Archive for the ‘Marketing’ category

Hotels try new ways to earn loyalty

March 12, 2010

Are you struggling to keep prices up this year? No matter what business you are in, this article by Elizabeth Olson from the New York Times illustrates how added value extras could help you create loyal customers, and avoid price wars and discounted products. Click here to view the article in its original context, or scroll down.


When Greg McHale checks into his hotel room after a day of business travel, he expects what he calls the “wonderful and bizarre,” namely complimentary Snickers bars, Diet Pepsi and, sometimes, a compact disc of his favorite electronic dance music.

For Kimpton Hotels, it is a small price to pay for the loyalty of someone like Mr. McHale, a Web entrepreneur who spends 50 or 60 nights a year on the road. And for Mr. McHale, the personal touches — part of the hotel chain’s loyalty program — make it worth his while to seek out Kimpton’s hotels.

“The level of personal attention really blows me away,” said Mr. McHale, founder and chief executive of Good2gether, which connects nonprofit organizations with donors and volunteers. “So if there’s a Kimpton in town, that’s where I’ll stay.”

Not all hotels go to such lengths to please their guests, but this year most are stretching their creativity to attract and, perhaps more important, retain guests. Hotels have been particularly hard hit by the drop in business travel, and brand loyalty has often given way to practical cost concerns as companies have cut expenses.

Only 36 percent of business travelers said they were brand loyal this year, compared with 42 percent two years ago, according to Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Forrester Research. “And 2010 is likely to be more difficult for hotels because companies are telling their employees that every penny saved means fewer people laid off or fewer cuts in pay.”

Hotels are responding by offering free nights, upgrades and loyalty points. Many hotels, especially the high-end chains, are introducing twists to cultivate customers. Amenities including free breakfasts, no-fee Internet connections, late checkouts and paid parking are being bundled in business traveler packages. Marriott Hotels, for instance, calls its package “Business Boost,” while Hyatt Hotels has “Business Plan” and Sheraton Hotels “Road Warrior.”

As part of its package, Hilton’s Conrad Chicago Hotel is giving guests their choice among best-selling books, and a personal shopper is available to help select gifts for those left at home.

Beyond packages, some hotels are trying to make stays more enticing by reducing fees for the minibar, subsidizing some meals, offering free in-room spa services or free dry cleaning. The hotel industry is trying to keep room rates stable, which is not easy. The average occupancy rate in October was down 6.2 percentage points to 58.1 percent, and per-room revenue dropped 13.8 percent to $57.57 from the year before — the worst numbers in more than two decades, according to Smith Travel Research, in Hendersonville, Tenn.

To try to hold the line on rates, hotels are offering guests more for their money.

“It’s about offering added value rather than lowering rates,” said Sam Shank, chief executive of, an online search engine for hotels. “When travel fell after 9/11, hotels dropped their rates and it took a while for them to bring those prices up again. They don’t want to go through that again.”

Many corporations have room rate arrangements with hotel chains, but their employees typically claim the loyalty points for personal use, especially for long weekends or upgrading to concierge floors, where they can have a nicer breakfast, access to snacks and, in the evening, a glass of wine with hors d’oeuvres.

Loyalty points are a major selling feature for many travelers, said Don Berg, vice president for loyalty for Intercontinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest hotel operator whose brands include Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. The group has 47 million club members.

About 90 percent of the points are redeemed for personal use, he said. The hotel group, taking a page from the American Express and Visa rewards programs, also offers members special access to concerts and sporting events. Starwood Hotels has a similar program.

“People have guilt over being away from home and family, and this is guilt-free currency to make up for that,” Mr. Berg said. “No expiration on our loyalty points is, by far, our most popular feature.”

William R. Snider, a Houston software consultant, was able to use his loyalty points from Holiday Inns to indulge his love of baseball. He used his points to bid on, and win, World Series and All-Star game packages that provided accommodation, meals and transportation and also allowed him to mingle with players.

“I had a blast,” he said.These awards make me want to stay at Holiday Inns, if at all possible.”

Among the most inventive in catering to customers are the high-end properties. Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, for example, will store a guest’s suitcase between visits, the hotel’s general manager, Mehdi Eftekari, said. “So if you are traveling between Los Angeles and New York or London, you always come back to freshly washed and ironed clothes packed away in your suitcase.”

An array of exercise gear, including socks and shoes, is available to guests so they do not have to worry about smelly clothing, he said.

Kimpton offers specially prepared dinners for its most frequent guests, including one recently in Manhattan for top-tier female travelers. The chain has also introduced weekend trips like the one in October for its most frequent travelers and their spouses, in Oregon’s wine country. The wine-tasting getaway came with meals made by Kimpton chefs, and a balloon ride over the vineyards.

Paul Seus, a management consultant from Chicago who attended the Oregon weekend with his wife, Amy, said Kimpton’s special treatment cemented his loyalty.

“Kimpton called me and asked me if I would like to do something special,” Mr. Seus said.

“I’ve traveled my whole career, and I used to stay, well, wherever,” he said. “Now I’ll only stay somewhere else if I can’t find one of their hotels.”


What do you think? Do you have an idea for how to implement a scheme like this in your business? Have you had a surprise experience like this in a business you’ve used recently? Share your thoughts here!


Facebook may be encouraging customer loyalty

March 5, 2010

The Harvard Business Review has published an introduction to a new study looking at how social media might grow customer loyalty.  I think that it adds a slightly more scientific voice to the debate as to what ROI web 2.0 can offer. To read the article in its original context, click here, otherwise scroll down to find out just how Facebook might be able to encourage customer loyalty.


Social media are all the rage in marketing, but should they be? Sure, Facebook is growing fast—it had more than 350 million accounts late last year, 50 million of which were added in the fall alone. But how much do businesses really influence consumers when they launch pages on the site to attract “fans” and to pepper them with messages and offers?

To begin to answer that question, we did the obvious: We set up one company’s Facebook page and measured the effect on customer behavior. Our partner in this experiment was Dessert Gallery (DG), a popular Houston-based bakery and café chain.

We began by e-mailing a survey to 13,270 customers from DG’s mailing list to gather store evaluations and data on shopping behavior; 689 people responded. Then, we launched the Facebook page and invited everyone on the mailing list to become a fan. DG updated its page several times a week with pictures of goodies, news about contests and promotions, links to favorable reviews, and introductions to DG employees. Three months later, we resurveyed customers, this time receiving 1,067 responses from DG’s Facebook fans, Facebook users who did not become fans, and customers not on Facebook. We analyzed the data sets separately and then compared participants in the first survey with those in the second who had become DG fans.

As it turned out, Facebook changed customer behaviour for the better. People who had replied to both surveys and had become fans ended up being DG’s best customers: Though they spent about the same amount of money per visit, they increased their store visits per month after becoming Facebook fans and generated more positive word of mouth than nonfans. They went to DG 20% more often than nonfans and gave the store the highest share of their overall dining-out dollars. They were the most likely to recommend DG to friends and had the highest average Net Promoter Score—75, compared with 53 for Facebook users who were not fans and 66 for customers not on Facebook. DG fans also reported significantly greater emotional attachment to DG—3.4 on a four-point scale, compared with 3.0 for other customers. Additionally, fans were the most likely to say they chose DG over other establishments whenever possible.

It’s important to remember that our results suggest intriguing possible correlations rather than definitive causalities. (We plan to explore in the months ahead whether they are representative and whether other forms of promotion, such as in-store events and offers, create a similar effect. Look for future findings on And even this early research yields mixed news for marketers: For instance, unless the brand is iconic, chances are the company’s Facebook page will not have astronomical sign-up numbers. Only 283 (or 2.1%) of the customers on DG’s mailing list became fans within three months. This narrow appeal is not unique to DG’s customers. In an analysis of 50 Zagat-rated Houston restaurants, Facebook pages averaged just 340 fans despite the fact that most of the businesses had tens of thousands of customers.

Cautious optimism seems wise at this point. Companies should see what Facebook can do for them but use it as just one niche tool.

About the Authors:

Utpal M. Dholakia is an associate professor of marketing at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

Emily Durham is the founder and president of Restaurant Connections, a Houston-based restaurant consultancy.

Three best ways to use social media

January 25, 2010

What were your business resolutions for 2010? If they didn’t include something to do with social media, you may well be missing out on a lot of great opportunities, as even more of the population are joining the conversation. If you’re still not sure how to start, here’s a great, simple article to get you going. It’s by Willa Plank, writing for the Wall Street Journal. Check it out in context here, or read on!


How else can we say it: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as tools to promote your services and products online. According to a recent survey of 148 private companies by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, 43% say social media is “very important” to their business and marketing strategy, 52% are tweeting and 45% are blogging.

But don’t feel pressured to jump in quickly and create a profile on every site. First, decide if it’s right for your company. “Are you a social organization?” says Simon Salt, CEO of integrated marketing communications agency IncSlingers. “Everyone seems to know to have a Facebook page or a Twitter [account]. Is that what your business is about?”

For instance, a Facebook fan page probably doesn’t make sense for a business-to-business outfit, says Neal Schaffer, author of “Windmill Networking: Understanding, Leveraging & Maximizing LinkedIn.” And companies that target older or retired customers might benefit more from direct-mail campaigns, or even knocks on doors. “Don’t believe the hype,” Schaffer says. “Understand what fits your business.”

If you’ve decided to incorporate social media, remember that YouTube videos, blog posts and status updates are just a part of your entire marketing arsenal. Here are three best ways to use social media.


1.Stand out by trying less-crowded or up-and-coming social-media sites. Everyone knows about Facebook fan pages. But if you’re a neighborhood business that relies on local clientele, you might want to consider Foursquare or Gowalla, which combine elements of other social-networking sites (Twitter, Facebook or Yelp) to help spread word of establishments and provide rewards to encourage customer loyalty. John Jantsch, author of “Duct Tape Marketing,” suggests trying underutilized networks that cater to business owners, such as Biznik and BizSugar. If you’re strapped for time, at least maintain a blog that provides good content and answers consumer questions, he says. Or create quick, educational YouTube videos that – along with a blog – are more likely to come up higher in keyword searches. Samir Balwani, contributor to social-media news blog Mashable, suggests creating your own social network at

2.Don’t expect instant sales, but make sure to get actual results. Social media is more about brand outreach. Make sure you have a reasonable goal and a well-thought out strategy to achieve that end. First, listen to what is being said about your business and competitors on Google alerts, RSS queries, Twitter, Yelp and BackType. Make sure you have your profile account names on all print communications you distribute, such as flyers and menus. Identify your biggest fans, and figure out how to organize them or point them out in some way. For example: On Twitter, if you know a person is a loyal customer, mention them in a post or announce a free service or product they’ve won for loyalty. Or reach out to other bloggers in your industry. Sarah Endline, founder of dark chocolate treat maker Sweetriot in New York, said she connected with blog site Hungry Girl and that lead to getting her company’s name out and sales.

3. Don’t forget social media is a tool to strengthen offline relationships. Many small businesses already have personal ties to customers in their communities, and these tools are designed to enhance those relationships, not replace them. For instance, you can use social-media tools such as YouTube to give customers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of your company, or display more of your personality than you can through an ad. “It also allows you to show your culture,” Endline says. “They’re not just there to [see] a static promotion from you. They want value.” And remember, a social network is “really a big room of people,” author Schaffer says. Use it to “meet” potential clients or business partners, but make sure you follow up with an in-person meeting or phone conversation.

Write to Willa Plank at


Where are you with social media? What sorts of articles would be most useful this year? Leave your comments here and we’ll try our best to get your questions answered.

Ten customer service trends for 2010

January 14, 2010

With the launch of our new customer service initiative the St Andrews Standard, we thought it was apt to start the new year’s posts with an article about the customer service trends you’re likely to notice as 2010 continues. This piece, found on Small Business Trends and written by Barry Moltz, can also be read in its original form here.


In 2010, customer service makes a big comeback. It becomes the new marketing. Forget about paying lip service to offering “great customer service”. Let go all of those “the customer is always right” myths. It’s time to offer outstanding customer service only because it makes economic sense for your small business. It is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage.

Customer service feedback

What to watch in 2010:

  1. We Try Harder: With the economy still struggling to recover and unemployment at record highs, all “customer facing employees” actually will try harder this year to attract, satisfy and keep their customers.  Job prospects remain slim in 2010 and every employee wants to keep any job they have. This year, effort from everyone will be in plain site.
  2. It’s Not Your Product: Zappos’ tag line is “Powered by Customer Service”. With the company being sold to Amazon for almost a billion dollars, there is no denying that customer service can build companies. Zappos proved that it can make money selling shoes over the internet by offering free shipping both ways. Amazon and Zappos are companies that really just don’t sell products, but a customer service channel to sell any product. All things being equal, I buy from Zappos and Amazon because I know I can count on them. This is the year that all companies will see service as the only way to keep customers buying from them.
  3. It’s All About You. Technology has allowed companies to personalize my visit when I go to buy from their web site. When I visit Amazon’s site, they welcome me back by name and suggest things I might want to buy based on what I bought in the past. This is the type of personalization I come to expect when I go to any face to face retail establishment. When I check into a hotel, I want them to greet me by name if I have been there before or I am a member of their frequent buyer program. This always happens when I visit the Portland Paramount but at The Nines hotel in the same city, they never remember who I am.  With the immediacy and personalization of this fast paced internet world, great customer service is only what the customer says it is at a particular point in time. The difficulty is raised because this standard varies from person to person. This year, more companies will customize your shopping or service experience either online or in person because that is what you want.
  4. Tell the World. Tools like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allow me to tell not seven people but 10,000 my pleasure or dissatisfaction with a company immediately after I interact with them. No more secrets here! Every satisfied customer is now a booster for your company and every dissatisfied customer potentially can hurt your business. Now, there is more of an incentive for every company to get it right for their customer. This year, no bad deed will go unpublished by a dissatisfied customer.
  5. The Brands are Listening. You as the customer are talking on Facebook and Twitter, but companies are also beginning to listen. Chances are that if you post a complaint using one of these tools, the company will respond directly to you. I have had this happen with Sears and Lands End. This year, all the major companies will not let any negative comment go by without responding to your concern.
  6. Online Service Gets a Face Lift. Forget the lag time of email or waiting for a call back. This year, more and more web sites will allow you to chat directly to customer service people either through chat or video. Want to chat from your phone directly to the company? No problem. Skype them? No problem.  Scott Jordan at Scottevest, allows the customer to watch what is going on in his company live on the web every day!
  7. Insourcing is In. More and more American companies who outsourced their customer service will bring that function back home either by hiring a domestic company or bringing it in house. The “we can outsource this customer service thing” has hurt companies like Dell and Capital One. This year, look for more of the technology assisted customer service jobs to be transferred back to the US. Companies realize how important it is to their business. Just ask any car dealer the profitability of new car sales to their car maintenance business.
  8. That’s Tight. Companies you do business with will want to know everything about you. Tighter relationship with customers will continue as economy remains poor. Companies can’t afford to lose profitable current customers. This goes way beyond frequent flyer programs. Accenture working with Proctor and Gamble has a new technology that tries to predict consumer preferences using optimization engines. This year, companies will continue to track everything about you to make that your relationship as personal as it gets.
  9. Fire Them. In 2007, Sprint famously fired 1,000 customers that were clogging up their customer service lines and costing the company loads of money. Not every customer you have is profitable. Look for more companies this year to fire you if you cost them money and recommend you take your business elsewhere.
  10. Get Small. All startups used to want to appear big. We bought typewriters and later computers and web sites to make ourselves look the part. Now, everyone company, as Chris Brogan says, wants to be human. I call it getting small. Every company wants to seem like the corner store, but have the global pricing power and distribution of Walmart. Furthermore, big business is now consistently targeting your small business since it is the a sector of the economy that is growing. President Obama will continue to emphasis that small business is the core of American business. You have arrived!


What do you see as the trends in customer service for 2010?

* * * * *

About the Author: Barry Moltz has founded and run small businesses with a great deal of success and failure for more than 15 years. He is the author of three small business books, the latest is “BAM! Delivering Customer Service in a Self-Service World.” Barry is a nationally recognized expert on entrepreneurship who has given hundreds of presentations to audiences ranging from 20 to 20,000.

Isn’t the value of social media what business is all about?

December 17, 2009

Dell has long been praised for being one of the companies who have best adapted to this decades’ social media advances. In this short piece, Dell’s Vice-President of Social Media and Community argues that social media is just a digital form of what the most successful companies have been doing all along. Read the article on the Huffington Post by clicking here, or scroll down.


Today’s corporate leaders are struggling to figure out how to use social media to further their business strategy. At Dell, we believe this is backwards thinking. Social media isn’t a means to further a corporation’s strategy, it’s a means to help determine it.

The “Mom and Pop” businesses in our neighborhoods have always followed sound and pragmatic business practices, rooted in developing, maintaining and strengthening relationships with customers. The customers and the businesses valued those relationships because “Mom and Pop” offered convenience. They listened to their customers and used their suggestions to improve the business. They provided great service and found ways to thank their clientele. Social media is really nothing more than the simple application of these business practices in a digital form.

So if you are wondering about how to leverage Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, and the company Web site to achieve your organization’s goals, perhaps you are starting from the wrong point. As with the corner store, if your business uses social media to engage in conversations on a human level, you strengthen your business and allow your strategy — both corporate and social media — to evolve based on customer feedback.

At Dell, we have a longer perspective on the social media conundrum than most. We’ve been an active leader in the space since 2006, with a depth and breadth to our social media presence that has earned top billing among brands using social media to engage stakeholders.

What we’ve learned is that social media has transformed the large corporation of the millennium into the Mom and Pop shop of the old days. The emergence of social media simply makes it more possible to connect directly with customers every day. Dell’s community goes well beyond our own forums — it now extends to direct contact with more than three million followers worldwide. Even during a historically difficult time for businesses of all stripes, Dell has generated nearly $7 million in global product sales on Twitter.

“Mom and Pop” knew that their business was only as successful as their relationships with customers could make it. That’s the value of the direct connection to your customer, and that’s how every company can achieve success using social media — by facilitating the conversation. No strategy necessary.


What do you think? Is social media changing the way we do business, or is it just offering a new medium through which to do the same things? Discuss this here!

Social media checklist for small or medium businesses

December 16, 2009

Heidi Cohen has written a comprehensive checklist for small to medium businesses trying to expand or start up their social media strategy.  Click here to read it in context, or scroll down.


As a member of the SES Chicago Social Media Checklist panel last week, it was striking to hear from so many small and medium-sized businesses wrestling with developing a viable social media marketing strategy. Small and medium-sized businesses often have more limited resources, both personnel and budgets, than large companies, so they’re looking to build more cost-effective sales streams. With the goals of raising awareness, expanding market share, and improving customer loyalty, it’s critical to be creative in how your business engages and participates in the social media arena.

Nine Questions to Ask When Developing a Social Media Marketing Strategy

Small and medium-sized businesses tend to be so focused on keeping their businesses going that it can be difficult to brainstorm on ways to leverage the dynamic social media environment. Here are nine questions to help you think about your business in ways that enable you to maximize your social media marketing efforts.

  1. Does your business tap into people’s passions and/or hobbies? With hobbies and special interests, customers may make different spending tradeoffs, particularly with “staycations,” where customers look for local activities. From a social media marketing perspective, this translates to ways that people can share their hobbies and special interests using photographs, videos, and blogs. For example, I suggested that a tea purveyor in the SES audience create a Flickr account to show off unusual teapots people collect, and invite the public to participate in this community.
  2. Can your business show off its work? While this tends to focus on visual portrayals, like photographs and video, it can also include audio and text. Sharing photographs and videos helps businesses where prospects perceive there are high risks. For example, beauty salons and tailors can show before and after photographs. Remember to get patrons’ permission or offer a free bonus to incent customers to participate. Flickr contains many bakeries showing off their finished product’s visual beauty.
  3. Can you give prospects information they find useful? Think broadly to help customers use your product. For example, a food specialty shop’s blog may describe new foods with recipes and menus to use them. A resale shop can use a blog to show how to make wardrobes and living areas snazzy using its current product.
  4. Can you extend your expertise to a broader audience? This can work very well for professionals like lawyers and accountants. Leverage videos, presentations, and Webinars giving how-to tips to explain wills or budgeting.
  5. Does your business provide reasons for people to gather? In a virtually connected world, give people a reason to congregate in person. This may drive additional revenues. Examples include wine tastings for local wine shops and cooking classes for food specialty shops and/or restaurants. Use to organize the community and post comments. Where appropriate, add a Flickr page to gather related photographs.
  6. Can your business disseminate fun or related information via social media? Think in terms of bite size chunks of content. This information doesn’t need to be your business’s main focus. For example, a massage therapist can create a Twitter stream and blog for meditations to put people in a more serene state of mind.
  7. Are there targeted or niche communities where your prospects and customers naturally congregate? If so, set up a group in this social media site. For example, yarn shops participate and socialize on Ravelry, a knitting community.
  8. Do major blogs cover your business’s area of expertise? If so, actively comment and add to the conversation. Offer to create guest posts to share your knowledge and broaden your audience. This means adding real value to the conversation.
  9. Does your offering lend itself to creating a small online community and/or bulletin board? For example, many religious organizations leverage Yahoo Groups to communicate with members. These interactions can move online and offline.

Seven Tips to Extend Social Media Marketing Efforts

As a small or medium-sized business, it’s important to think about how to extend your social media efforts and to integrate these initiatives into your ongoing marketing plans. (For more information on developing an online marketing strategy, click here.) Here are seven tips to help you:

  1. Listen before you participate. While social media can help small and medium-sized businesses appear bigger than they are, it’s critical not to promote, promote, promote.
  2. Monitor what’s being said about your business. This includes a variety of social media offerings including blogs, review sites like Yelp and niche communities, and discussion groups.
  3. Integrate social media efforts offline. Provide retail prospects with a similar experience through an old-fashioned bulletin board with photographs or handouts containing how-to information.
  4. Promote social media efforts online and offline. Include your Web site, e-mailings, direct mail, local advertising, in-store postings, flyers, business cards, and correspondence.
  5. Socialize social media marketing. Ask visitors, prospects, and customers to visit your social media installations and share their experiences. Don’t overlook traditional ways to extend your business such as local events like Rotary and local sports teams such as Little League.
  6. Create a content strategy. (For additional insights on content strategy, click here.) Develop an editorial calendar for content creation to ensure that you don’t get stuck thinking of what to write, especially when using Twitter and blogs where customers expect regular servings of information.
  7. Make content search-friendly. Use relevant search keywords and tags and add text to photographs and video to aid findability.

Measuring the Results of Your Social Media Marketing Efforts

Since many small and medium-sized businesses don’t spend lots of time using fancy metrics, here are the main factors to keep your business on track.

  • Revenues. Have sales increased? It’s important to note that it may take time to build up a social media following.
  • Expenses. Track actual costs as well as the time involved in participating in social media marketing.
  • Prospects and customers. Track the number of people who are engaging with your social media efforts. Often, there’s a 90 percent readers/viewers, 9 percent commenters, and 1 percent active content creators breakout.
  • Feedback. Monitor the type, amount, and quality of feedback you’re receiving.

Remember there are many ways to engage your business in social media. Consider the options and test what works best for your offering.


Have you ventured into social media recently? Do you have any tips from your own experience? Share your comments here!

Simple ways to avoid common website mistakes

November 26, 2009

Here’s another fantastic article from iMedia Connection about how to make sure that potential customers aren’t put off by your website. Common mistakes and how best to fix them are listed in an easy-to-understand way by Linda Eskin.  Click here to read the article in context, or scroll down:


A good user experience is the same as good customer service. It’s fundamental to the success of your business. You need to ensure your site is treating your customers well, just as you would expect of any other representative of the company. In this article, we’ll consider several ways to uncover problems that your site visitors encounter, as well as approaches to fixing these issues.

I recently told a friend about some ideas I heard during a brief website design seminar. He commented that it seemed like really elementary stuff. Indeed, it was. But the elementary stuff needs restating from time to time. It’s important to address basic issues before getting carried away playing with slick new features or major redesigns. The fact of the matter is that many sites don’t have the basics down — and it could be costing them business.

A brick-and-mortar business is a good analog for a website. No business has unlimited time or resources, so it’s important to triage and prioritize problems that are affecting your reputation, growth, and bottom line. If the front door sticks in a manner that causes potential customers to think you are closed, or a store aisle is blocked by a stack of boxes, you have no business picking out trendy new paint colors for the storeroom walls. You should get after fixing the front door and moving the boxes.

So while it’s great fun to take on big, dramatic changes, take a little time first to handle simple issues that make such a big difference to your customers. Even if you have a major site update planned, taking these steps now will help you discover how your new site can better serve your customers, and therefore your business. And the habits you adopt for continuous improvement will serve you well now, and will flow right into any new design as well.

So let’s look at ways you can go about finding the problems, as well as six guidelines for fixing them.

1. Understand your audience
One simple-yet-effective way to discover major issues with your site is to take a good look at it from the point of view of the people who visit it. To do this, you need to consider who they are and what they need. You probably have a fair idea of who visits your site, but you may tend to focus on one group to the exclusion of the others. Or, as many organizations do, you may be focusing on the message you are trying to convey and neglecting the actual needs of your site visitors.

For example, a site selling high-tech medical equipment may naturally be focused on its cutting-edge technology and the benefits to researchers and medical personnel. However, the site would also need to address the logistical concerns of hospital administrators, give oversight boards what they need to justify purchasing or funding decisions, make documentation and service information available to existing customers, provide information for the media, and speak to prospective employees and investors.

It is worth writing out a brief description of each kind of person who visits your site. What are their concerns, with regard to your business? How web-savvy are they? How old are they? What is their level of education? Include a representative photo and give each person a name to make them more vividly real for your team. Post these descriptions in your office, so you and your team can always keep these people in mind. Consider each kind of visitor as a different audience. They will have different needs, different backgrounds, and speak different languages. As you update and improve your site, you will want to keep each of them in mind.

2. Listen to your customers
Your customers are probably already telling you where the problems on your site reside. So listen up, and tell your team to do the same. For instance, you might hear from a shopper: “Awesome, I never knew you sold pet supplies, too! I’ve been going clear across town.” Or a caller might ask, “What’s your address? I’ve looked all over your site and there’s no map.” Never mind that there actually is a map; the point is that your customers aren’t finding it. You’re hearing from the one who cared enough to call. Others might have just gone to buy from your competition.

Incidentally, over the years, I have heard many marketers say something to the effect of, “It’s right there on our site. The users are just too dumb to see it.” Fair enough. Let’s recognize that 20 percent of your site visitors have the internet savvy of a clam, and they couldn’t read your email newsletter even if they could figure out how to sign up for it. But here’s my thump upside the head for you if you find yourself thinking that way (and we all do, from time to time): Do you want their money? Give that a little thought.

You can also give your customers a direct feedback channel. It could be as simple as an email address, or a sophisticated online feedback system. Website visitors might have requests you could never anticipate, but they’ll likely be happy to tell you if you ask.

3. Get your whole team involved
No one person, however well-versed in design or technology, is uniquely qualified to spot all the problems a website might have. Everyone on your team views the site from his or her own angle, and as such may have valuable insights into how the site can better serve your customers. Everyone on your team can and should contribute to making improvements. The first thing to do is to invite their input, let them know you value their contribution, and give them an avenue by which they can share with you any issues they discover.

Let’s say your company has a warehouse manager. That person may get calls regularly from trucking company dispatchers who can’t find your warehouse because the street is so new it isn’t shown in online maps yet. Or the manager may see frustrated customers who went to the showroom to pick up their order instead of the shipping dock. Your warehouse manager is in a great position to help you solve these real-life manifestations of website inadequacies. Be sure these types of people have an avenue to share what they know. And when they do, respond with gratitude and action (or at least with an explanation of why you cannot or should not do what they suggested). You never want your people thinking (or saying to customers), “Yeah, everyone has that same problem. I told somebody about that last year, but they never fixed it.”

4. Review the content
Content encompasses all the information on your site. It may be copy, photos, diagrams, audio, or just about anything else. Content (or the lack of content) often causes major problems for your site visitors, and it is the easiest, fastest, cheapest element to fix — yet it is often taken for granted and overlooked.

Ask yourself: Does the site give the correct impression of what your business is all about? Is it immediately obvious what the site does? Is it a store? Can visitors find your service manuals? Check the status of their en-route shipments? Do the images support the message you want to convey? Is the copy easy to read and understand? Is the content what your site visitors want, need, and expect? Does the copy address their concerns?

This is where understanding your audience comes into play, and it’s another case where your own observations won’t be the most reliable. If you can, get actual members of your target audience to use your site, while you watch. This is always fascinating, and often disheartening, as they ignore what you thought was such a clever feature, and instead use something else in a way you never envisioned. The insights from just an hour or two of this kind of exercise can give you an abundance of fodder for improving your site. If you cannot get any real representative audience members, a “next best” approach is to have someone (again, possibly a new employee or temp) role play on behalf of that audience. It’s not ideal, but it’s a good deal better than doing nothing.

A simple, organized, well-thought-out site will serve your customers well. Aesthetics are a critical aspect of communicating your message and engaging your customers, but even great design cannot overcome an underlying lack of information, frustrating features, or a site that gives the wrong impression (or no impression) of what your business is all about.

Be sure to focus on the really basic information, too, as this is often what your customers need when they visit your site. For instance, local small businesses, such as restaurants or boutiques, often neglect to mention where they are. They give their street address, but not the city and state. They give their phone number, but leave off the area code. They assume people visiting their sites already know.

People are emotional creatures. It’s easy to think everyone is purely rational and logical when making business decisions, but it isn’t necessarily so. Insult or patronize your customers at your peril. If they feel frustrated, conned, or ignored, they may give up on your site and buy from your competition. Be sure everything about your site shows that you like each person who visits, and that you want them there and value their time.

5. Address credibility issues
The perception of your company’s (and your site’s) credibility is crucial. People want to trust you, feel safe on your site, and feel good about doing business with you. You can help them in several ways.

Assure your visitors that their personal information is secure and will be kept private. Don’t expect people to notice the “https://” in the page URL. Point out security features clearly anywhere that concern might arise. Include the logo badges of any site security services you use. Similarly, have a plain-language privacy policy that explains how any data will be stored and used. Link to it not just in the footer, but everywhere you ask site visitors to share information with you.

Include photos of your facilities and of actual staff members to help site visitors make a connection and experience your business as a real place with real people who care. Consider the difference between a faceless online store selling cute garden sculptures, and the same store with photos of the artists at work, the smiling shipping team, and a wide shot of the showcase garden at the main store. Of course, always provide contact information, including a phone number and a street address.

Be sure everything on your site reflects your stated commitments to quality, integrity, and attention to detail. That is, your online presence needs to “walk the talk.” Typos, broken links, and poor-quality images reveal carelessness and introduce doubts about doing business with you. Using copy lifted from another site or a photographer’s watermarked proof photo shows a much deeper problem.

6. Test everything, often
The simplest way to find problems is to go out and hunt them down. Pick a page, or pick a feature, and go over it in detail. Is it clear where all the links go? Click them. Do they work? Look for things that could be frustrating or confusing. Does everything on the page load quickly? Are instructions or descriptions clear? Can you get to the contact information? When you search for a product, are results relevant? Some of the worst problems are easy to find, but many companies never go looking for them.

But here’s where this one gets a little tricky. You, of all people, are the least qualified to notice these problems, even when you are looking right at them. You already know how the site navigation works. The terminology used is second nature to you. You already understand all your product descriptions. You search for things by their correct names. You already know to enter your phone number in the only “correct” format that the form accepts. Sure, you might catch a broken link, but for the most part, you aren’t the one who should be doing this testing.

Professionally conducted usability testing is obviously very valuable, and should be done from time to time. But you can still get good input from a variety of people. Ask every new employee to let you know if they notice anything with their fresh eyes. Each time you have temps in the office, give them this task if they have periods of downtime in their day. Each person will have a somewhat different approach, and you are bound to get valuable feedback from all of them.

When it comes to testing, don’t consider it done after just one pass. Test your conversion paths frequently. Things can get broken when your site is updated or as external services change. It’s very easy to happily assume that everything still works, when you could actually be losing customers and sales. Can customers (on a variety of computers, with a variety of browsers) go completely through all of your conversion paths? Can they download the free trial? Do all of your payment methods work? Test the entire process for each of these. Be your own secret shopper, and place an order. Do you get a confirmation email? A shipment notification? Is the information you would need present in those messages? Do all the links in them work?

Also test all of your communication pathways. Sign up for your own newsletter, and be sure that you get it. Submit a contact request, and see if anyone responds. Try your “chat now for help” feature. Is the representative able to answer your reasonable questions? You put a lot of time and money into implementing these features. Be sure they are serving you well.

Continually improving your site does not have to be an overwhelming all-or-nothing project. Every small problem you fix is one less problem your customers will encounter when they do business with you. Don’t wait for the perfect time to get started. Begin now, even if it’s only a few small steps.

Linda Eskin is a senior user experience analyst at Red Door Interactive.

On Twitter? Follow Eskin at @lindaeskin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.