How not to alienate visitors who just want to talk

Too many websites owners are more concerned with gathering data from their users rather than initiating a dialogue. If your users want to talk to you, don’t make it difficult.

It’s an age old gripe amongst web users. The over-long form. Field after field of questions and tick boxes when all we want to do is ask a question. A simple question:

‘When is this product likely to be back in stock?’

But still we are asked for our fax number, postal address, age, marital status and whether we have any ‘dependents under 18 living with us’ The mind boggles.

Now we’ve lived amongst marketeers long enough to realise that this is their work. This is an opportunity to gather as much profiling data about a consumer as is possible in order to

  • assist in customer relationship marketing
  • better inform the brand of their audience’s habits
  • aid new product development
  • a combination of the above

While I’m no fan of these forms, I count myself as at least 30% marketeer and am therefore aware that in my experience alone, this data has always gone to good use. To providing a better service / product / experience.

What I find remarkably absent though, is the website owners willingness to engage their audiences in a dialogue on their terms. I accept that I the website owner would like all this information, but do I deserve it? Do I? Well, in a lot of cases, no, you don’t.

If I want to open a dialogue with a brand via their website, I want it on my terms, and I often care little about the future requirements of that brand, no matter how earth-shattering my responses might be to a short questionnaire.
To that end I thought I’d give a few examples of how we can build better websites, where we deliver dialogue to our users, rather than just delivering data to our clients. And then perhaps, we can make people care about our needs, by good old customer service.

Social Networks

If you feel your audience have a significant presence on these networks then be sure you do. Publicise how to get in touch with you on these networks, and when people do respond in a timely fashion. If that is there chosen way to make initial contact, then respect that, and in time you will build their loyalty. Answer queries and in time if that prospect decides to enquire about your product or service then they will call and you can ask all the ancillary questions you might have then. By that point they are a hot prospect and already favourably disposed to you and will do so willingly.

social networks icons

Telephone Numbers

Provide one. Always. There are people out there who will always prefer to call. I know because I am one. And if that is their choice, then do not put obstacles in their way. Don’t make someone search endlessly through the site to find it. Don’t make them read pages of FAQ’s and Knowledge Base articles before presenting a phone number after one last click of a ‘Was This Information Useful – Yes/Know’ button. Make it easy to open a dialogue, and then if you have a genuine need for profiling data then you can always ask if they would mind asking a few questions over the phone.

After you have answered their questions first of course.


Contact Forms

If we haven’t already said enough about these already, then some further observations. Your customer has a query about you. The very least they need to raise (IMHO) are the following:

What my query is:

  • How would I like to be contacted regarding this?
  • When am I likely to get a response?

Now this is a very slim form by anyone’s standards. But at its core is the idea that you are putting as few obstacles in your audiences way as possible, and providing them with a chance to choose how they are contacted and informing them as to when that will be. Deliver on those last two and you are in business. Again, the dialogue is made easy, and is delivered on your audience’s terms.


Ask Questions

Why is this one so often overlooked? You have a CMS. You might even have a blog. You might even have comments enabled. You want to know some information about your audience, and yet you still build forms so convoluted that to ask a one line question I must still answer 10 unrelated ones. Ask questions of your audience on your site. Add them into comments on your blog. And provide an email address where if they would be so kind, they might want to send their thoughts / ideas about such and such. Again, any dialogue is on their terms. Entered into at their own will, with as much or as little effort required as they see fit.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Quite often a customer will ask good question about your product. You provide them with a swift answer and then pat yourself on the back for your helpfulness and timely response. The trouble is you have scores of similarly confused customers you could also benefit from the same help. So post the question on your site – ‘Mr Andrews of Lambeth asked a great question – where do I find the off switch on this petrol chainsaw?’ – Well, it’s on the handle, just by the power cord. Thanks Mr Andrews!

Credit your audience with asking a valid question, and then broadcast that to your other clients. Some of the best customer service is born out making public that you are only human and like everyone else, sometimes make mistakes.

Sign saying thankyou

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

Be grateful. For goodness’s sake, be grateful. As Paul has said in the past, people are aware that their opinions and their data has a value to brand / business owners, and so if they give their time and their opinions to you free of charge then the least you can do is be grateful. If you are a small business or a start-up, then this could be the only chance you might have to have a one-on-one relationship with your customers. If you deal only to 10 or 20 clients then you have no excuse really not to have a close relationship with them and to provide a good customer experience. Larger organisations have to use a more automated approach down to sheer volume. But even these, in fact primarily these, can benefit greatly from making their experience suit the user, rather than the website owner.

Sample feedback form

So there it is. Think for a minute about what is really going to drive the sales process. Are you a more profitable business because you know all there is to know about your prospects, or because you are accessible and helpful when dealing with your customers? Do you deliver what they want, or what you want? Is your website a barrier to real contact, or is it a conduit for it?

Food for thought.

  • seb

    great article.

    my biggest gripe is with web hosting companies that don’t provide a phone number, only the silly ticket system which is often slow and useless. it takes multiple messages back and forth to resolve an issue but the same could be achieved with a 2 minute phone call.

    make me very angry when i can’t call!

  • Great points. Another thing that annoys me about sites, is the fact some will use some kind of code or status for your requests, yet there’s no where on the site that explains what these mean and the ways to contact them are nill. For example, I ordered something that’s currently statused “Fullfillment”. Does that mean it’s in the process of fullfillment? That it’s already been fullfilled and waiting shipment? A good explanation would’ve been nice there.

  • Thanks for the lessons! Bookmarked for consideration in team site redesign.

  • Wait…the internet is a communication tool?

  • I really think this article is helpful and will help me add a lot of value to what we are trying to do with some of the forms we have on our website.


  • Anonymous

    I hate it when a company has different telephone numbers for different departments for different problems. It really drives me nuts

    rc planes man

  • Tom

    I find it amazing these days how many TV ads are advertising .com companies and websites, and yet you go to their site and its terrible! As tank_fan says, you have to call around a ring of people to get anything done.

    Great tips, thanks for sharing.


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