I swerved for the third fallen tree on the road as torrential rain pelted the car windows. It was starting to look like a war zone as floodwater and rocks spewed out onto the road from the hillside that was rapidly becoming a series of slurried landslides. The first major storm of 2009 tore up the landscape and brought most rivers in the Pacific Northwest to flood stage. But I had to make the journey, and I was too far now to turn back.

Onward I pressed, and finally I was out of the woods. Ten miles of clear, open road lay ahead, and soon I was almost at my destination. Just a half-mile to go and… “ROAD CLOSED: HIGH WATER.” I had to double-back and make a 25-mile detour.

How many times has the lane you’ve been driving in come to a screeching halt when a sign suddenly appears that says “Right Lane Must Turn Right.” Why don’t these signs appear early enough for drivers to take action proactively, rather than having to slam on their brakes at the last minute?

This same basic problem exists on many websites, and it could be hurting your online sales. Fortunately, there’s something you can – and should – do about it.

Why This Problem Hurts Your Internet Sales

I’m sure this has happened to you…

You enter your credit card number to place your order. Then – AFTER you’ve entered your number – you get an error page that tells you “Credit Card Number must be entered in format xxxx-xxxx-xxxxx-xxxx.” Or that your phone number should be in a certain format. Or that your password needs a minimum of eight characters including numbers and must start with an uppercase letter.

All you want to do is spend money. But this website is preventing you from doing so.

If your website or shopping cart requires customers to enter information – such as an e-mail address, phone number, credit card number, etc. – a certain way, here are 8 steps you need to follow.

1. Try to limit the restrictions you place on people. They are customers, not computer programmers! It’s better to accept what the customer enters and leave the reformatting to your programmers.

2. Remember that it will be hard for some people (customers with dyslexia, for example), to enter data into your website. Make it simple for everyone to place their orders by listing your phone number on the website so they can just call you.

3. Place the request for information “in a certain format” at the point where people enter that data – underneath the field asking for the phone number, for example.

4. If you don’t wish to “clutter” your website with such instructions, have your programmer create a JavaScript or similar code that allows customers to input the data, but then warns them immediately that a certain format is required. This is less than ideal, but a good compromise.

5. It’s often possible to program your site to allow customers to enter their data any way they wish – and then have the program automatically remove dashes, dots, or superfluous characters and reformat the data into the required format.

6. If a customer is selecting a username, make it easy for them to determine whether that username has already been taken. Yahoo, MSN, and Gmail do a good job of this. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to submit a form three or four times while trying to come up with an available username.

7. If you don’t allow orders from certain countries, state that upfront on your website. Better still, use a software package that can identify the country a visitor is accessing your website from, and can lead them to a special page informing them that you do not currently service their location. (Such programs are made by MaxMind and IP2Location.)

I’ve personally experienced the frustration of browsing a site and shopping for half an hour, only to find out that the company didn’t deliver to the country I was in at the time.

8. When developing your website, allow plenty of time for testing with real customers. (Software developers and your staff do not constitute real customers.) The only way you’ll know, for example, how most of your customers will prefer to enter their credit card numbers – with dashes between digits, with slashes, or with no spacing at all – is to run tests. Invite a select few of your customers to test such things for you. As a gift for their help, do what my friends who run an aromatherapy business did: Give them the products they order during the test for free.

The most important function of your website is to allow your customers to place their orders and receive the products or services they’re interested in. So make it as easy and hassle-free as possible.

You know how frustrating it is when you have to make a U-turn or take a detour when you could have been given fair warning beforehand. Don’t make your customers jump through unnecessary hoops to complete their purchases.

[Ed. Note: Making your website appealing and easy to use doesn’t have to be hard. You can get expert advice, as well as useful suggestions for how to start an e-newsletter, write sales copy, create products, and more as a member of ETR’s Internet Money Club. Get all the details on a step-by-step guide to creating your own Internet business right here.]

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Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies. David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen! He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.

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