fashion brands now using similar tactics. For an online fashion retailer, it’s as close as you can get to letting your customers try before they buy, attempting to replicate a key advantage that brick and mortar clothes stores have over online.

Forward-thinking retailers are also starting to embrace how artificial intelligence can boost the power of their visual assets.

Moving beyond mobile friendly

Latest stats from Google show that 34% of ecommerce purchases now happen on mobile, a figure that is only expected to keep on rising. That means it’s more important than ever to ensure your ecommerce site is optimized for mobile users. But making sure it is mobile-friendly is the bare minimum you should be hoping to achieve. You want to make sure you are fully embracing the capabilities of the latest devices, ensuring your site not only functions well, but is a pleasure to use, intuitive for mobile users and looks as stunning as the high-definition screens will allow.

But mobile devices are still the lowest converters when compared with desktop, despite starting to dominate in terms of traffic. This difference is even more distinct when you consider high-value purchases, which have an even lower conversion rate on mobile. A study of €230 million of online purchases during the second half of 2016 showed that smartphones and tablets accounted for 59% of traffic to ecommerce sites, but only 38% of revenue.

Narrowing this gap is often a key focus for conversion rate optimization projects, with optimizers looking for ways to improve the mobile experience in order to encourage more visitors to complete purchases from their handheld device.

One such area for attention in recent years has been the checkout process. In fact, a report from PYMNTS.com showed that a staggering 81% of mobile users abandon their purchase at the checkout stage. Some of the reservations are not surprising; it can seem difficult to enter in long card details using a mobile keypad, users browsing on the move might not want to get out their credit cards while out in public

But the rise of digital wallets and integrated mobile payment apps such Apple Pay and Android Pay have sought to address these issues. Apple Pay not only allows users to use their device to pay for items out in the ‘real world’, but it also stores your payment details on your smartphone, so you can pay just using a pin or fingerprint ID in many ecommerce stores, saving you the hassle of having to type in card details every time. Apple Pay usage reportedly grew by 50% in 2016, with payments in apps and websites more common than physical store transactions.

Mobile-optimized checkout processes also offer other options, such as photo-scanning your credit card using your smartphone camera, to save you typing, while mobile browsers like Chrome and Safari can securely store your credit card details to pre-fill them for you when you’re on a checkout page.

Long forms with multiple fields can also be a conversion killer for checkout pages on mobile devices. A study from the Baymard Institute showed that a ‘too long / complicated checkout process’ was the third biggest reason for abandonment. Simplifying this experience for mobile users would go a long way towards addressing those conversion concerns.

A variety of tactics and trends have caught on in the past couple of years to try and make filling in mobile forms as hassle-free as possible. Some of these include larger buttons designed for mobile screens and finger taps; automatically switching keyboards depending on what information is required, such as a numerical keypad for number fields; providing shortcuts to the @ symbol for email fields; auto-filling addresses as users type; reducing the number of fields required or visible. Embracing methods such as these in your mobile checkout (and any other section of your site that required form-fills) should now be a standard starting point for ecommerce stores.

And as usual, Amazon is leading the way with one of the most persuasive tactics for optimizing the mobile checkout – bypassing it altogether. Returning users, which Amazon relies heavily on for its business growth, can store their payment details meaning they don’t have to fill in any checkout details next time they come back to purchase, they just have to click that oh-so-enticing ‘Buy now with 1-click’ button.

 

This is far from a new invention for the ecommerce giant, which has had it in place since the last century (1999, to be exact), but it’s something that has become even more powerful in the age of mobile ecommerce. It has also become a key part of even newer developments, such as voice-activated purchases through the Amazon Echo, or with the push-button Amazon Dash, a small WiFI-connected device that allows you to easily order replacements for common household items.

However, the reason it seems many other online retailers are playing a very slow game of catch-up on the 1-click feature is down in no small part to the patent that Amazon has held surrounding this since 1997. While this patent application was rejected in Europe in 2001, in the US other large retailers such as Apple have had to rely on licensing from Amazon to be able to use broadly similar 1-click checkout processes. Or as is more common, rely on optimizing their checkout processes instead. But with the patent set to expire in 2017, retailers across the US could be set for one of the biggest opportunities to improving their customer’s checkout experience.

Embrace cross-device journeys

While improving the checkout process for mobile users is just one way of improving the mobile customer experience and driving higher conversion rates, there is also value to be found in accepting the fact that not all users will purchase from their mobile device, no matter how hard you try to optimize it. That doesn’t mean you should ignore these customers altogether, but it’s a common pattern of modern shopping behavior that people will research something on their mobile device, yet complete the purchase at a later date from a desktop. Losing somebody from you mobile site doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost them to a competitor or lost them forever.

That makes it even more important to optimize the mobile experience to make your products or goods as enticing as possible, while presenting the benefits of shopping with you as clearly and persuasively as you can, to encourage users to return from their preferred device or at a convenient time when they are ready to buy. A seamless experience is fast becoming one of the most crucial factors determining whether customers buy from you or leave you for a competitor.

Functions such as wish lists and save for later help you tap into this habit of shopping across multiple devices, letting users save something they’re interested in from one device, but accessing it from their account on a different device later. Remarketing across devices is also on the rise, with Google this year launching cross-device display advertisements for logged-in users, allowing retailers to ‘close the loop’ and target specific remarketing ads at potential customers on different devices. For example, you may research a product on your phone, then be presented with an advert for that product later when you’re on your desktop and more likely to purchase.

Retailers are also continuing to innovate with how they offer customers the opportunity to purchase, putting their products front of mind in a way that is convenient for customers, giving them the chance to purchase without even leaving the app they are using. For example, pay and order by text, in-app chatbot purchases through messaging apps and buying goods directly through social media are all growing trends that aim to make cross-device shopping as easy as possible, without consumers having to adjust their normal behavior to buy from you.

Speed and ease

Today’s generation of millennials and digitally savvy shoppers have high expectations and low attention spans. The multitude of choices available online means all the power is in the hands of the user; they can afford to be picky and demanding. Speed and convenience are two factors that can have a huge impact on whether or not somebody completes a transaction.

Speed comes into play in various guises, whether it’s the time it takes for a page to load, or the time it takes for somebody to complete a checkout form. Lag behind the average 3-second attention span, or set tasks along the route to conversion that appear to require more than the minimal amount of effort on behalf of the consumer, and you risk losing them forever.

Page load speed is a constant battle for webmasters across the globe. Gone are the days of dial-up internet, when consumers were willing to wait up to 8 seconds for a page to load. In 2017, speed is of the essence. You can easily understand how slow-loading sites lead to frustration for users and a poor customer experience. Improving this can have other benefits too, as Google has openly stated that page load time is a ranking factor. Plus you stand less chance of your potential customers bouncing straight off their site when they get sick of waiting. A report from Google-owned ad platform Doubleclick in September 2016 found that 53% of mobile users would abandon a site if a page took more than 3 seconds to load.

That particular study was aimed more at publishing sites, but the same principle applies to ecommerce sites – and you can easily see how losing more than half of your visitors because of slow loading pages can negatively impact your revenue.

Google’s Maile Ohye said in this video in 2010: “2 seconds is the threshold for e-commerce website acceptability. At Google, we aim for under a half second.” While not everyone can expect to have access to servers as lightning fast as Google’s, it’s not a bad benchmark to aim for – and standards have progressed even more over the past seven years.

Looking at a couple of large-scale examples, AliExpress reported last year that reducing load time for their pages by 36% led to a 10.5% increase in orders and a 27% spike in conversion rates for new customers. During a talk on customer experience metrics, Trainline CTO Mark Holt described how improving load speed by 0.3s generated an extra £8m in annual revenue.

Walmart previously found that every 1 second of improvement to page speed led to a 2% rise in conversions, while every 100ms grew revenue by up to 1%. Looking at the issues from the other side, Amazon revealed that conversions dropped by 7% for every 1-second delay. That amounts to dizzying sums of lost revenue for a business of Amazon’s scale – around $1.6bn in annual income. But even for small and medium-sized retailers, a similar delay could be costly. If you make $10,000 of sales a day, then that 7% could be worth more than $250,000 a year.

Those sorts of numbers are a clear indicator of the value of page speed optimization. Many of the recent trends in web design have been geared towards lightning fast user experiences. AMP and Facebook Instant Articles have shown the value of load speed for content-hungry consumers for news sites, whereas developments in the ecommerce space have similarly been aimed at rapid delivery of content. Facebook’s Canvas ad format debuted in 2016 to create super-fast in-app delivery of rich media ecommerce products. Extensive product catalogs all backed up by image galleries and videos can be a strain on resources for ecommerce sites, but issues can be improved through optimizing media size or using a content delivery network. Other examples of speed-driven on-site trends include advancements in HTML5 through to the use of single page apps (SPAs) for ecommerce, which speed up the experience by only loading the content that a user needs.

The main driver for speed with ecommerce sites is to help customers find what they are looking for as quickly as possible. If they can’t do that then it will lead to frustration and the risk that they go off in search of your competitors instead.

No matter how many products or categories you have in your inventory, the importance of a site architecture that makes sense to your users should not be underestimated. The more products you sell, the more important site search and intuitive navigation become, as these are important signposts to help potential customers find the items they want to buy.

But because they are language-based, there are limitations with these methods when it comes to product discovery. Site search, for example, relies on a customer being able to accurately describe what they are looking for, while navigation is often built around a limited number of filters and tags. As we’ve already mentioned, most people prefer to shop with their eyes, which is why the visual aspect of ecommerce is so important. Advancements in artificial intelligence are now addressing this issue with image-based search technology. Sentient Aware is an AI-powered solution that analyzes the product images, rather than just the metadata behind them, to help present shoppers with items that match their tastes. As a customer clicks on products, it intelligently ‘learns’ what they are looking for and uses vector analysis to present visual matches as recommended products. It creates a more compelling experience, akin to having a personal shopper quickly pick out items for you based on your preferences.

Shopping that fits around busy lifestyles

Successful ecommerce in 2017 is about more than just the online experience. You can have the best website in the world, but if the fulfillment of your orders does not fit in with your customers’ demands, then you are giving them an incentive to go elsewhere. Leading ecommerce brands have effectively removed some of the barriers and concerns around shopping online, by offering fast, efficient and hassle-free customer service.

It is natural for customers to be a little nervous about purchasing items that they have not seen in person, clothes they haven’t tried on, or items they have not tested out or inspected closely. High=quality imagery can address some of these nerves, but the returns policy is often the first thing many people check before committing to a purchase. In fact, around two-thirds of shoppers in Europe and 63% of US consumers will check the rules on returns before the click the ‘buy’ button.

 

UK-based fashion retailer ASOS has embraced this part of the experience, offering hassle-free returns, with shoppers able to use the pre-paid returns sticker to send items back by dropping them off at a wide range of post offices, corner shops, supermarkets and gas stations. Amazon even refunds some low-value items without requiring customers to actually post the item back.

Amazon’s huge fulfillment operation is also helping to pioneer a variety of other advancements in deliveries, including 1-hour delivery slots and same day delivery, which the competition seems to be hotting up to be able to offer drone deliveries on a mass-market scale. Collections from lockers and other delivery points also give customers a choice of options if delivery to their home address isn’t the the most convenient option.

Many other ecommerce retailers are following suit with flexible delivery and return options, all designed to help the shopping experience fit around the busy lifestyles of customers. Enhanced customer service is also now a service that customers are willing to pay a premium for, so it presents an opportunity to up-sell with pricier but more convenient delivery options, while subscription models such as Amazon Prime lock in customer loyalty by offering free next-day delivery for an annual fee.

Customers no longer want to wait days or weeks for their goods, not face fees to return items. There are also expectations that they will be able to buy the products they want when they want them, which is why out-of-stock products can be another source of frustration. There are so many other stores to choose from, that if the item they want is not in stock at your site, what’s to stop them going elsewhere? But if you can build an intuitive way of presenting alternatives into the web experience, then out-of-stock items become an opportunity for a cross-sell rather than a lost opportunity.

Sentient Aware uses AI-powered deep learning to identify customer preferences to recommend genuinely appealing alternatives, giving you the best chance of rescuing a sale rather than losing the shopper if their first choice is not available. It recreates the experience of a sales assistant helping you to find something else if an item you picked out isn’t in stock, but does so with incomparable speed and accuracy.

Instant, direct communication with your customers

These days there is no need to guess what is important to your customers – you have instant, direct access to them. Communications between brands and customers have never been more direct. This has been a double-edged sword in some ways, with social media giving rise to a new trend of public shaming of brands, highly visible complaints and an expectation that responses should be instantaneous.

 

But this era of instant communication can be a positive thing for retailers and shoppers alike; it should be used as an opportunity to improve customer experience. Methods like live chat, surveys, email questionnaires and sentiment analysis of social media mentions all offer a route to understanding your customers better. This sort of user research can be invaluable in creating customer experiences that really resonate and give shoppers what they want.

Effective communication is also a way to build brand trust and authenticity, using reviews and customer testimonials as social proof to encourage new shoppers to purchase from you, while personal sign-offs from customer service staff can add a human touch that can help further build trust. The new era of bot-powered communications represents a challenge to this authenticity, but the personalization and realistic use of human-sounding bot language is already proving successful for many brands – around 2 in 5 consumers say they are ‘comfortable’ interacting with AI-powered chatbots, according to a recent study.

Being clear with your contact information has long been a popular tactic to build trust in your online store, but now more than ever it’s important to give customers the option to contact you and receive information from you in the way they want to. This can also aid them on their journey to complete a purchase, with more than three-quarters of shoppers saying they want to contact a real person before buying. For example, this could be in-app messaging, live chat, Facebook Messenger, text alerts, Twitter conversations. Some brands, such as shoe retailer Schuh, have even trialed video live chat, for an even greater level of personalized online customer service.

But as well as being easily contactable, modern shoppers also want to be able to self-serve, rather than wait for a response from customer service. Nearly three-quarters of consumers want to solve customer service issues on their own, while 69% of millennials have said they feel better about a company when they resolve a problem without having to talk to customer service. A decent FAQ page is the bare minimum, and only by regularly reviewing your customer communications will you be able to keep these frequently asked questions up to date and relevant and ensure you are addressing those main customer needs.

The recurring benefits of good customer experience

It is often stated that selling to existing customers is much cheaper and easier than acquiring new ones. And creating a positive ecommerce customer experience along every step of the journey really increases your chances of turning people from one-off purchasers into loyal returning customers. Not only that, but it can even make them start to do your job for you, telling their friends about your business, sharing their great experiences on social media and becoming brand ambassadors who shout about what you offer.

 

Modern shoppers want fast, fuss-free and enjoyable shopping – and you want to make it as easy as possible for them to come back to you again and again. The value of customer retention should not be underestimated, and tailoring the experience to visitors right from their first engagement with you will boost your chances of converting them into a customer. Personalized experiences help remove a lot of the friction, smooth the journey to purchase and give your store that something extra to separate from the crowds in the minds of your customers.

But your efforts shouldn’t end when they’ve completed payment. Think about the ways that your business can continue to serve your customers in an exceptional way, from delivery through to post-sales communications, on multiple devices and different platforms. Get all these touch-points right you’ll have an ever-growing customer base that will come back to purchase from you again and again.