Thinking like a customer is critical to COVID business survival

I’m a frustrated customer. With the COVID pandemic, getting to the shops is becoming harder. So, last week I made three high value purchases. I’m not a retailer but it seems as plain as the nose on my face that many retailers are simply out of touch with their customers.

My three orders were for about $600, $750 and a third for $1000. The experience I had with each was different and will strongly influence my recommendations to friends and whether I’ll be a return customer. In today’s tough retail environment, getting online retail isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s essential.

People are already stressed out with the pandemic. A shoddy retail experience just adds to the tension. And when the pandemic is managed, it’s the retailers that made life easier for customers that will not just survive but become more successful.

How not to do online retail

I have preference for talking to people when making certain purchases. These days, that’s not always possible or even permissible so I’m happy to do things over the phone or via online chat.

With COVID making it harder to operate contact centres, this particular vendor has made their phone numbers hard to find. But I found a number, made a call and was promptly sent a text message with a link to an online chat. Interestingly, the usual path to online chat was also eradicated as the vendor was simply trying to drive people straight to online ordering despite operating in a market well known for complexity.

Online chat was very slow – the chat session lasted over three hours. The first thing I did in the chat was to clearly articulate exactly what I wanted. I was after a specific product in a specific configuration that the website said was in stock.

After three hours, most of which was spent waiting for a responses (I was OK with the delays as I was warned they may happen and I was at my desk doing other work so the time wasn’t wasted) the sales agent told me the item I wanted was not in stock and that they could only confirm availability when they placed the order.

The real sting came when I mentioned the website said there was stock. The response was that the agent’s system and the online system use different distribution centres.

In other words, this vendor did not have a single view of their stock.

I ended up ordering the product online. I got what I wanted in less than a minute. But I’m not sure of the delivery date as the communications from the vendor were inconsistent.

The order confirmation messages told me I’d be notified when my product was on its way. Although there were no emails or any way to track the status of my order, the product arrived about four days after my order.

How to almost do online retail

My second transaction was for about $1000. The order process was easy, payment was straightforward and I received notifications promptly. The problem?

I was charged $4.95 for shipping. On a $1000 order. And the date of that delivery be confirmed once it was actually shipped. So there’s no way of knowing when the item would actually be dispatched.

That seems a little petty to me on an order of that magnitude.

On the upside, communications about order status and delivery were sent and the rest of the experience was good.

How to do online retail

The third example is how great online retail works.

I found the product I wanted, paid my $600 for it quickly, received notification and received free shipping. I could track my order and I had a confirmed delivery day within minutes of the order being received.

Think like a customer

Today’s retail customer can come to your online store in a variety of ways and even switch method midstream. They might start with an online order but then shift to chat to ask some questions, then save their order and come back on another device later.

It is critical that those transitions are seamless and that the customer’s view of your business is consistent as they switch between contact points and sales channels.

Customers also need to be treated fairly. When someone buys an item for $1000, charging them $5 for delivery is petty. If your margin is so thin that you need to charge about the same as a cup of takeaway coffee, your pricing model is probably wrong.

Ordering online is a leap of faith for customers. They can’t look a seller in the eye. There’s no way to really build rapport and trust in the same way as a physical transaction. But vendors can build confidence by having reliable systems, consistency in communications and providing easy ways to track shipments.

It’s worth noting that all three vendors I dealt with have been in business for decades. And all are well resourced to get things right. But only one has created a truly customer-centric system.