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The little things that make you say WOW!
Beyond best practices in e-commerce

 9:14 pm on Dec 28, 2007 (gmt 0)

Some ecommerce transactions fall well below expectation. I must say, few have ever fallen into this category for me. The vast majority are just vanilla. You get what you ordered in the allotted time and at the right price.

And then some companies stand out. So what's the last thing that some company did that made you think, WOW? A few for me:

- two different companies in the last month sent an item that I wasn't totally sure I would keep because I had never seen a sample. Surprise! In both cases, the items came with a preprinted return label for UPS, a pre-filled return form and instructions on how to use both if I wasn't 100% satisfied. Does that make me willing to order an item from either of these guys again, even if I'm not sure it's what I really want? You bet. Did I return the items I ordered? Nope. I absolutely love them.

- One of the companies has an instant return policy - drop them an email and say that you'll be returning an item and they give you instant credit and will ship out the right size or another item. When they receive the return item, your credit turns into hard cash if you want it.

- Top-notch usability. I was trying to buy an everyday item, but the first two websites used retailer jargon (something like "tearpack" which is useful for retailers who want to know about packaging and display options, but I wanted to know, is it really one battery that I'm ordering or something else?). Finally I found a site that just told me, in the language a consumer would use, what exactly I was getting and reinforced it with a picture. I spent about one minute on the first two sites before giving up. I purchased from the third site even though the prices were about 20% higher (but this only came to about $2 and was well worth it).

- In the latter case, when I looked at their site later, asking myself why did I eventually settle on these guys, I noticed that almost everything above the fold in the left navigation was oriented to after-sale care (customer service, track your order, contact us, etc). I realized that everything on their site said "We're not about making a sale, we're about gaining a customer." They did. I will not even comparison shop again if I'm looking for batteries. It's not like buying a car where I might save a thousand dollars by shopping around. For the couple dollars I might save, I can't be bothered to waste time. Their service-oriented navigation was a subtle signal that I did not notice until after purchase, but when I looked at the site, it was palpable.

- the first of these four most recent purchases was for an item that was out of stock everywhere, including at the manufacturer, who was waiting for a shipment from the production facility. Only one website stated that clearly. On the other sites, there was no indication that it was out of stock, but there was no indication that it was in stock. Perhaps they had one gathering dust, but I couldn't be sure. I ordered from the merchant that offered certainty, even though they advertised a much later ship date than the other two sites that had the item. Again, I chose safety. Maybe it says something about me in particular, but I think it's a common reaction. The merchant in question followed up with letters for every change of status ("Item delayed in production. If you wish to cancel your order ____. If you want your purchse to remain on backorder, do nothing. If not in stock by ____ we will contact you again to see if you wish to cancel your order.") This saved them the effort of dealing with my inquiry, but also increased my trust dramatically. Again, in the future might I pay a bit more to shop with them? Certainly.

Conclusions for me

- Trust is huge. It's the thread that runs through every one of these stories.

- even the web savvy are leery of sending money off to cyberspace or, more simply, of ordering sight unseen. Even if you make the sale this time, you may not have allayed that fear. If you have excellent follow-up (see how easy it is to return things to us?), you can allay those fears for future purchases and build loyalty. I will definitely favor the two merchants in question who sent return labels.

- Your customers don't care about your classification of your products, they care about their needs. It's an old saw: they come to you for a solution and if you sell batteries to consumers, the type of packaging does not address their need. You can win on price and lose the sale if you speak the wrong language. Really, I was 99.99% sure that I knew what the others were selling and knew what I would get, but I was put off by a retailer-oriented language so much that I paid 20% more to shop on a site with consumer-oriented language where I was 100% sure what I was ordering and where I didn't have to read around to figure that out.

Okay, so that's what I learned from my last four WOW purchases as a consumer where the merchant just blew me away with service and after-sale care.

How about you? What did you learn during your Christmas shopping?



 10:10 pm on Dec 28, 2007 (gmt 0)

Great post! It definitely has some food for thought about how we can change a few things to be more customer-oriented.

About the only thing I learned is not to shop any more at one place I used because I discovered (after the fact) that they don't even send a confirmation message when the item ships and offer no way to track the order. All I got was a "Thank you for your order- it is scheduled to ship next Wednesday." So now I have to contact the intended recipient to see if they actually got it.


 1:19 am on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

One thing I have learned, is that sometimes its just not worth it to push the delivery/stock/time issue. Sometimes its just better to go with the flow.

As a customer myself one merchant I bought from inquired about whether I wanted to wait, change to a different size in stock etc. I just told them to relax and ship it out when available.

It felt so good to just stick with this merchant, rather then turn them down in favor of somewhere else who may have it sooner, call and nag about the exact date then go somewhere else, etc. And I think I enjoy the item I received better as a result.


 2:17 am on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

One thing I learned from a company I expected to be at least above the average is that they strive to be top-notch - and to my surprise succeeded. Not only did they provide my products a day ahead of the expected delivery date (easy to pad a day or two on that - still, it did please me) but they also provided the invoice, return shipping label with RMA and bar coded web order info.


 3:43 am on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)


I was thinking about the things one could learn and apply to one's own website, based on great experiences. So what was it about the merchant in question that made you decide to go with the flow and stay there, instead of jumping ship? Was it something they did, or just your desire not to stress about details?

>>ahead of the expected delivery date

Of course, it's also out of their control. One of the great companies I describe above was on time with the ship date, but two days late on the delivery date - UPS didn't deliver because of bad roads, and then delivered to the wrong address. I think all a company can do is advertise a ship date and stick to it. But, of course, the company in question had excellent, one-click tracking from the confirmation email, as opposed to some companies that make me go to their site, check my order, click a link that takes me to the UPS site, and, sometimes, copy and paste the tracking number.

>>return shipping label with RMA and bar coded web order info

Is this a new standard? I had not seen it before to my knowledge and one of the merchants I had ordered from several times.

Mr Bo Jangles

 7:34 am on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

I think Amazon really is at the cutting edge of e-commerce, and so they deserve the profits they make.
From their very smart customer preferences systems, to their order feedback, tracking and fulfillment. and of course their second hand division - it's all fantastic IMO - and works so well.

- and I can't stop buying from them *_*


 1:02 pm on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

>> Is this a new standard?
I don't know. It was of little use to me other than a handy mailing label. It indicated to me that they were prepared for a return should I wish to do so but my image of this company was they are not likely to get returns. They have an established brand and their products have a reputation.


 1:31 pm on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

An online store I buy from frequently (I check their sales and clearances at least 2x weekly) has also been a catalog merchandiser for decades. They include an invoice receipt with return information form and easy drop-in mail back, plus no time limit for returns. I've never returned anything, and even though they're a bit slow with delivery for base price shipping, they're the first site I go to, to buy that type of goods. Terrific sales, and they've got their customer base, tastes and USP down to a science. It's amazing how right on the customer reviews are too, and that's a big plus for deciding what to buy, with fairly thorough and accurate peer group feedback.

Another vote for Amazon, their $25 Super Saver shipping makes them the first choice to shop for (and buy) anything (other than what I buy from the other merchant, and another I frequent for a special line of goods), and their delivery speed and tracking is beyond expectations.


 2:51 pm on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

I also got some merchandise that came with a preprinted return label, and my reaction was "Gee, so many of their customers want to return things, they just save time by sending the label in advance." I figured it must be because they sell clothing.

My wow experience was that I got some things that came with a lot of fancy labels, packed in colored paper, and even cut-up little doodads thrown in for decoration. To me this just felt weird.


 4:05 pm on Dec 29, 2007 (gmt 0)

Amazon. Some time ago I placed several orders over the course of a few weeks, with multiple books in each order. About a year later realized I had never received one of the books. I e-mailed Amazon, and they shipped it right out to me, no questions asked. No quibbling about how long ago the order was, or messing about asking for order numbers, delivery receipts, etc. Just a simple "We're sorry, here's your book." I was very happy that I didn't have to jump through a lot of hoops on that one.


 11:00 pm on Dec 30, 2007 (gmt 0)

I purchased a convection oven through Amazon - giving them a lot of trust based on their track record, but still with some misgivings about buying a major appliance online.

The oven was a Christmas gift, and on Christmas day it proved to be defective. I went through Amazon's online procedure to report the problem, and they had a replacment oven delivered before noon on Dec 26 - along with picking up the defective one. That was less than 24 hours. I doubt that I could have had such excellent service even from a local store.


Sharper Image also gave me excellent turn-around on the mis-shipment of an item meant as a Christmas gift. Their online service gave me some headaches about the time that would be involved, but calling their 800 number proved wonderful.

The correct item was sent before Sharper Image received my return. They could have done even better by not requiring the phone call (Amazon didn't need it) and expediting the issue online. Still, it was an understanding accommodation that went aboveand beyond their policies.


 11:43 pm on Dec 30, 2007 (gmt 0)

Amazon are, indeed, consistently good.

And their interface is so good that I don't even mind registering. Which reminds me to post a link to here;



 1:04 am on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

This is turning into a why buy from Amazon thread, but my latest WOW experience was also from that retailer. I bought a top-of-the-line HP computer from them, and unfortunately it was DOA. Not the retailer's fault at all... seemed to be a bad power switch. HP wanted to go through some kind of on-site repair procedure. Amazon happily sent a call tag for the DOA unit. I ended up buying an even more costly unit from them, because I had the confidence that I could return it without hassle if I had to.

Many ecommerce firms make you jump through hoops to return an item. I know, I've been in the business, and returns are very expensive - one return can kill the profit on five good shipments. So, when an ecommerce company happily takes full responsibility for resolving a problem they didn't create, I say, "wow!"


 6:54 am on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

I'll echo what others have said about Amazon. But will throw this in there as well from Zappos.

I placed an order...on the day after Christmas (12/26) at 11pm at night...from Zappos.

The order was "processed" on 12/27 at 1am.

It arrived on 12/27 at 11am...12 hours after placing the order. I live in Nevada. The order shipped from Kentucky. Not too bad for an order placed the day after Christmas and one which did NOT use overnight shipping.

But I've found Zappos is like that. They promise 5 day delivery, and without fail, it shows up in 2 days...or in this case, less.

"Over Delivering" is always a good thing for a online merchant to do. Why more don't follow the Amazon (and in this case, Zappos) model I have no clue. But it's why Amazon is my "online general store" for virtually everything other than footwear (where Zappos is my first stop).

Oliver Henniges

 12:32 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

We're relatively small, so our internal warehouse-management is running on our local computers, whereas our website is hosted on a managed server. This is the only reason why I cannot provide availability-information about our products for our internet-customers.

Except this one issue, we normally do everything ergophobe mentions.

We still do some local sales, so to synchronize availability data between our website and our local network would require quite an intensive data-transfer between both, which raises a number of security-issues.

This is just a side-note, but I guess many of you are -or have been- faced with a similar problem. If so, how did you overcome it below the level of a static, public IP for your own computers?

The most common "Whow"-effect, I could filter from customer-feedback, was that of quick delivery. Anything below 24 hours makes customers raise eyebrows.


 1:58 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

Oliver, there are many ways to do this - one would be to set up real-time calls (web services or other) between the two systems that would "inform" them of sales. Another solution would of course be a nightly sync of the two databases, but then the stock indicated on either side would not be in real-time since it wouldn't be taking into account the day's sales.


 1:59 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

It has never occured to me that be able to _not_ create an account is a sales plus. Interesting!


 3:00 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

The little things that make you say WOW!

Don't forget what makes YOU (the site owner) say Wow: A healthy bottom line on Dec 31.

We had a competitor that always gave the customer more than they expected right up till their bankruptcy a few years ago. With all their "Free This" and "Overnight That," they hadn't turned a profit in years.

Does Zappos make money with all their sales? Very little, the last I heard. Are they staving off competition? I don't see that either.


 3:25 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

The little things that make you say WOW!

Many of Citibank's "nothing down" borrowers surely said Wow, or the foreign language equivalent, when they got their $500,000 [Florida, Las Vegas, California] nothing-down home loan approved.

Just now looking at my year-end stock portfolio and muttering WOW...Double WOW: now fire those banker idiots! Didn't we just go thru this lender nonsense 15 years ago?

Citi may get bailed out, dot coms won't.

[edited by: jsinger at 3:48 pm (utc) on Dec. 31, 2007]


 3:32 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

WOW is over rated.


 6:28 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

Ken, it depends on what you paid to achieve WOW. Sometimes little things mean a lot.

My wife got a Christmas check from her parents. She ordered a watch she had her eye on from a catalog. It came today. It was set to the connect time. She was impressed. Very. (I don't explain it, I'm just reporting from the field here.)


 6:39 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

>> WOW is over rated.
Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, but as I use it, the term is not overrated at all. For me, WOW means
- not cutting edge whizz-bang, but stuff that just works without frustration. I appreciate good design, reliability, simplicity, service. Those things make me say WOW and every long-term business is based on that. I know what you're thinking though: can PC Magazine last another twenty years by having a bimonthly cover story that says "Our FASTEST desktop PC ever!" To me, that's not WOW.

WOW for me means products and services that so impress me that I'm willing to pay more rather than go to what appears to be an otherwise identical merchant.

By the way, if there's still interest here, my goal was not to simply catalog merchants who have great service or who have crappy service but effective marketing that makes you buy from them.

I'm thinking of occasions where you bought from a merchant who might be small and unknown but did something that will make you prefer that merchant again in the future. And what lesson to you take from that?

One obvious lesson I see emerging is that the several of the "Wow" transactions actually involved receiving defective goods.
- roger's DOA computer
- Tedster's defective oven and incorrect Sharper Image item
- Sonjay, who by most measures almost got ripped off by Amazon, but still likes them.

One of my all-time favorite merchants charged me $250 on my initial order for a backordered item that did not ship and then refused to answer my email for three days. On the third day, I got a worried call from the owner of the company who, but my calculation, had called a 4am his time, who explained that their server had been hit and they hadn't been able to read email and to call him back ASAP. I did, but he was out. He called me back at midnight his time (overseas firm), apologized profusely, refunded my money and gave me an extra $25 refund to compensate me for making about $2 in international calls and in case the exchange rate had changed in the meantime. I'm sure they still made money on the sale, but it cost him. On the other hand, I have sent them so much business over the years that his $25 could be considered the cheapest advertising he ever did.

So the lesson from that: Unfortunately, with the vanilla transaction that goes well, you often don't get a chance to truly test the company. When something goes wrong, though, you get to see what happens in that case. Paradoxically, almost getting ripped off, having an error in your shipment, and so forth, when properly handled actually builds trust, which seems to emerge in more and more stories.

>> has also been a catalog merchandiser for decades.

Several of my favorites were mail-order successes long before they did "ecommerce" which, ultimately, is a ridiculous term for anything except downloads, but let's not go there. All I mean to say is that for most of these merchants, the web is simply another advertising and ordering medium, but has not really changed their core business.

>>With all their "Free This" and "Overnight That," they hadn't turned a profit in years.

This occurred to me with respect to the merchant who has such service-oriented navigation. They have he advantage of a product line that almost everyone will navigate via serial-number search, so they don't need a long column of choices, but it did make me wonder about the balance of sales versus service, building long-term relationship versus getting someone to buy in the first place.


 6:48 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

... They promise 5 day delivery, and without fail, it shows up in 2 days...or in this case, less.

"Over Delivering" is always a good thing for a online merchant to do

In general I agree, but 'shipment coming early' is not always a good thing. For example, if merchant tells you that your item will be delivered in 5 days, you take off for vacation/business trip/etc but expect to be back in time for delivery. Package arrives in two days, while you are out, and just sits in front of your door for couple of more days - generally that's not good. I usually like items to arrive when 'promised' as it's easier to organize/schedule/plan your work...


 6:56 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

>> cost <<

Setting a watch to the right time zone is a nice, almost no-cost touch that many merchants would overlook. And it probably deserves the attention, appreciation, and word of mouth advertising, it gets from the buyer.

On the other hand, a merchant standing behind the products they sell, and taking back defective products without a lot of fuss doesn't deserve a wow, let alone a WOW. The cost here is something for the merchant and the manufacture to deal with.

If the manufacture continually ships defective merchandise, get them to eat the real cost of returns, find a new that that doesn't continually ship defective merchandise.

It seems to me that we have devalued the concept of excellence by applying the term to what should be the ordinary everyday level of performance.


 8:20 pm on Dec 31, 2007 (gmt 0)

Actually Ken, I agree with that and don't mean to say that someone who messes up and then fixes it should be an online hero, but notice your use and my use of the word "should", rather than "is".

Look at how many people spontaneously mentioned "bad" transactions as positive ones. You are absolutely right. When Amazon failed to ship an item to Sonjay, Amazon should have been pilloried, not praised for sending it a year late and only after being reminded. That should be completely unacceptable in a merchant and they should have lost, not gained trust.

And yet... there's that should word again. Like I say, I think that even for highly savvy users (roger_d, Tedster and sonjay certainly qualify as savvy web users), they were wowed by a merchant who messed up and then made it right, rather than a merchant who got it right the first time. I think there is a very important lesson in there, regardless of what should be.

I just can't get away from reading that and concluding that the big problem on the net is still trust, and that is true even for folks who buy a lot of stuff online. Somehow, a transaction that goes exactly as expected does not build trust in the same way as a screwed up transaction that's been adequately corrected. You're absolutely right - this should be expected, not a WOW, but there it is in this informal poll as a WOW. It says to me that we crave palpable proof that there's an honest, if sometimes incompetent (not talking of the defective merchandise, but the misshipments mentioned), person behind the transaction.

One merchant who I adore, manages to do this for every new customer, without having to screw up first. I made a first purchase, uncertain of whether it was a totally legit website. The next day I received a phone call saying that they call every first time customer, asked if I any questions that were not answered on the website, made no attempt to upsell me, gave me a ship date, and thanked me. They thus achieved the same trust building without the negative impact of having to mess up first. Maybe you think that shouldn't be a WOW, but standard, but this is the only merchant who has ever done that and it had a huge impact on me.

Again, it's a story about trust, not about service. In their case, the service was exemplary, but as you say, that should be the baseline, not the WOW. But their personal contact as a way to build trust (and ultimately loyalty), was a total WOW. Should it be? Maybe not, but it is.


 5:48 am on Jan 1, 2008 (gmt 0)

It's a new Year. And I get to be devil's advocate.

Some seem to appreciate faster than expected service. And others want as advertised.

So what makes a good E-Tailor? The definition is still lacking.

Can someone explain what will fulfill our expectations?


 10:45 pm on Jan 1, 2008 (gmt 0)

ergophobe: Paradoxically, almost getting ripped off, having an error in your shipment, and so forth, when properly handled actually builds trust

Business model of 2008:

1. Screw up every transaction
2. Fix every screw-up to build trust.

:-) Happy New Year.


 2:46 am on Jan 2, 2008 (gmt 0)

Yeah, kind of weird isn't it. I think the better model is the one I mentioned later, which is to not screw up, but get flagged when you get an order from a first time customer and call that person. Of course, the merchant in question depends on repeat business (I would imagine that over 90% of their revenue is repeat customers), so it may be easier for them to swing it.

I can't imagine doing that for most busy sites. That said, I just went and spent $100 with them on high-margin items and certainly will again.


 10:49 am on Jan 2, 2008 (gmt 0)

My vote goes to the mail order/eco retailer (garden related) which sends out a stand to major flower shows with the owner ready to take the flack from his customers face to face.


 12:14 pm on Jan 2, 2008 (gmt 0)

1. Screw up every transaction
2. Fix every screw-up to build trust.

LOL, great customer relations plan!

ergophobe, I think that a lot of the time when a screw-up is cited as a "wow" type of thing -- at least for me -- it's based in part on previous experience with the company. I have a long history with Amazon, and they rarely screw up. It's entirely forgivable that they screw up once in a while (no one's perfect, after all). But if that had been my first-ever order with Amazon, it would have represented a 100% screw-up rate, and it likely would have had a more negative affect on my attitude.

Likewise, if they had handled the screw-up badly, it would have had a more negative affect on my attitude -- As in, "Geez, after all the money I've spent with them over the years, they're giving me a hard time about this?"

Good point, Ahkamden, about delivery time. My guess is there's no "one size fits all" practice that will make everyone happy all the time. Sometimes I want a delivery just as fast as I can get it -- once I even drove to the UPS warehouse to pick up something that I needed ASAP -- but other times I want the delivery to arrive on the promised day, and not a minute earlier, because I need to plan my schedule to be available for the delivery. And unfortunately, because delivery dates aren't 100% reliable, no merchant can give every customer delivery exactly when they want it.

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