By Kim Komando
Many retailers limp through the year, holding on for holiday sales. A failure of their e-commerce Web site in this crucial period could seriously damage — or even kill — a business.
I’ve learned some pretty hard lessons myself about e-store problems. Most apply to the entire year. But the stress of monster holiday sales makes them more likely to pop up. Hopefully, you can learn from me. There’s no point in both of us making the same mistakes, right?
That said, let’s start with credit-card processing.
Mistake No. 1: Not knowing your limits.
This is funny now, but it wasn’t at the time. One weekend, we got more business than we ever anticipated. My limit on the volume of credit-card transactions that could be processed was too low, and all customers’ cards thereafter were refused. This was all computerized, so my staff and I did not immediately realize there was a problem.
Of course, this happened on a Saturday, precisely at midnight. At that very moment, customers trying to check out of our electronic mall received this message: “We’re sorry. We cannot process your card at this time.” Nothing irritates me more than vague computer error messages. Clearly, this one could have been better. It suggested the customers’ cards were invalid or out of credit.
I discovered the problem Monday morning, when I found many irate customers’ e-mails. The gist of their messages was, “What do you mean, you can’t process my Visa?!! This card is good!!” Some of the messages were quite, uh, emphatic.
I had the limit removed right away. We tried contacting the lost customers, but most of those weekend sales were gone.
The first lesson is clear: Be sure your system is prepared for a flood of business. Also, don’t be too dependent on automation. Computers are wonderful, but if you have a problem, you want to know early. So, double check often, and every once in awhile, place an order yourself.
Mistake No. 2: Not watching the home front.
The holiday season stresses you, your staff and your credit-card and fulfillment contractors. If you do a big slug of business over the Internet, it stresses your computer systems and network, too.
Don’t assume everything is OK, just because you haven’t had any recent problems. Computer problems are guaranteed to appear at inopportune times. That goes for both hardware and software. Be sure you have people available who can fix things quickly. If you have to, put them under contract.
To monitor our servers, I use the Watchdog service from Master.com. It will send an e-mail message to a pager or cell phone if a server goes down. Watchdog checks the server every 15 minutes. Best of all, it is free.
Other monitoring services offer more, for a fee. For instance, NetMechanic.com, for about $20 per month, monitors servers from different locations. That ensures that apparent server failures are not caused by the monitoring computer, or network problems.
NetMechanic also computes a grade for your server. It downloads a 10-kilobyte file every 15 minutes throughout the day and computes an average download time. That time is then compared with other servers. Your grade is based on how well your server does compared to the others. A poor grade, or a declining grade, might indicate that your server is overloaded.
Numerous other monitoring services are available at reasonable prices, including WebWatchR.com and AlertSite.com.
NetMechanic includes Load Time Check in its HTML Toolbox. It checks the download time for pages. It spots problems with graphics and other objects that can delay load times.
Also, for an additional fee, HTML Toolbox checks your code for problems that can delay loading by browsers. If it finds problems, it generates a corrected page that you can upload. And it will check the site for browser compatibility. Not all pages will work in all browsers. You could be losing money if a segment of your customers cannot see everything on your site.
Mistake No. 3: Not keeping tabs on your site.
This should go without saying, but I’ll belabor it anyway. If your site doesn’t work properly, your customers could conclude that you’re incompetent. A poorly operating site will drive people away.
If you have a site reporting program such as WebTrends.com, and it indicates people are wandering around aimlessly, it may be because the site is poorly designed. Some design glitches are easy to fix. You might do those on the fly during the season. More serious problems would require some site surgery. That will have to wait, obviously.
Site reporting programs can tell you a lot about how your site is working internally. Microsoft’s FastCounter Pro provides summaries of site traffic. It also shows traffic patterns, which can give you a good idea of what most interests your customers. And it will tell you where your traffic is originating. FastCounter Pro costs $19.95 per month, and offers a free 30-day trial.
WebTrends also offers many features. But it is several hundred dollars.
If you haven’t already, check your site for dead links. Things on sites get moved around incrementally, and it’s easy to forget a link that no longer works. Frustrated customers may just go to a competitor.
On my site, I use a search program from Master.com to check the links. The program is free. Numerous other programs will also do the job, but you’ll have to pay for them. Keep in mind that a link checker will only tell you that the links work. If the link goes to the wrong place, they won’t catch that.
Make sure everything else is current, too. Descriptions of products and “Terms and Conditions” can get out of date. And check that all of the people mentioned on the site still work there. You don’t want people sending e-mails to Joe in customer service if Joe is long gone.
Any changes you make during the season should emphasize functionality. That isn’t to say that decorations should be ignored; a festive look will encourage shoppers.
But remember this: Those same decorations could make the site slow to download. Jingle Bells may seem like a good idea, but the file could be quite large. When people open a page, they are downloading all the files that make up that page. Large files could significantly slow the download, frustrating the customer.