One of the biggest challenges facing online businesses today is getting customers to stay loyal. It is easy enough to generate numerous first time hits through an ad campaign or promotion, but the cost of doing so often outweighs what users spend on their first visit. Many statistics show that returning and long-time customers are of more value to your business than first time ones, due to both increased sales and reduced costs. Therefore the key to sustainable revenue is to encourage customer loyalty and repeat business. Encouraging repeat visits can be broken down into a number of steps. Step 1- Win that all important second (and third) visit. This helps turn browsers into customers and gives them more time to discover what is so special about your site. Step 2- Later on in their ‘customer lifespan’ they may commit to one site if they decide it is the best one for them. The task here is to persuade them to choose you. Step 3- Even once they have chosen your site, they are still able to change allegiance. The key for this third step is ‘how not to lose your customers’ rather than how to win them. This is greatly helped by a thoughtful strategy for Customer Relations Management (CRM). This may comprise of a mixture of online and offline assets, including communication, returns policies, dispute procedures, account management, responding to feedback and dealing with sensitive situations.
Step 1- Winning that second visit
It would be great if every first time visitor was so impressed by your site that they signed up for a lifetime, but in reality people tend to look around competitor sites and see what other users are saying about each of them. First-time visits may be fairly quick; users may well be in a ‘browsing’ state of mind. For these users it is unlikely they will remember how they got to your site for the next time. To make sure they remember you site however, you can do the following things so that your site stays visible to the user during their period of browsing and contemplation:
- Give users a special reason to return; for example daily deals on Groupon;
- If your site has a particularly good feature or USP, make sure users associate it with your brand (the best examples being those that sum up their USP in their name such as webuyanycar.com);
- Make your URL (or site name or phrase users will put into Google) as unique as possible;
- Make your website name intuitive to spell;
- If you can email users, then send messages at useful points in time, such as if you have recently redesigned the site or started a big sale;
- Display your site’s name consistently throughout the site, but especially on the first and last pages users will commonly see.
Recall and Recognition
Users will be more likely to return to your site simply because they can recall the name more easily, as well as remembering what good features they found on the first visit. And the more users come back, the more opportunities you are giving them to further discover and engage with your site.
Step 2- Long term loyalty
Once users are given the maximum exposure to your site, your site needs to work hard to change their attitude for good. There is simply no substitute for an engaging, trustworthy, usable, unique and fair-priced website to cause a real change in attitude. Nevertheless, there are certain features which are more important than others in this respect. There is much literature on these features, often referred to as the ‘Eight C’s of customer loyalty’. They are: Customization, Contact interactivity, Care, Community, Convenience, Cultivation, Choice, and Character. See this paper Customer Loyalty in Ecommerce for a detailed explanation of each of these features; or the blog article The 9 C's of client retention with a slightly different take on them (not specific to online or to e-commerce): Some of the “C’s” are to do with the actual interface of your site; some of them are about supporting the community of users and allowing them to talk to each other, and some of them are to do with customer service. This article will not go into these topics too much however, but instead offer advice on general strategies which can be applied across many of the Eight (or Nine) C’s.
Customer Relations Management
There are more ways to interact in the world than ever before. Web users are constantly being communicated with by various means: through the site itself, by email, phone, post, texts etc. Depending on how these interaction methods are co-ordinated, this can be very effective or incredibly annoying. The systems in place for handling information and transactions in all of these methods are much more effective if they are joined up. Ideally, all the data you have about your users from emails, phone calls, snail mail, and from their behaviour on the website should be informed by all the other communication channels and act accordingly.
Creating a complete customer experience requires a joined up CRM
For example, if a user sends an application form by post, make sure you don’t send an email to them requesting online application a month down the line. This can cause great confusion! Similarly, the information you have about your users can be used to tailor emails appropriately. Let’s suppose you have data about how long customers have been with you and how frequently they use the site. With tailored emails, you could persuade some to come back with a special offer, introduce newer users to unique or hidden features and products, or tell frequent users about earning bonus points. Similar tailoring can be applied with knowledge of location, how much people spend, their favourite products, and much more. I received a very good email from thetrainline.com telling me how much I’d saved with them over the years. The figure was slightly inflated due to being compared to last minute buys, but the nice thing about it was that it wasn’t selling me anything; it simply told me what their normal service had saved me so far. Knowing that they (or their systems) are aware of my status as a long-term user and that they had stored that data for me is reassuring and has improved my overall customer experience.
Customer experience vs. User Experience
The term 'user experience' is thought of as a user's experience of one interface. With the aforementioned plethora of interfaces available nowadays, that user experience might be very different from one to the other. For example, an email should be written in a different way to a postal campaign, because users are in a different mindset when in their inbox than when sitting in an armchair. Similarly, someone using an iPad will be in a different mindset than when using a website, and using facebook and so on. Designing a complete customer experience requires joining up the user experiences. Each interface must be appropriate for its platform, but must also have the flexibility to flow well into other platforms. Let's say a user wants to research and book a holiday; researching the holiday could be done within an app; it could be fast, easy and fun. Booking the holiday may be a different story; they may prefer to do this on a slower platform for greater reassurance and security; online, on the phone or face to face. Whichever one they choose, make sure they can transfer and use their knowledge from 'research phase' on the app.
Step 3- Not losing your customers.
Long-term customers do eventually get a sense of attachment to a particular company or brand. In their minds, they have stood the test of time and they will not put much thought into switching to competitors. However, there are certain moments in a customer’s experience that can have a significant impact on their opinion of your company, and force them to reconsider. Typically, these ‘moments of truth’ arise out of a situation which is out of the ordinary; for example how utility companies handle bereavement, passengers needing to change flights on short notice, a problem with package delivery, availability in the event of a crisis, and so on. If you handle these moments badly it can potentially result in a user swearing never to return. If handled well, their loyalty is renewed. Obviously different types and sizes of businesses have different capabilities in terms of time, staff, technology, logistics etc. So if user’s expectations are not met, there isn’t a lot that can be done about it. But what a site can do is manage these expectations. Be honest with your users and clearly state the organisations limitations and any extra costs which may be incurred. As well as annoying your user, they will remember that experience for a long time. Issues of trust such as this have a significant (and sometimes immediate!) effect on loyalty. Similarly, if an email message says one thing to a user, and the online system says something else, what is a user to do? The answer is usually to phone up and check. This is expensive for both the user and the organisation and is the complete opposite to what is wanted.
There is no substitute for a great user experience. However, many sites that have conquered this still do not attract enough customers back. The tips presented here can increase both short term and long term loyalty and can help your site get the returning hits it deserves. The tips can be summed up in three steps; all requiring careful implementation of a joined up CRM strategy:
- Step 1: Winning the second visit: Recall and Recognition;
- Step 2: Long-term loyalty: The ‘Eight C’s’;
- Step 3: Not losing your customers: Handle those moments of truth correctly; be transparent and honest with your customers.