Our 180-pound English mastiff and our sons can make short work of most furniture. For instance, a poorly made sofa will buckle and crack very quickly with the dog’s weight on it. And dining room chairs that don’t have strong joints will split if my sons lean them back on two legs. That’s why I’ve learned to keep an eye out for weaknesses when I’m shopping for new furniture. And it turns out that most furniture stores do most of the work for me in revealing the weaknesses inherent in what they sell.

A lot of in-store display models not only look disheveled but also have parts that are loose, unstuck, or “wonky.” And this isn’t at just one store. I’ve found broken, wobbly, uneven model furniture at IKEA, Home Depot, Best Buy, Fred Meyer, and Babies “R” Us.

This is great for me. If something has failed or broken on the display piece, I can be pretty certain the version I buy will have the same problems after a while in my home. So if I see an obvious fault in the model, I do not buy.

It’s no surprise that my marketer’s sensibility abhors this brazen show of weakness. The store is, after all, trying to get me to buy a piece of furniture. And the worst way to accomplish that goal is to display something that’s broken, shoddy, or wonky. Listen – I’m all for “showing your warts” and being transparent about how you are working to improve your business. But showing your customers faulty products is not the way to do it.

If you run an Internet business, you may feel pretty safe. “No faulty products to display here,” you may think.

But even online businesses run this risk.

You see, my eye for flaws extends beyond floor models in stores. I can usually spot the weaknesses in software within moments. In fact, one of my primary jobs is to test new and updated software – Web-based, server-installed, and desktop- or PC-based – to make sure it works properly. And I am amazed at the amount of software – and especially the “demos” or “working examples” located on a company’s own servers – that are down or broken or fail within seconds of using them.

Studies by experts such as Dr. Jakob Nielsen have shown that when software or websites “break,” many users blame themselves. “It must be something I did,” customers think. And then they give up on the task in hand, which, if it is spending money on your site, isn’t good for you.

Programmers and software developers have a habit of saying it is the user’s fault. For instance, a programmer for one of my clients insisted that the security warnings on a “secure” shopping cart that customers had been complaining about for months were their fault. All they needed to do, he said, was “right mouse click, select properties, and view the secure certificate to show it was really encrypted.”

Erm, hello?! Customers want to spend money, not worry about things like this.

So if you or your programmers are claiming that some problem is the customer’s fault, remind yourself: It’s not. If your users are giving up and leaving because your site or software isn’t working… it’s your fault.

That’s why you have to test everything on your site – and not only with your Web developers and programmers. Test with “normal people” to see what happens.

First, ask yourself what could be done to make it easier for your visitors to use your website, forum, shopping cart, etc. Have you made any assumptions about the way things “work”? Are the servers that host your website available and usable by customers 100 percent of the time?

Second, go through your website with an eye to making it more usable. Here are some techniques you can try:

  • Don’t develop behind closed doors.
    If you put marketers and programmers together without considering what is good for your customers, you are going to open the door for problems down the line. If your customers are primarily older or rural, for example, you have to consider that they are probably on a slower Internet connection. So don’t include lots of whiz-bang features like heavy graphics or video on your website. At best, your users will avoid them. At worst, they’ll be irritated and leave your site for good.
  • Have your customers pre-test your website.
    As soon as you release a new website or add software to it, your customers are testing it… live. Instead, ask a group of customers to test your website while it is in development. Ask some to place an order for a specific product, and ask some to order and then select an “upsell” or additional item. Have others test your contact form.Ask for – and reward them for – specific, honest feedback. Then incorporate their suggestions.
  • Ask customer service for input.
    For honest feedback on what your customers really think of your website, ask your customer service folks. They’ll probably have a list of suggestions, complaints, and frustrations that your customers have shared with them.
  • Monitor uptime and responsiveness.
    You need to know when your website is “down” or unresponsive… and you need to know quickly. Use a service such as websitepulse.com to monitor it and give you updates. This can show you not only how the website appears “live,” but also whether people can place orders at any given time.If you don’t know with certainty through objective, third-party measures that your website is available and useable, you cannot be sure that the person about to place that $500 order will be able to do it. The websitepulse.com system is quite comprehensive, and even allows you to simulate shopping cart transactions that mimic what your customers may be experiencing at any point.
  • Follow Jeff Bezos’s lead.
    I recall an interview from around 1999 with Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. He said he checks Amazon on weekends and looks for 10 things they’re doing right and 10 things they need to change. Looking at your own website with fresh eyes and trying to make incremental improvements will reap rewards over time.
[Ed. Note: David Cross is Senior Internet Consultant for Agora Inc. There’s a lot you may not know about building an Internet business. David has the answers – and he’ll be sharing them with an exclusive group of business builders at ETR’s 5 Days in July conference. Registration for the conference opens at noon today..]

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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