Your Customers Are Talking About You

Your customers are talking about you. Are you part of the conversation? It’s getting louder and louder after recent moves by Google and Microsoft to feature merchant ratings and reviews.

[Apologies to readers who received an early draft of this post, it was a publishing error.]

We might take it for granted today that we can read and submit reviews of products on-line, but in the mid-1990s it was a shopping revolution when Amazon, against all advice, started allowing actual customers (shock!) to submit book reviews on-line, a domain hitherto reserved for professional book reviewers and writers. That opening up of the product to comment by anyone and everyone quickly spread to music CDs and other products, and this on-line customer participation subsequently became a cornerstone of what’s sometimes referred to as ‘Web 2.0′.

There has for a long time been a great deal of discussion of good and bad experiences with products and merchants in various on-line forums, and the power of on-line search is that customers can research products and vendors on-line and are influenced by what’s said.

With the advent of on-line marketplaces, the idea of formalised customer reviews not of products but of the vendors themselves took hold as a kind of self-policing mechanism; the idea being that customers would steer clear of vendors with poor reviews. We see this in New Zealand in a simplified form with TradeMe seller ratings.

In recent years the vendor review concept has gone a step further as on-line payment checkout services such as PayPal, Google Checkout and Checkout By Amazon have become more widely used. Each of these payment vendors seek customer feedback on the customers’ experience with the merchant. Google Checkout, for example, asks each customer to rate the transaction and publishes a merchant star rating which is available to customers the next time they purchase from a Google Checkout merchant. This has unquestionably motivated on-line merchants to maintain a focus on customer service, in pursuit of the sought-after perfect 5-star rating.

For a business selling on-line, being exposed to ratings by customers might seem dangerous. After all, anyone can write anything they like about you, can’t they? Why participate in a merchant rating programme with such risks to sales and brand?

The reality is that customers are talking about vendors and products regardless of whether they participate, and the debate has all but ended; Amazon.com pioneered this area and, far from inhibiting sales, it proved a spectacular success. Today a webstore that doesn’t allow public customer and vendor reviews won’t be considered world-class and the products might actually be treated with some suspicion by customers. Certainly they’re likely to go elsewhere on the web to research products and to find out what other customers are saying.

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From the beginning World Wide Access webstores in the United States and United Kingdom have been open to comment by customers. The example above shows the most recent remarks submitted by Babysleepbags.co.uk customers. These are visible to customers at the time they make payment through Google Checkout. In the United States we also employ Checkout By Amazon, and World Wide Access has a track record of excellent customer service evidenced by a history of positive reviews submitted by customers and published independently by Amazon.

We believe that on-line customers do research products, and that they trust sources other than the merchant when making their buying decisions.

World Wide Access actively solicits feedback from customers about how we’re doing and what they think of the products. This is most often done with follow-up emails to customers after they’ve received their deliveries, and we encourage customers to post their remarks on-line without our intervention. It’s part of engaging with customers and participating in the conversations they’re having about us.

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Having said all this, many companies have been successfully selling their wares on-line without knowing or caring or encouraging customers to say what they think. But that might be about to change. With changes introduced in recent weeks, customer ratings of on-line merchants are suddenly going to become a lot more prominent. Google announced that Adwords paid search advertisements are being supplemented with merchant ratings. An example is shown above, and you can see that the rating of the merchant is almost as prominent as the advertisement text itself.

According to the Google ‘Inside Adwords’ blog:

Starting today we’re introducing a new feature, called seller rating extensions, that makes it easier for people to identify highly-rated merchants when they’re searching on Google.com. Seller rating extensions does this by attaching your merchant star rating from Google Product Search to your AdWords ads. These star ratings, aggregated from review sites all around the web, allow people to find merchants that are highly recommended by online shoppers like them.

It’s not just Google Adwords that will be affected. Microsoft quickly followed suit, announcing that it, too, will be showing merchant reviews with its Bing search results.

The impact to on-line advertising and selling could be profound. Previously merchant reviews were nowhere near as prominent, highlighted on particular review websites or limited to within each payment processor’s checkout process. Now they’ll be displayed right at the beginning of the sales process, alongside the advertisement. E-commerce commentators are suggesting that paid-search campaigns could be severely affected for retailers with poor ratings and reviews, or ratings that slip over time. Never has on-line customer service and the on-line buying experience been so important.

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