If you design a gorgeous website, use search engine optimization to generate steady traffic, and add a shopping cart and store, your online sales will manage themselves, right?
Well, despite the plethora of easy-to-use web tools available for running a business online, it turns out you've got to keep a close eye on your e-commerce game. If sales are flat or declining, don't just question the quality of your product offerings and pricing.
Consider something more basic: Your website might be turning away customers.
Web analytics programs will advise that if you have a potential problem, you should pay particular attention to shopping cart abandon rates and "bounce" rates--the latter indicating the percentage of people who left your site in a hurry.
Also, keep in mind these top visitor complaints about online shopping problems that drive customers crazy--and into the arms of competitors:
'I can't find what I'm looking for'
There's nothing more annoying than a site that doesn't clearly describe its products or make it easy to find everything that's available. If you offer similar products, list them on the same page to eliminate any confusion, advises Kishau Rogers, founder of Websmith Group, a Richmond, Virginia-based firm that provides web design and consulting services to small businesses.
Include images and text for all products so customers can quickly scan the details they need to make a decision. "So many companies skimp on photography and writing," says Keith Eckhardt, who ran a successful online furniture business from 2001 to '08 and is now an
internet marketing principal with business consultancy Roundhouse Advisors.
Finally, design the "search" and "home" buttons into every page for simple navigation.
'It's too much of a hassle to order something'
Shopping carts can be overly complex and take too long for a customer to complete an order. If you can reduce the number of steps and pages in your shopping cart process, you'll have less bounces, says Eckhardt.
Also, the final checkout screen should be "super obvious" when it comes to explaining shipping and payment processes, says Rogers. Offer as many options as you can on payment and shipping, and be clear about the costs to avoid surprising a customer.
'I don't know if I can trust this site'
Most people know to look for the security badge that indicates a secure page for ordering. Make sure your site has security certificates (VeriSign is just one of many) that ensure SSL encryption for transactions. If your certifications expire, customers will receive error messages during the order process--and may never come back to your site.
Eckhardt advises testing your site in all of the major web browsers to ensure that users won't have problems with your certificates, no matter what platform they use. You also need to place a test order at your site after installing the certificate to make sure customers can make transactions without issues.
'This site is too darn slow'
Oh, the deadly nature of the web. Sometimes slowness is due to the ISP or other factors beyond your control. You can reduce customer frustrations by optimizing product images for quick loads, Rogers says.
'I just want to talk to a real person!'
When there's a problem or question during the ordering process, no one wants to fill out a form and wait for an e-mail response. Both Rogers and Eckhardt advise having a live person, who is knowledgeable about your business and its products, available by phone during business hours.
Include a phone number on all the ordering pages and clearly state the hours of operation. For technical problems, make sure your customer service person has quick access to a support expert for your site.
You might wonder if having a foolproof e-commerce site is going to break the bank. Fortunately, there are a lot of affordable tools today that enable sharp features and smooth performance. "You don't need to spend a lot of money, but consider all of the options that are available," advises Rogers.
After you've made any updates, enlist the help of friends, colleagues and, ideally, potential customers to test out your site. Give them a discount in return. The best approach you can take is to think like a customer. Doing business on your website should be so effortless that it makes customers want to come back again, again and again.
Polly Traylor is a former high-tech magazine journalist with CIO and The Industry Standard, among others. She writes about business, health care and technology from Golden, Colorado.