12 ways to improve the customer experience for online shoppers

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Digital marketing, usability and customer relationship pros share their top tips for how to ensure that when customers visit your website they enjoy the experience -- and will buy from you.

Consumers today have more places and ways to shop than ever. And they have increasingly shorter attention spans. So if you have an ecommerce business, and you want online shoppers to buy from you, you need to be able to quickly attract their attention – and make the shopping experience pleasant and easy.

[ Related: How Ecommerce Businesses Can Beat the Competition in 2015 ]

So what can ecommerce businesses do to help ensure that the online shopping experience is a pleasant one? Following are 12 ways to create a customer experience that will have consumers buying from you – and coming back for more.

1. Make sure your site loads quickly, whether on a computer or a mobile device. “Aim to keep website load time to [a few] seconds or less,” says Gabriel A. Mays, founder, Just Add Content, a website platform for businesses. “Your biggest threat isn't a competitor, it's the back button. If your website loads too slowly, customers won't wait around. They'll go elsewhere.”

And don’t forget mobile users. “Studies reveal that nearly two-thirds of cell phone owners in the U.S. now use their phone as their primary access to the Internet,” says Mark Taylor, global lead for Customer Experience Transformation at Capgemini Consulting. “As a result, companies need to enable all aspects of the customer relationship – from browsing to purchasing to engaging with the brand – to have mobile functionality.

[ Related: 12 Tips for Creating a Mobile-Friendly Website ]

“Today’s online customers want the information they need when they need it, at the click of a mouse or a swipe of a tablet or smartphone,” says Ari Weil, vice president of Yottaa, a cloud-based automation platform. “And retailers have only milliseconds to grab their attention and complete the transaction. Amazon, for example, has shown that every 100 milliseconds of latency cost them 1 percent in sales, while Walmart reports conversion rates rise 2 percent for every second of reduced load time.”

“In order to keep potential customers on their Web pages,” he says, “e-retailers need to optimize their websites to guarantee maximum performance regardless of a customer’s network connection and location or whether they are on a desktop, tablet or a mobile device.”

2. Focus on navigation – and don’t forget about site search. “Customers should be able to easily navigate an organization’s website,” says Ali Mirian, senior vice president of Product, Collective Bias, a marketing & shopper social media company. “Limit unnecessary clicks and implement features like auto-scroll to help avoid users losing interest.”

And “invest in good site search technology,” adds Will Cook, vice president, Multichannel, HP Marketing Optimization. “Site search remains a neglected part of the customer journey. [Yet] search provides an easy way to connect the user’s intent with the right content.” Moreover, “search queries and results clicks [provide] user feedback, [which can be] used to drive a more personalized experience in the future,” he explains.

3. Remember that a good photo can be worth a thousand words (and maybe a thousand dollars). Don’t underestimate the power of high quality photographs of products, says Mira Risek, user experience designer, Usability Matters, a user experience studio. “Some [companies feel that] commonly recognized or generic products might not need that level of visual appeal, but online shoppers find images reassuring, not to mention immensely helpful in identifying that they’re getting the thing they want.”

“We live in a visual world,” says Carolyn Blank, founder, Home Garden Directory. “A website without great images will not get customers to checkout,” she says. “Great photos, and lots of them [though not so many you overwhelm customers], will give shoppers the same feeling as if they were picking something up in a store.”

Furthermore, “make [the online shopping experience] as real as possible by providing photos of the product being used,” she suggests. For example, next to that photo of a vase, show that same vase placed on a table, filled with flowers.

In addition, give shoppers the ability to zoom in and see multiple angles and views of products (if relevant).

4. Less is often more when it comes to content. “When it comes to content online, the ‘less is more’ adage often holds true,” says Mirian. Too much “text, [or] excessive images or videos, can quickly clutter the customer’s screen and hinder their overall experience,” as well as distract them from making a purchase.

5. Include customer reviews. “Customer reviews are trusted 12 times more than a marketing piece from an organization,” says Hunter Montgomery, CMO, HigherLogic, which provides community management services. “So let them do the talking.”

“Brands can significantly improve the customer experience by [showcasing] product reviews not only on their site but also on their mobile apps and in-store displays,” says Theresa O'Neil, senior vice president of Marketing at PowerReviews.

“In a PowerReviews study conducted in late 2014, we found that more than 86 percent of consumers see reviews as an essential resource when making purchase decisions, and 56 percent of shoppers specifically seek out websites with reviews,” O'Neil says. “By making ratings and reviews easily accessible across every touchpoint, brands can ensure a positive customer experience.”

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