Ten tips to build a better Web site

In the age of online, e-commerce customers expect nothing less than a top-notch Web site when they visit their favourite virtual store. As ordinary citizens, it’s only natural these online shoppers will come to expect the same level of service delivery from their governments. Online is where it’s at. But what does it take to deliver top-notch customer service in cyberspace? Here are 10 tips from those who run and evaluate top corporate Web sites.

1 Build it for users

Development needs to support what users want, not necessarily what the company wants to promote, says Kerry Bodine , an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “You design with your users in mind at every key decision point,” she says.

It sounds simple, but it often requires a shift in thinking. “Developers are very focused on building the technology and not necessarily looking at whether it makes sense to the user,” says Helen Galasso, a marketing executive at Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp. in Parsippany, N.J. “I had a developer say, ‘If [the users] can’t figure out how to use it, then they shouldn’t use it.’ That’s what you have to combat.”

2 Listen to users

Forrester has reviewed more than 200 Web sites and found that a mere two per cent pass its usability tests. Companies could do better if they recruited actual users to test their sites, Bodine says. “You want to see where they stumble, what they’re confused by,” she adds, noting that the companies with the highest-ranked sites run usability tests frequently.

3 Make information easy to find

Users want a Web site they can easily navigate, says Jeff Sluder, digital brand manager for PG.com , the Web site for The Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati. “Site visitors are frustrated when they land on a page, realize it is not what they thought it would be and have to use the Back button and try again. Usually, they will simply leave and go on to the next site on their search engine’s list,” he says.

The Web team at Merrill Lynch agrees. It designed its site to remember the page each customer uses when visiting ML.com . “They’re often trying to log-on to one of the smaller sites, such as ML Direct,” says Joseph Infozino, director of Merrill Lynch corporate technology. “So the first time, they go to ML.com, but the next time, we remember to bring them right there to save them a click.”

4 Accommodate all users

The average age of people filling prescriptions on Medco.com is 54, and 20 per cent of those individuals are over the age of 65, says Tom Feitel, chief Web officer at Medco Health Solutions Inc., a pharmacy benefits management company in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

To empower people with vision problems or other disabilities, Medco designed an accessible Web site . For example, it eliminated drop-down menus, which can be challenging for those whose hands shake. It expanded the size of certain images and changed the color palette and font sizes to make the site easier to navigate and read.

Web administrators should also make sure their sites can be used on computers of varying capabilities and with a range of connection speeds, says Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group Inc. , an Ipswich, Mass.-based research and consulting firm that focuses on how corporations treat their online customers.

5 Be responsive

Coldwell Banker developed a program called Lead Router to ensure that its real estate agents don’t miss any potential leads generated online, says Charlie Young, senior vice-president of marketing. The tool converts online inquiries into text messages that are sent to agents’ cell phones within 10 seconds. “Not only are we able to answer virtually all of our leads,” Young says, “but most of them get answered in eight hours or less.”

The companies with the best Web sites don’t restrict contact with their online users to the Internet, Golesworthy says. They post their brick-and-mortar contact information as well as e-mail addresses. They have formal systems for handling incoming messages, thus guaranteeing customers a response, and the top sites also have instant, online chat features.

Online is where it’s at. But what does it take to deliver top-notch customer service in cyberspace? Here are 10 tips from those who run and evaluate top corporate Web sites.

6 Show up the Joneses

Too many Web managers base success on internal measurements, such as how many hits they get on their sites. Instead, measure your site against those in your peer group and top sites from companies in other sectors. “Your customers’ responses to your Web site are based on where they’ve been,” Golesworthy says.

7 Build trust

Most consumers no longer fear doing business online, but they still need to be convinced about security . “That’s a biggie, particularly in the consumer sites,” Golesworthy says. “People have read about identify theft , privacy issues and spam .”

The best sites clearly explain their security, privacy and marketing policies right upfront.

8 Assign ownership, but work as a team

“You have to think of the Web site as being the primary way people find out about your company. And if that’s how you think about it, why should it be handled by the tech people?” Golesworthy says.

Two years ago, Esteban Borrero, vice-president of solutions delivery at McKesson Corp. , a health care services and IT company in San Francisco, passed responsibility for the Web site over to corporate communications. “For me, it was clear that communications does a much better job at that,” he says, noting they’re the experts in reaching the doctors, pharmacists, vendors and consumers who use the site. But Borrero maintains a collaborative relationship between IT and corporate communications.

9 Set priorities

One of the biggest challenges facing Web site administrators today is the volume of requests they receive for changes to their sites. “You can get requests from anybody and everybody,” Galasso says.

So don’t blindly gear up for every change request. Instead, ask: What is the purpose of this? Is this what consumers want? How does it rank with my other requests? Better still, develop a process. At My1Stop LLC , a Fort Scott, Kan., printing company, stakeholders from sales, marketing, IT and other departments meet weekly to prioritize Web projects, says Gina Sullivan, director of software development.

10 Watch for the next big thing

A great Web site is never static. But identifying the next big thing – and determining whether it’s the right tool for your users – requires an investment. Coldwell Banker is developing a plan to pair several staffers with the company’s development partners to generate ideas for future implementation. Time-to-market for online tools now ranges from three to 18 months, Young says, and he hopes to cut that by 25 per cent to 50 per cent.

“There are always ways to improve the Web site,” Galasso says. “People are finding new and better ways to use it. So we have to make sure we’re always where the consumer is – or ahead of them.”

Five common design flaws

Those who build and review top-of-the-line Web sites note five common design flaws. Here are the five big “don’ts” of Web site design:

Don’t ignore search: About half of users rely on the search function to get around a site and to locate the information they want. If your online search function isn’t sophisticated, you’ll frustrate those users and lose them.

Don’t bury information: People don’t want to navigate, even if navigation is easy; they want to find the information they seek.

Don’t provide too much: Irrelevant information and marketing materials turn customers off. Give them what they want and clear out the rest. Keep the site up to date.

Don’t forget low-bandwidth customers: Your site shouldn’t be too hard for use by the 25 per cent of computer users who still have dial-up Internet access.

Don’t use just text: Incorporate video and other graphic elements to deliver your message.

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