From Woeful to Wow in Online Customer Engagement

Online abandonment is a big challenge.

Web commerce is white hot, with online sales expected to hit a trillion dollars by this year, according to analysts. Yet Web sites don't make it easy for consumers to buy, causing today's impatient, distracted customer to simply abandon potential purchases with the click of a mouse or swipe of a tablet. Shopping cart and online form abandonment rates are often upward of 75 percent, and cart or form abandonment is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lost business. Customers frequently abandon in droves before they even reach this stage, leading to lost sales and market share erosion. We call this "shopping abandonment," a phenomenon even bigger than just shopping cart abandonment.

The online customer journey: find, decide, buy

When consumers buy online, they go through three distinct steps in their purchase process—find, decide, and buy. Thanks to exploding SKU clutter, search dead ends, and content irrelevance, shoppers can easily get lost or distracted and simply defect.

Many e-commerce sites offer simple keyword search or online catalogs to help consumers find what they are looking for, but keyword search is famously unintelligent and catalogs are not easy to use. Would a skin cream be in the personal care, health, or pharmacy section? Recently, when I searched for "glow-in-the-dark analog watch" on a leading retailer's Web site, I got multiple pages of T-shirts with glow-in-the-dark logos before there was anything related to watches.

Once consumers find some options, they'd want to decide exactly what to buy. To make a decision, they need product information and independent reviews, especially for noncommodity products. Many Web sites don't provide this information, causing potential buyers to go elsewhere, never to return. Moreover, Web sites often make clueless, one-size-fits-all offers in the "decide" phase that don't move the consumer journey forward.

Finally, when customers are ready to buy, they put things in the shopping cart and start to check out. Consumers often quit at this stage for various reasons—a convoluted checkout process, shipping fee sticker shock, inability to find something, etc. In financial services and insurance, customers often need to fill out onerous online forms to complete a transaction, or buy. These forms are often complex, and there's no real-time, in-purchase help. Eventually, the customer simply gives up and goes elsewhere.

Creating "Wow!"

Wouldn't it be great if Web sites offered a virtual assistant (aka concierge, chatbot, etc.) that made that all-important first connection with the consumer in a fun and smart way? What if the concierge or chatbot welcomed the visitor in an engaging manner, answered common questions in a natural language dialogue, pushed relevant Web pages to the shopper, gave Web site tours, and even transitioned the conversation with all the context to a sales advisor, if needed? That's what best-in-class, channel-integrated chatbots do.

What if the Web site search understood the intent of shoppers and helped them "find" by guiding them to what they needed to buy through a step-by-step conversation—just like a competent salesperson or an automobile GPS would? Intent-driven search technology and guided help based on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies like case-based reasoning (CBR) can make it happen. One of our telco clients has implemented this approach—its Web site recommends the most appropriate set of mobile phone models and subscriber plans, based on a self-service conversation with subscribers.

Some Web sites generate search results not only from their own sites but also from independent product review and customer support forums, making it easy for the customer to decide without ever having to leave the Web site. These sites also make relevant offers such as content, coupons, real-time chat, or cobrowse opportunities from sales advisors to help the consumer decide what to buy. Smart Web sites make these offers based on 360-degree customer context from the current interaction as well as past multichannel interactions and transactions with the enterprise, complemented by relevant big data. A unified multichannel customer engagement hub enables this approach.

With technologies such as click-to-call and cobrowse, combined with concurrent text or video chat, sales advisors can help consumers complete online forms or shopping transactions, show them around the Web site, and close the sale. Our clients have been able to increase online conversion by up to 200 percent with this approach!

There's no question that digital business will continue to grow rapidly. Businesses that wow online consumers by reducing friction across their online journey will be better positioned to convert browsers to buyers and gain market share.

Anand Subramaniam is the vice president of worldwide marketing for eGain, a leading provider of customer service and knowledge management software. Previously, he served in executive, managerial, and tactical roles in marketing, sales support, and product management at companies including Oracle, Lotus, Intel, and Autodesk.

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