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Opinion

Giving online commerce the MP treatment
Rob Bamforth By: Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst, Quocirca
Published: 14th April 2010
Copyright Quocirca © 2010
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Despite the homogenisation of many high streets and growth of national and international retailers, stores, service levels and customer experiences vary widely. Small, independent or chain, some appear to ‘get it', some do not. In the UK, shopping guru, Mary Portas (distinguished in her early career for window displays at Harrods and Harvey Nichols) has presented TV shows and writes regular columns where she assesses the customer experience offered by a particular store and provides recommendations for change.

If only there was something similar on offer for online.

While online retailing is significant and still growing strongly, especially for some top brands, today the gap between great online commerce and the average site is vast. Over the years, some glaring errors came from the initial thought that ‘internet commerce' was somehow separate from ‘real' commerce. A catalogue company famous for its vast range and quick service launched an online shop with only a handful of products and long delivery times. Airlines and electrical goods suppliers failed to link their web page offer prices to the ‘real' data in their core systems, resulting in customer frustration, reputational damage and in some cases an official rap on the knuckles. The lack of consistent product presentation across was a significant issue then that too often recurs today.

The results then? Well, many were fortunate that the internet was embryonic, some growth pains were tolerated and that communication between those connected to the internet was more related to computer networking than social networking. Now a viral frenzy of tweets, pokes, blogs and links would ensure the social recommendation engines issuing a widely communicated ‘thumbs down'. Since online and tele-sales means many sellers rarely see customers face to face, they have to work even harder at establishing a relevant and valuable relationship with them - service and experience is key.

All retailers are affected by the technology shifts that give potential customers many ways to shop - physical stores, telephone ordering, websites etc - but the issue is more pronounced where the goods or services on offer are becoming commoditised. This is particularly apparent in the field of telecoms where operators have already tried the ‘confusopoly' approach coined by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, the multi-service bundling of triple, quad and more-play, and are now having to deal with ‘left field' competitors from California in the form of internet crossovers like Google and Apple.

Margins are tight and falling, services are becoming more complex and increasing support costs, and the infrastructure needs further investment, so how should operators deal with the opportunity and threat of online commerce?

Mainly, by not regarding it as new, separate or different.

Externally, this means integrating their approach to all modes of customer interaction, rather than treating them as separate stovepipes. For some, such as mobile operators with high street stores run as franchises, this might be a little harder to start with, but it is worth the while. It should not matter whether a customer calls in a store - any store - accesses a website, or calls or emails into a contact centre, the response, whether to a sales enquiry or support need should be dealt with simply and consistently.

There also needs to be ‘persistence' in the relationship between operator and customer, so that the customer is recognised and treated as the individual they are, with service and product offering tailored to their needs. This should also extend to allow a customer to use different media as and when they need throughout the sales or support lifecycle. In this way for example, the sales process could start in store, involve phone calls to clarify details, have the transaction confirmed online for customer pickup at yet another physical premises. This gives customer freedom, but also ensures the operator is aware of the whole process.

This awareness needs to translate into a consistent and coherent internal understanding of the relationship across all internal departments. It is pointless having a great sales website and in store experience if the first call for support gets answered with a ‘who are you?'. Internal departments need to be working with a common view of each customer. Not only does this ease the customer experience, it also keeps costs down. For some operators this will be quite a shift, from being product, bearer or network centric to being completely oriented around the customer.

This orientation needs to stretch further too, as existing and potential customers have a vast array of information sources and relationships at their fingertips; news of good and bad experience travels fast across online social networks. Operators need to recognise the social element of commerce and up their game to ensure they are not only a positive part of the online background buzz and conversations, but that they are somehow sufficiently engaged to be influencing them. A quick look over their shoulder to Google or Apple will remind them that the ‘left field' is not only a very inviting place to play, but closer than they think. Whether online, in the high street, via a contact centre or social network, customer experience is key to successful commerce.

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