clown game at the carnival
PHOTO: S O C I A L . C U T

There was a time when if you went downtown shopping there would be a store with a clown on the sidewalk in front, waving a sign advertising a special product or price. You, and lots of other folks, were likely to visit or at least notice that store.

But suppose every store on Main Street had a clown in front? It's unlikely any of them would get your or other prospective buyers’ attention.

The same thing is happening in today’s ecommerce world. Technology, for all it has given us, is making it possible to place a virtual clown in front of every business.

The More Technology, the Better?

For decades, technology was both expensive and comparatively crude so only a few businesses, and no consumers, could afford it. Yet technology and high-speed communications have evolved to reach almost a commodity status, enabling most businesses and virtually every consumer to afford and, driven by the fear of being left behind, adopt it.

As technological evolution has gained speed, however, businesses fell into the trap of layering on feature after feature (virtual clown after virtual clown) at the expense of their regular, and prospective, shoppers. The goal appeared to be “the more technology, the better.”  Sites cluttered with moving pictures, multiple levels of options, no simple means of retracing your steps and no way to speak to a live customer service person for help increasingly thwarted shoppers from accomplishing what brought them to the site in the first place.

One end result, already in view, is technology fatigue, as users become frustrated and often angry at the level and complexity of the sites they must navigate to shop and complete transactions: “I don’t want to PRESS ONE FOR FAQ, I want help!” Angry users don’t make good, or repeat, customers.

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Looking for a Human Connection in a Technology-Centric World

Businesses, if they are to survive and prosper, must understand and master both the benefits and side-effects of our technology-driven world, and apply that understanding to the much broader range of shoppers and customers who populate the growing online world, in some cases spurred by recent stay-at home orders. Even older people with no background or interest in technology are turning to online marketplaces, exposing vendors to an even broader range of needs.

The answer, and it drives techno-lovers crazy, may actually be an aggressive effort to hide the technology that underlies the customer experience. As counterintuitive as this may sound, human behavior changes slowly, and we are after all, social animals.

Even Aristotle understood that we need social contact and react best when we're part of a relationship, one on one or in a group. This is arguably as relevant to online customer experience as anywhere else. Some businesses are at least beginning to understand the problem, hence the growing use of “chat” in customer service, in a few cases, even displaying the name and a picture of the employee, and the rise of a new Live Chat Customer Service industry offering human help to customers on a contract basis.

But no matter how you cut it, live customer service is expensive, so we are unlikely to see a return to the good old “person to person” days again.   

Instead, vendors must field technology that simplifies the customer’s interaction with the vendor’s ecommerce sites, makes completion of transactions easier and quicker, and as a result, makes it less necessary for users to need help beyond the site. Amazon is one example: although likely successful no matter how automated it is, it still takes great care to create a simple, easy to use web presence that minimize users’ need to call on customer service.

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The Key to Success: Know thy Customer

While customers and prospects may be mere clicks to the technologist, they are real people with real needs, preferences and limitations, and they will punish vendors who forget it. Indeed, selection and deployment of customer-facing technology, as consultant Jeff Toister foresaw several years ago, should be the last step in a chain designed to understand what prospective customers want and need to become customers, and what customers demand to return.

This isn’t simple, and it can’t be done well without considerable effort and time, but the effort is worth the cost and time for businesses that want to prosper in today’s growing online world.

Do it well and you may survive this brave new automated world we live in. Fail at it and you may become just more collateral damage.