OK, so they email you, you process their order, they sign up to a newsletter, maybe answer a survey. But do you know them? Do you know anything “personal” about any of the customers who shop in your e-commerce store? Could you send a personalised email or tweet to them? (Not just an automated happy birthday greeting on the appropriate date).

In the bricks and mortar store, new visitors are treated to a smile, a courteous, “Can I help you?”, an offer of assistance. Returning customers may be treated to a conversation based on their previous visits, questions about products they have purchased, and for loyal shoppers, a good shopkeeper will remember details of previous such conversations and even ask about their poorly dog, or how the children’s Nativity Play went.

Why should online retailing be any different from offline? Why do we treat it differently? Perhaps because we don’t often meet the customer in person? You might not have a bricks and mortar store but your customers still want you to care about them. Or they will shop elsewhere.

The online shopping experience is becoming increasingly important, and there are too many alternatives for any company to remain blasé about how customers are made to feel whilst on your e-commerce website.

Can you ever treat online customers similarly to the way you would treat a customer standing in front of you? The answer has to be “Yes”.

Is there any reason why an online customer should be ignored, forgotten, or left to struggle alone though your e-commerce shopping basket? If they were in a real shop, would you not be there to help them choose the right product? Is your website currently not working? Just because you know you are right in the middle of a rebuild, does that mean your potential customer will? How can you help them? How can you earn their respect? How can you begin to know them?

It is very simple to find out about your customers, whether this is the first time they have visited, or whether they are a loyal return visitor.

There are multiple options to do so, and you should consider some of the following:

a) Live visitor website tracking – this allows you to see who is on your website right now, including details of which pages they visit, how they arrived on site, location etc. Combine this with

b) Live Chat so you can talk to the visitor whilst they are on your website, for instance, offering help to find the right product or service.

c)    Run a survey, either through a pop-up on your website or by email or in your newsletter

d)    Google the visitors for whom you have details such as names, addresses, emails etc. Take a little time to get to know your visitors, just as you would in a shop

Here are 5 tips for being a great e-commerce retailer:

1)    Know me, the customer. Go the extra mile. Ask for my website address on registration and explain why you want it. Take two minutes out of your life to cut and paste all the email and website addresses of your new customers into a search engine. What little tidbit can you learn about your customers so you can be friendly and personable?

2)    Wet paint? You would tell your customers in a shop. Do the same if your website is under development or if there are known problems with your e-commerce. Flag it up, set up an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), warn them and be there to help if there is a problem.

3)    Be friendly. Yes, it has been a long day. But this is the world of 24/7/365. Be nice, be courteous, be respectful, be helpful. These are your paying customers…

4)    Test, test and test again. Don’t assume that you have found every way to break something; customers will always find a new way! If a customer complains, work through it with them. Reply to their distraught email, sympathise, help. A simple response could buy you a loyal customer for years….Ignoring it could see you blacklisted globally on a review site.

5)    The customer is always right.

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology