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Gear Up for the Holidays--and Beyond

Why your "crunch-time" skills should become business as usual

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You can't claim to have lived in New England until you've gotten through a winter. The same could be said for sites. Whatever track record you've had the rest of the year, the real proof that your is viable comes some time after the holiday crunch. Did you handle the high volumes without sacrificing ? Did you not only deliver the goods for current customers but also attract new ones? Did you, your staff and website emerge intact? Is your accountant smiling?

If the answer to these questions is generally "yes," then you should be smiling, too. But here's my advice: Think of the holidays as a stress test for your organization. You won't always be dealing with these kinds of volumes, but the best practices you embrace now will pay dividends the rest of the year.

In that spirit, here are some tips for the holiday season--and beyond:

Use incentives to keep a steady flow
One of the most important safeguards against getting overwhelmed is to level out the volume spikes that can catch your organization off guard. The steadier the flow of traffic to your site, the better. Conversely, if 90 percent of your customers place their orders on Dec. 22, you're going to look unprepared no matter how much preparation you've made.

Begin by working out a set of incentives that will get your customers buying early. Possibilities include free gift wrapping, free shipping, two-for-one offers, coupon codes for later purchases, and, especially popular in today's , merchandise discounts and promotions. Then make sure your customers are aware of the offers by highlighting them on your home page. You can also e-mail your most valued customers, as long as you don't wear out your welcome. Finally, monitor the results to see what your customers are responding to. That knowledge will help you rev up during slow periods throughout the year.

Clearly communicate the true cost
The trend in e-commerce sites is to eliminate as many hidden costs as possible. Transparency is especially important during the holiday season, when customers have even less patience for unhappy surprises. Customers report that hidden shipping costs are the most frequent irritant--especially when those costs are unexpectedly high and only appear at the final stages of checkout. That ploy can lead to shopping cart abandonment--the merchandise is at the "register," but the customer has departed.

Instead, let customers know as soon as possible in the process what shipping will cost. Most of us know what it costs to mail a package, so keep those costs in line with customer expectations--or go one better and offer free shipping as an option. Some customers will always want more expedited shipping, but all will appreciate the opportunity to get standard shipping for free. And again, that's true not only during the holidays, but throughout the year.

Take customer support seriously--but let's chat
The time has long passed since the days when an e-commerce site could hide from its customers by not responding to queries. Phone calls are usually best, but not every online company has the resources to handle them, especially during the holiday crunch.

What to do? Resist the urge to bring in people who can answer the phone, but lack the expertise to truly represent your store. A badly handled call is worse than an unanswered one. Instead, consider online chat. The medium isn't as personal as the phone, but skilled representatives can conduct five or 10 chats at once--and customers will quickly recognize whether the people at the other end know what they're doing. Of course, e-mail can also be effective as long as you're diligent about responding quickly--an e-mail black hole is worse than no e-mail at all. And what if you're truly underwater from customer queries? Apologize, get a number and a good time to call--and call back.

Use "heat map" to track what clicks
Here's another place the holiday stress test can serve you well in the coming year: tracking what people actually do on your site. Companies like CrazyEgg, and Clickdensity offer services that can show you how people are navigating your website, with the ability to experiment with new designs that are more effective. While the holiday season is no time for a major redesign, you can make quick fixes, and then use this invaluable data to make bigger changes later on.

Improve checkout
One reason people have flocked online for their holiday shopping is that when they're ready to check out, they're always first in line. So make sure you've exceeded customer expectations during those final, crucial mouse clicks. The key is to reduce the number of hoops customers must jump through, while giving them different options to pay. For example, the checkout process should securely retain customer data so that people don't have to re-enter their information with each purchase. You should also offer a variety of payment options so that shoppers can use their preferred payment method, including a buy now, pay later plan, which is especially important in these cash-strapped times.

When your customers check out, they should also feel safe. Over the past few years, many people became online shoppers only after they overcame their fear of making online transactions. Once they had a good experience, they returned online for more. In that sense, every successful online transaction is a win for our industry as a whole. So do your part: Make sure your customers are feeling safe by giving them a truly secure method of paying.

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