For many businesses a website is a lead generation tool. However, although a lot of thought is put into the website itself, very little is put into the gathering of the leads that result from the website.
As normal, when I returned from holiday I found myself faced with a mountain of email. Among the pile I have found several enquiries from the Headscape website which have remained unanswered for the week that I was away. Obviously, this is not good and it has started me thinking about how we as website owners handle enquiries and feedback that come from our websites.
As far as I am aware there isn’t much written on the subject of enquiry processing, which is strange considering that correspondence between website owners and site users is fundamental to the success of many sites. As nobody else seems to be talking about this much I thought I would jot down my thoughts on the subject.
Mechanisms for feedback gathering
A good place to start is by examining the methods you allow users to communicate through. It is easy to underestimate just how many options are available and each has its own pros and cons. Think carefully about your site and the people that use it. Are you really providing the right mechanisms for your users?
Email is probably the most common form of communication from a website to its owner. Its easy to add an email address on your website and a lot of users prefer to email directly rather than use a form, because they can then keep a copy of the correspondence.
However, email is not without its problems. Not every user has an email address or access to their email client at a particular time. Also publishing your email address on a website opens yourself up to spam. There are ways to mask your address from spammers, but this often creates accessibility problems.
The next most common option is to allow communication through forms. A contact us form has an advantage over email because it doesn’t require the user to have an email client. However it can still suffer from spam. One advantage of a form is that it allows you to funnel emails in different directions based on the type of user enquiry. For example if a user specifies the message as a support query it can be sent to a different person than a sales enquiry.
Forms are probably the most versatile and powerful communication technique available and certainly work well on larger sites. However they are not always the right solution 100% of the time.
Although forums are often perceived as “user to user environments” rather than “user to website owner”, that doesn’t have to be true. Forums are an excellent way of communicating directly with your users. They are particularly good on a site where the enquiries are not confidential in nature and where you are getting the same enquiry again and again. A typical example of this is a support forum. By answering a support question publicly you avoid having to answer the same question multiple times and empower users to find their answers quicker without having to wait for your response.
Obviously, this approach wouldn’t be appropriate for sales enquiries and it still can suffer from spam however in certain circumstances forums can be very powerful.
Comments are a growing feedback mechanism, made popular by the growth of blogging. In many ways they provide similar benefits to a forum however they are slightly more limiting. On a forum a user can start a new thread dedicated to any subject they choose. When posting a comment it is normally attached to an existing web page on a specific topic. Although this is restrictive it can be appropriate if you are looking for feedback on a specific issue and want to avoid too much secondary discussion.
Ratings and reviews
Ratings and reviews can work particularly well when you are looking for feedback on a product line or article. Although ratings provide only limited feedback (a score) this also means that it is very easy for a user to participate. The ease of contribution makes it more likely a user will feedback than otherwise would have been the case. This approach works well when a website owner wants feedback on a specific web page. Having questions like “did this page answer your question. Yes or No?” is much more likely to get a response than an open comments box.
More and more sites are introducing “live chat” facilities. To be honest I have mixed feelings about live chat. On the right site I am convinced it can be a powerful tool, however it can also create usability and accessibility problems. The best use of live chat I have seen is for answering support queries. They allow users to get instant answers without having to pay international phone call rates to contact foreign websites. They also allow website owner to handle a greater number of simultaneous enquiries than would be possible on a phone call. However live chat can be intrusive when the website owner initiates the conversation and on smaller sites the demands of having somebody available to answer queries can be prohibitive.
Of course, unlike every other method mentioned so far, live chat doesn’t seem to attract spam and so in that regards it is appealing.
A cheaper and easier to implement alternative to live chat is simply to publish an instant messaging address on your site. Of course this does require your visitors to have an instant messaging client installed but that is less of an issue these days. Although instant messaging is a nice extra to have, I don’t think it will ever be more than an alternative for people who particularly like to communicate that way.
It is easy to forget offline mechanisms of communication such as telephone and post. In fact it is surprising just how many organisations fail to include their telephone number and postal address on their sites.
Different mediums are good for different things and although a website can be an amazing tool there are some times when you just want to pick up the phone and talk to somebody. If you fail to put traditional contact information on your site then you do it at your own peril.
Dealing with feedback
Although the different communication methods are interesting, I guess the real question is how do you deal with enquiries when they come in (from whatever source). It is in this area that my own site currently fails and that is what got me thinking about how we approach the problem with our clients. This is the advice we normally give:
One of the biggest problems I encounter when it comes to handling enquiries is that nobody sees it as there responsibility. Probably the best thing that can be done to improve how feedback is handled, is to ensure that there is at least one person in the organisation that has a clearly defined responsibility to respond to these correspondence.
Depending on the size of the website and the structure of your organisation, this may need to be multiple individuals, but the key is to ensure that these individuals are in no doubt about what is required from them.
As I have learnt from personal experience over the last week the way that feedback is collected and processed is crucial. When somebody completes an online form where does it go? What happens if the person collecting those emails is away? How do you make sure that email is not lost in transit? How do you ensure the feedback has been responded to?
I remember working on a classic example of a bad collection mechanism a few years back. We were working for a travel company would created personalized quotes based on a form completed via their website. The problem was that enquiry form was sent as an email to a public folder in outlook. Sales staff would check that folder periodically and respond to any outstanding emails.
The whole process was incredibly painful. The folder wasn’t checked regularly enough and sales people would cherry pick the best leads leaving many emails unanswered in the hope that some other “sap” would deal with them. Emails would be responded to multiple times in some cases while others were simply lost in the scramble.
Eventually we built them a backend system that allowed administrators to assign enquiries and track their progress through the system, as well as provide reporting on response times and conversion.
Having a clearly defined and efficient mechanism for dealing with feedback from your site ensures that nothing slips through the cracks.
Speed of response
Ensuring that you respond quickly to enquiries is one of the best ways of differentiating yourself from your competition. One of the most common ways of achieving this is with an automated response as soon as a form is completed or an email sent. Although these kind of responses do provide some value as they let the user know the enquiry has been received, they do nothing to improve the users perception of your service. Automated response are impersonal and are the email equivalent of an automated telephone system saying that “your call is important to us”.
In my opinion nothing is better than a quick personal email thanking somebody for their enquiry and promising a more detailed response as soon as possible. Of course this isn’t always possible if you are dealing with a large number of enquiries, but for most businesses this is more than achievable.
Tracking feedback history
There is nothing more annoying than having to repeat yourself and with electronic communication at least, there should be no need to do so. Make sure that whatever system you use to track feedback also has the ability to archive and retrieve previous correspondence so that you don’t need to ask the user to cover old ground.
Personally I am a fan of customer management systems that allow for the tracks of all correspondence with a client whatever method is used. There are loads of greats systems around with something appropriate for your business, whatever its size.
Choosing a response mechanism
Finally I wanted to mention the mechanism by which we choose to respond to an enquiry. I recently listens to an interview with the authors of “Send: The How, Why, When – and When Not – of Email” who talked about the importance of knowing which medium to use in communications. The temptation is to respond in the medium with which you were originally contacted. For example, if somebody sends you an email you should respond with email. However, depending on the nature of the enquiry and the dialogue you need with the enquirer, it might be better to pick up the phone, instant message them or even use good old snail mail.
As with so much in life, always pick the right tool for the job.