For all the digital business strategy and data analytics that define modern online retail, success still comes down to the fundamentals. Good store managers and salespeople know how to read their customers. They know when to offer help, what kind of help to offer, and how best to guide the shopper to the cash register. That kind of proactive attention has helped merchants build thriving businesses since the dawn of retail. Take the same approach online, and you can keep your customers moving happily through the conversion funnel—and keep them out of costly support channels at the same time.
For online retailers facing tight margins and intense cost pressures, the first instinct can be to pull back on customer engagement. They hide their phone number to push customers to online channels like chat, or even try to automate support with chatbots; though even then, chat remains costly and lacks scalability, struggling to reach even one percent of visitors.
The fact is, support tickets are expensive no matter which channel they come in through. And in the hyper-competitive world of digital business, companies cut corners on engagement and service at their peril. To drive conversions, build retention, and increase profits, retailers have to do more for their customers, not less. It’s all about when and how you do it.
Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars digital marketers invest to get shoppers to their site, only to leave them completely alone once they arrive. They might serve up a few widgets based on the visitor’s browser cookies, but otherwise the customer is on their own to decipher product descriptions, scroll through reviews, operate the online cash register and find their way to a purchase. Or not. The experience is more like a digital vending machine than a fully staffed online store.
On most retail sites, customer engagement comes into play only when something has gone wrong. The shopper is struggling to make the right product choice, or confused by the process for returns, or unsure how to apply a gift card or discount code. Many customers just bail—roughly nine out of 10. A few, when they get frustrated enough, finally reach out for help. That initial contact alone might be enough to erase the margin for any resulting sale. It’s not a great experience for either the customer or the retailer, so why do it this way?
The key isn’t to engage less or hide from your customers. It’s to engage a lot more customers, sooner, with proactive, contextual guidance—not chat— before problems arise, and before they abandon or create support tickets. You see a customer hesitating on your site and you step in with a suggestion, the way an in-store associate might offer help finding a size or explaining a feature. You’ve got the data to understand where on your site people tend to get stuck, and what they typically do once they’re past that barrier.
When people hesitate on this page, they leave your site to do more research on the product category, so save them the trip with a pop-up buyer’s guide. Did a big-ticket shopper enter an expired coupon code? Offer one that works to nudge that final click. Did a returning customer leave something in their cart on their last visit? Welcome them back and offer a custom click to fast-forward to where they left off. It’s not rocket science. It’s just acting more like a helpful merchant than a static vending machine.
All too often, customer experience optimization initiatives focus narrowly on site design without considering the full customer journey. “Personalization” goes no further than offering the customer a set of products that they’ve browsed previously. But to offer real, relevant help in the moment of the customer’s struggle, you need to respond contextually to the customer’s behavior and where they are in the journey. You need to personalize the engagement. That way, the shopper avoids frustration and stays on the site to make a purchase, while a customer in need of assistance can avoid the hassle (and cost to the merchant) of creating a support ticket. That’s the kind of experience that makes for loyal customers and healthy margins.
Offering proactive guidance isn’t just about reducing interactions by frustrated customers. Shoppers aren’t always aware of the reasons for their hesitation. Am I really in the market for this? Is this the right brand for me? Can I trust this company to meet my needs? They might not articulate these questions to themselves, and even if they did they’d feel silly asking an agent or chatbot for reassurance, but subconscious reservations like these can be enough to deter a large proportion of customers early in the process.
By reaching out first, you can help them feel more comfortable and more confident that they’ll be well taken care of, and remind them of incentives that get them to take one more click than they might have. And every one of these customers that you keep on your site is another conversion in the making.