Five actions online brands can take to avoid offline disappointment

Fab.com: disappointed with its offline performance
Fab.com: disappointed with its offline performance

Alice Forward, user experience director at digital agency AnalogFolk London, on the perils of getting consumers' hopes up online.

A while ago, a painful search for a 40th birthday gift ended on a buzz-worthy website.  Inspired by the beautiful user experience, I bought a gift, failing to notice a six- to eight-week delivery time. A confirmation email didn’t highlight this either.

The birthday approached and no gift arrived, so I returned to the website to find in tiny writing the timeframe. Devastated. The birthday passed and I waited.

At week seven, with no gift and no order updates, I went to Facebook and found I wasn’t alone. Much of the commentary coming from other customers dissatisfied with the lacklustre fulfilment. By week eight, the gift arrived, but I never shopped on that site again.

A good user experience online is pointless if you can’t deliver on the promise in the offline world.

So it was interesting to read recently that the website involved, Fab.com, seems to have hit hard times. Articles suggest a change in business strategy and mismanagement of the company by the CEO are the cause. 

I can’t help wondering, though, if the inability to reflect the quality of the online shopping experience in the offline fulfilment of their products was also a contributing factor to the slowing of Fab’s success. At the end of the day, a good user experience online is pointless if you can’t deliver on the promise in the offline world.

A good online user experience is effective when it is part of a connected and consistently good customer experience across the board, and only then will it help to create the success demonstrated by online retailers such as Made.com and ASOS.

So what are the key principles of creating such an online experience?

1 - Make sure the experience meets users' online expectations

When I made my purchase on Fab.com I assumed delivery would be quick, because that is what, as a prolific online shopper, I am used to. Creating an online retail experience that fails to deliver against user expectations particularly around delivery and payment options will ultimately lead to them leaving your site and going elsewhere.

2 - Use the online experience to clearly set expectations

Online shoppers are task-focused. They will pay close attention to the information you provide on your site and this creates an ideal opportunity to send really targeted messages. Use this to set clear expectations about your offering and your customer experience. Don’t hide key information – even if it is something you’d rather not draw too much attention to, this just leads to frustration and lost repeat visits.

3 - Make sure the experience across channels is connected

There is nothing more frustrating than making an online purchase and subsequently being informed two days later that the purchased item is not available because the online stock information is not in sync with real world stock. It is becoming increasingly important to have consistent experiences across channels and unless you can enable this you need to consider how to best manage the situation, perhaps by using clear communications within your online experience. Don’t just cross your fingers and hope for the best.

4 - Use online to keep communication channels open and responsive

Use your digital experience to keep your customers regularly informed of what is happening offline. My experience of Fab might have resulted in a different outcome if there had been clear communication along the extended delivery time.  Don’t assume your customers have read the small print or remember their purchase details and don’t be afraid to give them regular updates on what is happening with their order.

5 - Don’t over-promise online and under-deliver offline or vice versa

Having a great experience with a brand online and a terrible experience with the same brand offline can be more detrimental then a consistently average experience, and ultimately lead to lost customers. Don’t make a promise for "Smiles Guaranteed" online if your overall customer experience can’t deliver it.

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