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August 21, 2007

The Customer Experience is Not a Commodity

Studies show that online shoppers conduct more than half a dozen searches before making a purchase. That means a shopper may visit your site once, twice, or even six times using various search terms before deciding what (and where) they want to buy. If you’re the type of web site that sells a product stocked on dozens or even thousands of other sites, how can you compete? Well, price is a factor, but customer experience plays an important role as well.

I’ve often observed brand loyalty and its impact on the buying decisions we make. For example, if I’m in the mood for fast food, I’ll take Wendy’s over McDonald’s any day. I like Target better than Wal-Mart. My husband prefers Honda to GM and I’m now in love with Born shoes. These things are commodities. I like the product the company produces. I’m brand loyal.

What I never considered until today was the idea that I’m also customer experience loyal.

Yes, it’s about the brand, but with thousands of places to go to buy a particular brand, how do I decide which location gets my money? The customer experience.

Two to three days a week, I take my children to a drop-off child care center where they play for a few hours and eat lunch while I head around the corner to work. There are two Panera Breads (re: free wifi and tasty cinnamon crunch bagels) that are equidistant from the center. For the past two months, I’ve been going to one of them. Today, I needed to run into Target, so I’m working from the other one.

I won’t be coming back here.

At “my” Panera Bread, they know me by name. On my second visit, Erin was taking my order and observed that I’d been there “for hours” that past Tuesday. I told her I drop my kids off at day care and come over with my laptop to work for a few hours. She got my bagel for me and I went on my way. The next visit, we chatted again as she asked me if I was working on a paper for school. I told her what I did for a living and she commented that it sounded interesting. Over the course of the next two months, Erin and Stacy continued to make conversation with me whenever I was placing an order. They even noticed when I came in on a Friday instead of my usual Tuesday and Thursday and when I ordered something other than my usual.

When I stopped by on Wednesday with a friend to pick up an order to go, they commented on how great it was that I was taking a break and wanted to know about where we were headed to shop. Two workers at a chain store that I thought had secured my loyalty to the Panera Bread brand.

Then I found myself walking into “the other” Panera Bread this morning. My first thought was how much nicer the interior of this restaurant was. There are more lounge chairs, more plugs and more little nooks for settling into with my laptop. “Why haven’t I been coming to this Panera?” I asked myself.

Then I went to place my order. I was the third person in line and a cashier opened up a new register and said “I can take the next person over here.” The first person in my line was getting her order, so I stepped over to the new register figuring the second person in line was only a few seconds away from ordering.

“SHE was the next person,” the cashier said to me, nodding her head at the other woman. I paused for a moment before the cashier realized that “SHE” was already placing her order. “Oh,” she said.

I stepped up and ordered my usual toasted cinnamon crunch bagel. I got my order (no conversation) and headed back to my seat. It was only when I’d taken the time to spread my cream cheese and take my first bite that I realized she hadn’t toasted my bagel.

“I miss MY Panera Bread,” I thought.

That’s when it hit me. Sure, it was about the brand to an extent, but it was REALLY about the customer experience. It wasn’t so much Panera Bread that drew me in twice a week as it was the feeling I got from going there. Stacy and Erin would never forget to toast my bagel, and they’d always at least ask me how my day was.

Same exact product, same exact price, two different locations and one had just guaranteed they would get all of my future business.

Have you ever stopped to think about how the customer experience on your web site might be impacting your business? Does your shopping cart have stumbling blocks that your competitors have removed? Do your sales copy focus more on your customer and less on how wonderful your business is? Do you make it easy to find things like shipping information and your return policy?

You may have a solid search engine optimization plan in place. You may rank in the top three for every phrase you target. But knowing that visitors will conduct a number of searches before making their purchase, are you confident your store will impress them enough that they’ll return?

Author:  Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, an educational web site aimed at translating the search marketing world into something that small business owners can understand. Jennifer specializes in common sense search engine marketing, viral marketing and customer outreach via social media and blogs.