Customers appreciate a seamless journey – no matter where they start in the sales process, they expect very little friction from interest to purchase. They also likely expect the same purchase experience no matter how they purchase items or services, whether it is online, in store, on the phone, or via chat.
When you treat each purchase venue as its own silo, it can cause unnecessary friction. In other cases, it can flat out prevent sales.
How can this happen? Consider the two examples below:
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When online doesn’t know what’s happening in store: my brother is really difficult to buy for, and this year I thought of a great gift idea. I went online to purchase a yearly subscription for a service that I know he’d enjoy. As it wasn’t clear on the website, I did a quick chat to confirm I could make a purchase and gift it. The rep told me this was certainly possible and directed me to the gift card section of the website.
I eagerly clicked the link to start the purchase and mark one more thing off my to do list, but I already had questions – why are they asking for an account number? Is there a “send as a gift” option? I go back to the chat and find out that I do in fact need to know my brother’s account information. Since I have no way to know his account information, the rep tells me that I cannot make a purchase after all. I ask if there is a way to use my information and then transfer to him after Christmas. He says it might be possible but he’s not sure. I ask again if there is anyway I can purchase gift cards not tied to any account. The rep is very apologetic and says he cannot help with this. So, no purchase for me.
Imagine my surprise a few hours later when I was at a big box electronics retailer shopping for other gifts and came across gift cards for the very service I was looking for earlier. Hesitantly excited, I ask an associate if these can be purchased generically, or if an account/subscription number is required when purchasing. I was elated to hear that I could purchase and give as a gift, no account needed.
You can only get a promotion online, but the website’s not working: This was a test of patience. I received an email from my cell phone carrier with a really great deal that would make a great gift. I click on the email and get going. The website was really slow and pages were hesitating. I figured traffic was high between the holidays and deal offerings, so I was patient. After a few times of getting all the way to the “add to cart” button and finding nothing happens when I click it, I attribute it to high volume and decide to try again later.
Later brings the same results. I checked my account thinking maybe I was not eligible for an upgrade. That wasn’t it. I turned to chat with a very nice rep who mentioned that “lots of customers have been having the same issues.” I was instructed to try clearing my cache/cookies and try another browser. Still no dice. The rep offered to transfer me to the technical team, but we got disconnected in the process.
Tired of trying, I decide to call in the order because the email said the offer was good for online and phone orders. I am not on hold long at all and again talk with a very nice rep. Before placing the order, I confirm that the offer in my email will still be honored on the phone. I get to the very end, and I’m told that the new phone will arrive between January 3rd and 5th. Um, what? The offer said overnight delivery and pick up in store were options. He apologized, stating that phone offers are not eligible for either. Delivery will take longer due to the holidays, which I totally understood, but I would not be able to pick up in store. He then suggested I purchase online to get it faster. I explain my onsite troubles and he confirmed that there have been a lot of issues and other customers have had the same concerns. Sale prevented. I thank him for his time and am back to the drawing board. But why is he sending me back to a broken channel?
I call my local store, which is about two minutes from my house. They cannot honor any online sales at all. They did have some deals, but not as good as what they are offering online. The rep suggested I make the purchase online so I can pick up at their store. Again, sending me back to a broken channel for a purchase I will end up visiting the store that cannot offer the promotion that is online.
Later that night, determined as ever, I continued to attempt to purchase without success. I ended up on a chat with a very nice rep for over half an hour. I asked if there was any way they were able to access my account to add the item to the cart, or take the order via chat somehow. I was told that was not possible, but she tried a variety of things to help me. When it was apparent nothing was working, she offered to escalate to the order system (or something like that) via chat. Basically, another chat program that could process my order, though I was told earlier this wasn’t possible. As she was waiting to connect me and took some basic information, I played around with the site, trying to make it work. I made some different choices in product, and all of a sudden the “add to cart button was accessible! I shared this with the rep, who saw the order go through and our chat ended.
The problem? As best I could tell, there were colors and sizes that perhaps were not available, but the website was not picking it up. Instead, it was simply blocking the “add to cart” feature from working. I figured this out quite by accident, and it was apparent that this was not known to staff.
So, what happened exactly?
It wasn’t poor customer service exactly – in both cases, the reps I spoke with were empathetic, as helpful as possible (at least as far as I know), polite, and kind. I would not say it was lack of service by any means, at least not by their doing.
What I would say is that the problem, in part, stemmed from silos – the online, in store, and phone silos that only knew what was relevant to their silo. They were not authorized to allow exceptions, or carry over promotions or functions from one silo to the next. In the case of the cell phone purchase, it is apparent that the issue stemmed from a faulty website, though no one knew that. The inability to purchase was attributed to high volume, which, given the time of year and promotion being offered, plus the fact that the only channel that allowed the full promotion was online, made sense. But no one looked into it further.
What could have been done better?
Knock down the silo walls: in the case of the cell phone company, I always wondered why the company seems to push customers to online purchases by not offering quite the same deals and promotions in store or viia phone as they do online. This became significant in this instance; by not allowing the same promotion to be available via phone and in store, those representatives continued to push customers to a channel that wasn’t working properly. In both examples, the silos could have prevented sales – in the first example, it would have been helpful to either offer a generic gift card purchase on the company site or have reps encourage customers to purchase the gift cards at participating retailers. In the second case, offering the same promotion no matter where the customer makes the purchase from could have alleviated website traffic and allowed for additional purchases from those who prefer in store or phone shopping.
If you’re not knocking down the walls, educate staff on the other silos: In the first case, it would have been helpful for the rep to know that generic, non account needing gift cards were available for purchase at select retailers. Maybe he should have known that, I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask, but didn’t realize that might be an option as this is a service I am not at all familiar with. While visiting a store is not as convenient as purchasing online, I would have appreciated the advice instead of trying to come up with an alternative gift
Be clear with customers & then prepare well: nowhere in the promotional email did it say that some features of the cell phone promotion were only available online; it was also not mentioned that an important feature (fast delivery or in store pickup) was not available for phone orders. If the best deal will be available online, after you make it clear to customers so there is no confusion, make sure the website is ready to handle the traffic. If you hear of consumer issues that seem to be consistent, don’t simply attribute it to high traffic – be quick to do some troubleshooting in case something else is going on. In my experience, it turns out that many of the phone options were out of stock, but the website wasn’t informing customers. It just gave them a non-usable add to cart button that even stumped representatives. After making several selections, I was able to find an item that I could add to the cart.
Always have a Plan B: if the silo walls aren’t going to come down, at least poke some holes in them when things aren’t going smoothly. In the second example, realizing there was a website issue , the company could have opted to make an exception and allowed the promotion to be available via phone or in store. Instead, the reps were forced to offer an apology for the website issues, encourage a phone purchase at a lesser promotion, or lose the sale all together.
Customers will always have preferences with their purchases – they tend to stick to what they’re comfortable with, and it’s highly unlikely that the majority will consistently purchase on one venue over another. While I’m certain there is a reason for treating in store sales differently than online, phone, or chat, it’s really important for brands to take a look at how each operates and ensure that there are no pain points along the way. If there are, fix them quickly or anticipate alternatives to not lose a sale.
Brands want customers to have the same experience no matter where they come from – that moment when a consumer who typically shops online needs to call in an order and doesn’t have the same experience is the moment you can easily lose a sale, and potentially a customer depending on the situation. Treat the venues equally or make concessions so that the differences aren’t causing sales prevention – it WILL make a difference to your customers.