P. Kelly Mooney is one click-happy, online-shopaholic. In fact, between December 1, 1998 and January 15, 1999, Mooney spent more than 300 hours roaming the cyber-aisles of 30 online retailers, purchasing anything and everything: books, perfume, wine, garden supplies, toys, jeans, CDs. But Mooney didn't spend much time evaluating all of this merchandise. As intelligence director for Resource Marketing Inc., a technology marketing and communications company based in Columbus, Ohio, Mooney was evaluating one thing only: the experience of shopping.
"Customer service is the online experience," says Mooney. "Online, no transaction is tangible. There's no friendly greeter at the front door, and there's no help desk at the back of the store. A customer is in a self-service environment. So retailers must know what the customer wants before she tells them. From start to finish, the experience is the only thing that matters."
Mooney, 35, has always taken shopping seriously. At Fitch Inc., an international design consultancy where she worked for nearly a decade, Mooney supervised the creative development of award-winning retail environments for such brands as Reebok, Hush Puppies, and Lee Apparel. Her recent online shopping spree was aimed at creating a data-rich, easy-to-understand tool to help her current clients come to terms with the harsh realities of customer service on the Web. But before she could educate those clients (which include such companies as the Limited, Hewlett-Packard, Drug Emporium, and Burton Snowboards), Mooney first had to educate herself: She spent six intense weeks on the Web, scoping out the promise and the performance of dozens of sites, calling customer-service numbers, sending out email inquiries, ordering and returning items, and complaining -- acting, in other words, like a normal customer.
Mooney then converted her findings into a personal, opinionated Internet-shopping audit: E-Commerce Analyst Watch 2.0. (Mooney's first audit, Analyst Watch 1.0, was conducted exclusively for the Limited, as part of the development effort for that company's superhyped, supersexy Victoria's Secret Web site.) Mooney's rating tool looks at more than 50 site attributes and groups them into nine areas of evaluation -- from prepurchase customer service, to gift giving, to special promotions, to the all-important, underexploited category of postpurchase follow-through. Armed with all of this data, Mooney awarded medals to each site: gold for an exceptional experience; silver for a good experience; and, for those bringing up the rear, bombs. She did not award any bronze medals: "There's little room for third place in the e-commerce world," she explains. Finally, Mooney named the joint winners of the award for "Best on the Web": Amazon.com and Garden.com.
To find out what works -- and what doesn't -- in the world of customer service on the Web, Net Company asked Mooney for a list of basic do's and don'ts. She offered five principles (along with a series of "sites that clicked" and "sites that crashed," all drawn from her Web-shopping experiences).
Don't just do it.
The worst thing that a retailer can do is to throw its catalog on the Web and call that an online-retailing strategy. In fact, doing that can do more to break a brand than to build it. Take Dean & Deluca, which is a chain of gourmet-food shops. When I visit one of its stores, I salivate over its products: I want to eat every cheese wheel in sight. But when I go online, I wonder, "Is this the same company?" The Dean & Deluca site is boring and uninspired: I feel like I'm buying parts for my car. The flip side of that experience is a site like levi.com. The way that Levi's sells jeans on the Web is incredibly well thought-out. Information is accessible and easy to follow. If I want to see color swatches, I can see them big or small. I can see both the front and the back of a product. What a concept! Levi.com also has a feature called "My Collection" -- a personal Web page where customers can keep a list of their favorite items. The look-and-feel of the site fits the Levi's brand like, well, a good pair of jeans.
Don't let your seams show.
Real customer service is about reaching and satisfying customers in every retail environment -- not only online and not only in the brick-and-mortar world. Retailers have to figure out how to guide their customers seamlessly, and according to each customer's needs, through various retailing experiences. Customers couldn't care less that Barnes & Noble and barnesandnoble.com are separate divisions with separate P&Ls. A customer who buys a book online expects to be able to return it to an actual store. But few retailers allow such returns. The Gap is one of the few exceptions: It looks at each merchandise return as an opportunity for another sale -- and, in the process, it creates a seamless experience for the customer.
Own the customer experience.
There's a big difference between owning a lot of data about customers and owning the customer experience. One of the main responsibilities of an online retailer is to make its site easy, intuitive, and accessible -- to get a customer to click because she's engaged, not because she's confused. In part, that means getting better at asking the customer about the types of information that she wants to receive. Amazon.com, for instance, lets me indicate whether I want to receive its email newsletter -- which includes updates on the Oprah Book Club, along with other information flashes. To offer that kind of service, you need to have a lot of smart back-end systems in place, but those systems pay off in the long run. Personalization is crucial. No customer wants to receive mass emailings.
Avoid barriers to entry.
Along with the most common barriers to success online -- the much-documented triumvirate of security, privacy, and trust -- there are many less-obvious but easily avoidable barriers: lack of clear connection paths, graphic-rich but painfully slow online experiences, information-rich but poorly organized pages, impersonal or nonexistent email responses, vague or complex self-help features, surprise shipping fees. There's one thing that you can do to avoid a lot of those barriers: Hire a vice president of customer experience. You need one person who will be a champion for the customer -- one person who can move through various business units and act as an advocate for customer-centric design.
Trust is a must.
Let customers reveal themselves at their own pace -- so that they learn to trust you and so that you can serve them one at a time. Don't force them to follow a one-size-fits-all, information-gathering approach. Instead, provide shortcuts to experiences that are free of roadblocks and detours. Make it easy for customers to browse or to find assistance, and give first-time shoppers readily accessible information about gift giving, shipping, and returns.
The ultimate goal: Make yourself an adviser to your customers. Offer suggestions based on their personal preferences. Know your merchandise, and identify all of the different ways to shop for it -- by price, age, gender, color, style, mood, or any combination of those categories. Build a smart, robust database, one that delivers search results that are relevant, visual, complete, and helpful.
Build your customers' confidence by providing obvious starting points and clear paths to all parts of your site. Eliminate dead ends. Don't be too clever with labeling and language. Minimize the surprises, and don't forget that shoppers always want to know where they're going. And don't overlook the obvious: Money-back guarantees and honest, plain-language privacy policies are ways in which you can build and reinforce trust.
Sites That Clicked
The Nine West online store (www.ninewest.com) includes a "your shopping bag" feature that keeps a running tally of your purchases. No need to do your own math. No surprises at checkout time.
The Lands' End site (www.landsend.com) features a service that lets you order free swatches: They arrive by mail, so you can actually see and feel the fabrics.
Email response from Cosmetics Counter (www.cosmeticscounter.com) directed me to interact with, yes, a live person!
Fragrance Counter (www.fragrancecounter.com) works the same way.
Garden.com (www.garden.com) offers a one-year, 110%-satisfaction guarantee that is unrivaled in the world of e-commerce.
Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) posts a customers' Bill of Rights that is fair, honest, and to the point.
Gap Online (www.gap.com) has a section called "gapstyle," which uses photographs of actual clothes to help you put together your own outfit. As you add items to your outfit, the site keeps a running tally of your purchases. Buying jeans at levi.com (www.levi.com) was actually fun.
The Clinique site (www.clinique.com) not only acknowledged that it had mixed up my order -- it also sent me a gift by way of an apology.
Sites That Crashed
Disney.com (www.disney.com) -- so much media attention, so little customer service.
Garden Botanika (www.gardenbotanika.com) sent me a gift item that carried a "reduced price" tag.
Zip, zero, zilch email response from Eddie Bauer Online (www.eddiebauer.com), levi.com (www.levi.com), Tweeds (www.tweeds.com), or Dean & Deluca (www.deananddeluca.com).
The "Things to Come" section at jcrew.com (www.jcrew.com) lingered on the site for more than six months. Do it or don't!
Online Greetings, a service of American Greetings (www.americangreetings.com), bombarded me with an email confirmation for each item in my order. Ugh!
The Nine West online store (www.ninewest.com) offers an event-reminder service that failed to remind me of three events. Go figure!
Cosmetics Counter (www.cosmeticscounter.com) ran out of a promised gift -- and notified me only after I had made my purchase.
1-800-flowers.com (www.1800flowers.com) offers a satisfaction guarantee that ends up being essentially meaningless: no follow-up, no apology, no money back.
Levi.com (www.levi.com) sent out an email confirmation that arrived nine days after my jeans did!
Anna Muoio (email@example.com) is a Fast Company associate editor. You can reach P. Kelly Mooney by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).