Frankly Speaking: Customers rule

Customers drive e-business. Let me say that again: customers drive e-business.

Not sellers - buyers. Not us - them. Yes, we're the ones doing all the work, building Web stores and wiring them to our back-end systems. But customers are the ones who control where they'll buy, how they'll buy and what they'll do on our Web sites.

Which explains why two thirds of online shoppers abandon their shopping carts before checking out. And why, even as the number of people going online is increasing, the percentage actually shopping is dropping.

Customers browse. They window-shop. They change their minds. They find a better price. They get interrupted. And a lot of them just aren't ready to buy online.

This is important to understand because IT people and Web designers are getting beaten up a lot these days over those statistics. Sometimes we're the ones beating ourselves up.

We (or our bosses) assume all those dumped shopping carts are due to lousy Web site design or flaky servers. We assume that a better this or a newer that - more glitz or features or performance or something - will turn more of those Web surfers into shoppers and more shoppers into buyers.

We assume wrong. Certainly we can - we must - fix problems and make sure our sites are designed cleanly and work well. That's a real challenge, and one for which we can take full responsibility. But customers control the game. In consumer Web stores, in business-to-business exchanges, in every kind of e-commerce.

Think back 10 years or so, when big retailers told their suppliers that, if they wanted to remain suppliers, they had to install electronic data interchange (EDI) systems and start sending their invoices electronically.

Buyers called the shots on EDI. They dragged thousands of their suppliers into e-commerce - unwillingly, in most cases. Those suppliers could never have forced the big retailers into that kind of big, expensive technology change.

But the customers run the game, so they get to decide.

Or look at the Big Three automakers in the US and Covisint, the online exchange they want to build for buying parts. They've got organisational challenges.

They've got antitrust issues. What they haven't got is any doubt they can force suppliers into line. They're the buyers, so they can dictate what technology the sellers have to use.

Think consumers are any different? They make the decisions about e-commerce, too. They decide if they want to buy online. Or window-shop online and buy in a bricks-and-mortar store. Or start shopping carts in a half-dozen Web stores at once to comparison shop, eventually dumping all but the one from which they finally buy. Or ignore Web shopping entirely. They also decide whether their modem is cable or 28.8, and whether they'll install Shockwave or activate JavaScript or swallow cookies. They decide whether they want customer service over the Web or by e-mail or on the phone or face-to-face.

Customers rule this game. They always have, and they always will.

So stop worrying about abandoned shopping carts. Instead, spend your time sifting through server logs looking for evidence of your customers' technology decisions and shopping styles. Unlike Ford Motor, they won't tell you outright.

But the hints are there - in where they go, what they avoid and which functions they use or don't use.

If you can make sense of the clues, you can fine-tune your Web store - not just for glitz or performance, but for what your customers demand.

That way, when they do decide to buy online, you'll be ready.

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