Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Incomplete Experience Paths - A Marketing Nightmare

I just took the time after several months to fix an update issue I was having with some software drivers on my computer running Vista. Here was the scenario:

The HP Update program that was supposed to provide software updates wasn't working. Every time I would try to download an update, it would download but fail to install and would end with the following message: "HP Install Canceled" and a red "X" next to each update I had been prompted to install.

Finally, a few months ago, a new update appeared with the name: "Urgent! HP Install Canceled Issue Fix." It sounded like it was just what I needed to get the other updates to install. The problem was that the bug that the software solution promised to remedy was blocking the installation. Cruel irony.

Well, I was prompted today to download and install this update again and went through the trouble of researching a solution. The solution was simple enough: I had to run the HP Update software as the computer's administrator. No biggie, but what a broken customer experience! Here are a few of the most offensive experience gaps I have seen over the years. Most of these could be prevented easily with a little more review and preparation. But mistakes do happen.

  • Incomplete messages being sent to customers. One of the most effective messages we ever sent at MyFamily.com to millions of users was an incomplete message that said "Today is April 18." Many people clicked to see what was special about April 18. Some expected it was part of a stealthy promotion we were running, but it was just some incomplete code that was rolled live. In the end, we looked rather foolish when we explained to customers what had happened.

  • Missing calls to action or response links. Every communication with a customer should invite them to take action. Newsletters are the worst offenders in this area. Newsletters are to inform, but they should also invite customers to do something. One of the most important steps to take when writing any newsletter is to segment your customers from your prospective customers to give each group a different call to action. A subscription service, for example, should always include invitations to non-members to join their service in each newsletter and then customize the newsletter for current subscribers with messages about how service improvements have increased the value of their membership. This is a simple concept that is easily done and often overlooked.

  • Missing links. Here is the most obvious lesson of all. If you want someone to get to something on your website, you should promote it . . . or at least link to it. Early in my days at Ancestry.com, I implemented a redesign of the homepage with input from several stakeholders. I reviewed the design with Paul Allen, and he wanted to reduce the clutter on the page further by removing more links. One of the links that was cut was the link to the "Learning Center." A few weeks later, Paul came to me wondering why our traffic to the learning center was down so dramatically, why nobody was visiting it anymore. I explained simply that more people are likely to click on a link that exists than one that doesn't exist.

  • Including a incorrect link or phone number. Always visit every link and call every phone number you include in any promotion piece. Don't just visually look at the link and type it into a browser. Copy and paste the link to make sure you are using EXACTLY what is included in the promotional piece. This is especially critical if it is going out in print. A wrong phone number is worse than not including one at all. Get someone else to call the number as well to make sure the number is correct and that the complete customer path and experience is in place BEFORE printing or sending out a promotion. I was once ultimately responsible (although the initial error was not my own) for a religious-oriented direct mail piece that included a phone number for a phone hot line that wasn't exactly "religious." We negotiated to have the number redirected to us for the duration of the campaign, but not before a few customers had already called the wrong "service."

  • Customer service being left out of the loop. This includes your online FAQ or help links. Customer service needs to know about changes to your product or service that might impact customers. You can embarrass your entire organization by not letting the customer service department know about current bugs, challenges, or anything else that customers may contact them about. You should never find yourself in a meeting addressing customer issues and experience the following scenario: Someone from support explains an issue they are starting to hear about from customers and someone else says, "Ya, we've been working on that. It's a known problem." That statement is evidence that communication was missing and that information is flowing in the wrong direction. Transparency is the right solution.

  • Dead end experiences. How many promotions have you run on your web site? What do you do when one promotion ends and another begins? What about price promotions that may be sitting in someone's email inbox for next three months? What experience will they have when they finally get around to opening it and clicking on a link? This point could use three or four examples, but consider the following principles when designing pages or experiences:
    1. People can likely get to a page on your site through multiple paths, including directly from a search engine. Unless the page is a targeted landing page, you probably want to include full navigation.
    2. Links can live forever. Never just take down a page or promotion. Either replace it with something more recent or use a friendly redirect to tell your customers (and search engines) where they should now be looking.
    3. Clearly let customers what to do next in any sequence, such as a sign up path. Don't accidentally hide the link you want them to click by turning it into an inconspicuous text link with a beautiful style that doesn't make it look like something they should click.
    4. If someone starts down a path (such as conducting a search) make sure they can get back to start again without using the browser's back button.
At the end of the day, an incomplete experience path can actually do more damage than frustrating your customers and potentially lower your revenue. Incomplete paths are likely to damage your brand in the eyes of your customers, turn customers into enemies, and leave you looking like an idiot. Been there, done that.

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