I recently discussed our report on the usability of confirmation email with a marketing manager. She said that while it was interesting research, it wasn't really relevant to her marketing team because confirmation messages are sent out only after customers have placed their orders.
It's certainly true that confirmation messages aren't part of the upfront selling process. However, they should be considered as part of your Internet marketing strategy because they impact subsequent orders.
The biggest challenge in e-commerce is to create trust. On the Web, your company is completely virtual. People can't touch the product. They don't get impressed by your big building or fancy décor. They don't get schmoozed by your high-wattage salespeople. They simply see a few glowing pixels on the screen.
Why should they give you money? Why should they sustain any hope that they'll receive the ordered product, that it will be in good condition, and that it will be what they expect based on the site's description and photos?
The Role of Reassurance
Obviously, your website's design can help answer these questions in a positive way. Offering "about us" information, for example, gives your company and management team credibility, as does following best practices for e-commerce usability. Ultimately, however, Web pages are just information. To achieve true credibility, you must literally deliver the goods.
The concept of total user experience says that you must consider everything that the user encounters — not just the screen designs. Confirmation email plays a big role in comforting users and calming their anxieties, especially if there's a delay in fulfilling their order. And, even when everything goes right and the shipment will be on time, you gain credibility points when you send customers appropriate confirmation emails to keep them informed. Doing so creates the expectation that you'll treat them well in the future and in case of trouble.
You should also consider the packaging, receipt, and other paperwork you include with shipments. I know of very few e-commerce sites that conduct usability studies of the recipient experience. Based on the packages I receive, most companies totally ignore this issue. Godiva chocolates is one of the few e-commerce operations with good out-of-the-box usability.
It's an old lesson: It's much easier to close additional sales with existing customers than to acquire new customers. People who've proven willing to give you money will often give you more. This is true for all sales channels, but it's particularly crucial for e-commerce because the first order proves your credibility if you effectively handle follow-up and delivery.
The biggest challenge in e-commerce is to get the first order. Don't blow it thereafter. Treating customers well after they place their initial order will vastly increase the probability that they'll place more orders in the future.
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