Monday, September 24, 2012

Customer Service Online and Off

In the past week or so, I've been doing more online shopping than I have in the past year. I tend to avoid it because many online sites don't collect sales tax and I'd rather pay it, and also because of some sketchy employment practices by some of the bigger online retailers. The increase of online shopping has been an intersection of gift cards, online coupons, and the fact that something I wanted wasn't available in my size in a local shop.

As a marketer, I am always looking at the advertising, messaging, packaging of any company that I purchase from. I love to ask the question, "Why does this appeal to me?" and think about how the same thing might be applied in my own work with my own customers. I was particularly struck this week by two of the emails I got, related to my online experiences at two different retailers.

The first one was from Brooks Brothers. I don't normally shop there (although my husband does), mostly because they are fairly expensive. However, I have a penchant for carrying handkerchiefs to blow my nose (we can discuss the ecological and medical arguments about this later), and I seem to have fewer of them than ever. Brooks Brothers is one of the few retailers that actually sells nice, soft handkerchiefs. (I have bought them at Macy's and other department stores, but those are usually so rough that you end up with a raw nose.)

What I found very interesting about Brooks Brothers' online shopping experience is that they charge a shipping rate based on how much your order costs. The handkerchiefs I ordered retail at $30. Based on their shipping rate chart, this would cost me $8.95 in shipping. Had those same handkerchiefs cost $6 less, the shipping charge would be $5.95. I've never seen a shipping chart like it.

I ended up searching the Ebates website for a coupon code, and I managed to find one that took 20% off the price, dropping the order into the lower shipping bracket. In a few minutes, I received my confirmation email:

The language is so utterly in line with every Brooks Brothers experience I have ever had:
Thank you for placing an order with We are writing to inform you that your order has been received and is, at present, being processed with the utmost haste. 
I can almost hear the polished staff uttering these polished words as he hands me a heavy pressed paper blue bag with the golden fleece logo. 

Isn't that amazing?

In contrast, today I placed an order with Ann Taylor. Ann Taylor is one of my preferred shopping locations, and probably 75% of my wardrobe comes from there. They have terrific email marketing, with great photography and multiple stylings of the same items, helping you to see the flexibility of their pieces.

Sure their models are a little on the skinny side (and yes I know it's Photoshopped), but they helpfully let me know where the nearest physical locations are in addition to telling me about the online sale going on.

And yet, for all those beautiful "come buy!" emails, their confirmation emails are dismal. I won't even show you a screenshot, because it's nothing but a list of the items (no images), everything in text, and no headers--it's the online equivalent of a grocery store's printed receipt. Boring. Even Banana Republic (another place I've shopped in the past two weeks online), sends you a picture of the item in your confirmation email. (Why is this so important? So I can pull up the email and show a friend just what I ordered.)

Brooks Brothers is a company that prides itself on its customer experience. I have been to their store in Back Bay many times with my husband to buy shirts, suits, and ties, and I love going there because the staff never treats me as if I'm just hanging around. They ask me if I'd like a chair to sit down, they include me in the process of evaluating one tie pattern over another, and they smile and thank me for my visit as much as if I had also purchased something. Their online experience is a complete mimic of this, from the confirmation email telling me how much they value on my online order.

Ann Taylor is missing this follow up online. I've been an excellent customer of theirs for many years, and yet, when I purchase online, I always feel that once I click "Submit" on my order, they're done with me. This is so contrary to my store experiences, where staff tend to be super friendly and helpful. ("We don't have that in a size 8, but let me check the three nearest stores and we can have that shipped to your home.")

For companies that have both an online and a physical presence, it's important to have consistency between your outlets. The reason I prefer shopping in person is because I do get a better customer experience dealing with people and not machines. And yet, as Brooks Brothers shows, you can absolutely replicate that experience online.

How you do make the transition from in-person to online with your marketing and customer experience?