Covert Operations: An Undercover Web Performance Pro’s Report from Inside an eCommerce Call Center
Test and Monitor | Posted December 11, 2014

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Though my day job is web performance, I occasionally work a night or weekend shift in the customer call center of a large public specialty retailer.  The retailer has many bricks and mortar stores, a catalog business and an eCommerce site. With this part time gig, in addition to picking up a little extra splurging money, I also pick up some eye-opening first hand experiences speaking with eCommerce customers that add perspective to my day job of improving online customer experience for businesses.

In this report, I will share a few observations about eCommerce, website performance and user experience from my unique vantage point on the inside.

I’d like to go ahead and say that it can be absolutely maddening dealing with web performance issues from inside a customer call center.  For starters, this retailer’s eCommerce site is in most ways separate from the rest of the business, so items and prices on the website are often inconsistent with the catalog or store. This can be confusing and frustrating for customers, but is just the tip of the iceberg. When customers call in about issues with the website itself— in the call center I can’t see what the customer is doing on the website, and in fact, if you have placed an order online and want to fix, change or have a question about it, I don’t even have access to your order for up to an hour in most cases. The system isn’t updated in real-time, and orders are translated in batches from the website to the call center order system.

This wouldn’t be nearly as big a problem for me had 50% of the calls I took on Saturday not been website-specific issues with a system to which I have no access. It gets worse.

Some of the bigger issues and customer complaints I receive fall into a few common categories:

1) User error (and website design).  Users had problems applying coupon codes, figuring out shipping, determining if the system actually took their order.  I know I said that it is user error, but the web design is more than half at fault.  You can’t blame the customer for not seeing the fine print, or the hidden drop down menu, or the selections on the next page if they are afraid to leave the current page

2) Website performance. The site is frequently very slow, and there are more often than not some well-known “glitches” (well known to customer service, that is). One such glitch on Saturday involved multiple automated emails being sent to customers notifying them that an item in the cart needed remediation— when in fact there were no items in the cart for which this was actually true.  I had one poor customer call twice in an evening regarding this.

Another “glitch” my co-workers warned me about was that the site fails miserably with phones and tablets.  Given that 29% of e-retail sales on Thanksgiving Day this year were mobile transactions, I would hardly call this issue a “glitch”—more like a potential loss of almost 1/3 of your sales.

3) Company culture/policy regarding eCommerce.  Shipping costs from this retailer are quite high and there are never “free shipping, or flat shipping” offers made for eCommerce customers. You might be able to get away with this policy if you were the only game in town, but for the retailer in question, there are at least two close competitors in this space that offer free and/or flat ship rates- or lowered shipping rates for holidays.

Poor website performance is another thing you can’t get away with when competition is in the picture. We know that for every second a customer waits for a website transactions decrease by 7%-- by the time your slow page has loaded, your customers are already making the purchase on a competitor’s site instead, and potentially even sharing their poor experience with their social networks—damaging your online reputation and possibly losing you more current or future customers.

The take away here is that the company needs to decide that eCommerce is as important or even more important than traditional channels.  Once that decision is made, not only does their website need to be optimized for performance 24x7, the organization has to be well equipped to support customers when there are issues. Finally, the policies around eCommerce need to be in line with the competition. Online retail is not simply a matter of putting up a website with a shopping cart—even for a well performing site there must be a plan in place across all departments for the company as a whole to support your customers and your business.

This message will self-destruct.  (And so will “traditional” retailers sitting idly by while eCommerce competition reigns supreme in the digital world.)

Special Agent 404, signing off.


Check out this funny yet very informative slideshare and video to learn some shocking industry stats about eCommerce, web performance, shopping cart abandonment rates and more!

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