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Building Consumer Confidence

By Bob McElwain
Posted Saturday, July 5, 2003

Consumer confidence is far more difficult to build and sustain online than it is offline. No matter how sharp your website is, it can not enhance visitor confidence in the way even a modest shop can. Even one located on a back street in your home town.

Offline, a potential customer sees a building. It doesn't matter whether it is rented, leased, or owned by the shopkeeper. It's real. And it is likely to be there tomorrow, which matters should a problem arise.

Sure, a fellow can take your money offline for a truckload of furniture, then declare bankruptcy, and shut down. But a website can be closed in minutes. It happens. And surfers know it.

Confidence is also given a boost offline when a potential customer walks into the shop and looks about. The owner may be in hock for the inventory, but it is real. It's tangible. One can touch it. And examine it in detail.

And online business takes another hit compared to one offline. In a shop, you can see who peeks in, then leaves. Not so on your website. And you can approach a customer in your shop and ask if you can help, a great move when they can't seem to find what they want. And you can watch as they exit. Contented? Unhappy? Somewhere in between? No telling on the web. Feedback of any kind from a website is tough to get. And you are always left to wonder if what little you do receive is representative of all visitors.

Starting a business online has one enormous advantage to starting one offline. The start-up capital required is minimal, small change compared to starting up offline.

Online however, you will forever struggle to build and sustain a level of consumer confidence automatically available to the owner of even a modest shop.

How Do You Build Trust On Line?

Begin with a professional site. Anything less is almost a demand for a click on the Back button. Be sure the purpose of your site and what you offer is clear immediately to every visitor. Then lead those who linger directly to what they want. And be sure you provide all information required to make a decision.

A gracious smile and a hearty hand shake available offline can only be vaguely approximated on your site. Make visitors feel welcome. Demonstrate their importance to you. That you care about each and every one. And that you will go out of your way to help in any way you can.

Demonstrate Expertise

A shop that sells and services chain saws needs to say little about the expertise of the owner. He or she is in business, so the skills required to maintain a chain saw must be at least sufficient.

Online, there is no equivalent to the work bench in a shop. Providing repair service does not work online because of the shipping involved. But chain saws can be sold effectively on a site featuring power tools. Expertise can be demonstrated with great content, some of which defines the distinct advantages of one saw over another.

Great Support Helps

Providing excellent support goes a long way toward erasing the lack of a physical present. Consumers are perfectly content with mail order. Sears was enormously successful for many, many years. Today it's tough to beat L. L. Bean. While most know they are paying more, they also know the quality will be good, that difficulties will be quickly resolved, else refunds are forthcoming.

Consumer confidence can be built online. It just isn't easy. While the ideas above are part of it, here are four items often overlooked. And each is a serious trust-builder.

- Provide a comprehensive privacy statement. Be as protective of your visitors as possible. More and more surfers have come to demand this.

- Provide complete contact information, including a physical address, at the bottom of each page. An About button simply does not provide the impact of the information itself.

- Provide a 24-hour 800 number for support. Let it ring through into your bedroom if you are just getting started. But do provide one.

- A no-questions-asked guarantee. 30 days is minimal; consider stretching it to a year.

Oddly enough, you will find few people contact you. They are satisfied if they know they can. And if you over-deliver great product, the chance of a request for a refund is slim to none.

Making It Happen

While it is difficult to build and sustain customer confidence in your online business, it must happen. The key ingredients are a great site, great products that bring repeat business, and great support. Given this mix, it's hard to go wrong.