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Delivering the Four Seasons ''Experience'' Online
An outstanding online experience will keep customers coming back again and again.
Posted May 1, 2006
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My favorite hotel in the world is the Four Seasons' Hotel George V in Paris. Oddly enough, it's hard to say exactly what makes it wonderful. Certainly, the building is gorgeously grand, the rooms luxurious, the staff impeccable, and the restaurants suitably scrumptious, but it's really the consistently high quality of all these great subexperiences that make the George V so outstanding. Each individual service in the hotel reinforces the others, and failure in even the smallest area causes irreparable damage to the entire brand. Not surprisingly, the George V pays incredibly close attention to each and every detail, ensuring that all aspects of its customer experience live up to the same exacting standards. Of course, this all-for-one and one-for-all principle of customer experience should apply to much more than luxury hotels, and with the dramatic rise in online shopping, major retailers are facing much the same challenge in delivering a consistently high quality experience across all of the channels of interaction, especially through the Internet. Despite massive improvements in bandwidth, graphics, and computation power, the Web shopping experience remains mired in a page-by-page, e-catalog metaphor that drags down the overall experience like lousy room service. True to its e-catalog roots, the Web tends to be good for shopping when you already know what you want and are just looking for the best deal. But switch into the just-looking shopping mode, and today's Web sites are infinitely disappointing when compared to the vibrant sensory experience of a physical store. This gap in experience quality was tolerated in the Internet's infancy, but there is growing evidence that customers are becoming less forgiving of online frustrations and the retailers that deliver them. In a recent survey 82 percent of surveyed shoppers who had a frustrating shopping experience reported that they were less likely to return to the online store--not a huge surprise. However, the study also found that 28 percent of respondents stated that a negative online experience made them less likely to shop at the retailer's physical store, and 55 percent said that a poor Internet experience negatively impacts their overall opinion of the retailer. Like guests at a ritzy hotel, shoppers are noticing the wilted flowers in the hall and carrying their negative impressions across the entire brand.
The letdown in online experience is not due to lack of effort on the retailers' part. In fact, when you consider that the Web was actually designed for reading and cross-referencing scientific papers, it's truly astonishing that sophisticated Web applications like online shopping work as well as they do. But retailers have clearly hit a limit in how rich of an online experience they can deliver, as evidenced by how little innovation we've seen in the online shopping experience in the past several years. Fortunately, new technology specifically geared for broadband connection speeds and the powerful capabilities of today's computers is beginning to sweep across the Net. Under the monikers of Rich Internet Applications (RIA), AJAX, and Web 2.0, this new breed of technology escapes the page-by-page interaction of conventional Web pages by running part of the Web application within your computer, enabling the application to respond instantly to your gestures without needing to load a new page. One of the most elegant examples of these pageless applications is Google (maps), which allows you to explore simply by grabbing the map with your mouse and pulling it. Compared to the previous generation of page-by-page maps, the pageless version is a vastly superior user experience, which makes you wonder why the rest of the Web still works the way it does. The move from Web pages to pageless applications, however, comes with inherent costs and risks. The sudden freedom from the constraints of Web pages and their highly limited user-interface mechanisms means application designers now have the ability to design any user experience they can imagine, including some that are even more confusing and frustrating than before. Just as in the early days of desktop publishing when the temptation to use every font in the library was apparently overwhelming, the ability to simultaneously incorporate every form of video, audio, 3D animation, and graphical effect (not to mention fonts) is probably best resisted. But as with all new technologies, best practices will emerge through an evolutionary process that rewards early innovators with mastery of a new skill set. Already, several innovative retailers, such as Gap, Nike, and Timberland, are experimenting with pageless RIAs with marked early success, and these pioneers will be the first to discover the successful new paradigms for the future. Unlike today's Web, RIAs will enable the online shopping experience to be customized for the task at hand, so that the way Internet storefronts present and sell their wares will vary considerably, depending on the type of product being sold. Gone will be the days when diamond necklaces, blue jeans, and office supplies are sold through a virtually identical online user experience. Most important, RIAs will finally allow retailers to deliver an online customer experience that more closely matches the quality and nuance of the rest of the brand experience. As consumers drop the distinction between the retailer's Web site and the retailer itself, pageless RIA technology will enable the Internet experience to fully support and reinforce the overall brand. And, as the prominence of the Internet as the primary channel of customer interaction continues to rise, an outstanding online experience like a great hotel's consistent attention to perfection will keep customers coming back. About the Author Joe Chung is cofounder and CEO of Allurent; he can be reached at info@allurent.com. Please visit www.allurent.com
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