E-commerce is meant to bring the customer and the business closer together, enabling the business to do a better job of meeting the customer's need, promoting loyalty and ultimately increased sales. With a few exceptions, today's e-businesses are achieving the opposite. Poorly implemented e-commerce systems are pushing customers away.
E-commerce firms admit that only a small proportion of visitors to their sites buy anything. Even the hugely successful amazon.com is said to lose seven of every 10 customers. As few as one in 10 people who start to fill out a Web form complete it. In high street terms, it's as if the customer went to the shop, found something to buy but never made it to the till.
What happens if the customer needs help? In the real world, an assistant will be on hand or an operator at the end of the phone. This human interaction is critical.
Of course a major attraction of e-businesses for shareholders is that they can be run with fewer staff, but once the people have been removed, who do your customers talk to? The challenge is to build systems that allow people to interact directly with your business. It's a tall order, but the technology to make it happen is evolving fast. XML is a useful first step allowing applications to talk to other applications. Making it possible for people to have a dialogue with software is a trickier proposition that middleware suppliers and developers of "intelligent" Web forms are only now beginning to work out.
Most e-commerce firms talk glibly about customer relationships, but without interaction, there is no relationship. If your customers say that dealing with you was just like talking to a computer they won't be your customers for long.
Mark Lewis is vice president, EMEA operations, for ActionPoint