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October 28, 2008

#1 Salesman

I read in a forum once about the #1 Salesman and it has stuck with me to this day. The information age and the internet have created new marketplaces and communication mediums. For many businesses, their online presence is their #1 Salesman. More people with find the information they need on the website than any salesman will ever talk to. Many customers will make purchases directly from the website or based on that information they found. Email and web contact forms are the primary means for the customer to contact the salesman and get the details or specific information they need that the website may not provide. These two tools, websites and email, form the basis for the #1 Salesman. What I and many consumers can't understand is why with the astronomical potential of the #1 Salesman that company's websites and email are so abysmal.

The website needs to have information available about the products that are currently on the shelves for sale. It has to be as knowledgeable as a salesman, but go beyond that to empower the customer to experience the product and learn all about it, without being able to touch or smell or hold the product. It has to hook the customer, yet provide enough information and detail to make the sale. But most importantly, the website needs to be the salesman. It can't just be a splash page with a teaser that encourages people to go talk to another salesman. By then, the customer has lost interest, it needs to seize on the instant gratification factor. The big things a website should have: A complete list of products currently available and easy ways to discover or search for them. Prices for all the products, real prices, not MSRP, but what it really sells for, including whatever additional fees may be applicable. Pictures, lots and lots of pictures and even more pictures. These have to be high quality and should cover the product from every angle, in every color, option or version, in explicit detail. Detailed product information and specifications. The more information it can provide, the easier it is to answer any questions up front. Methods to buy the product. This is absolutely crucial, the website has to make it as easy as possible to buy the product. The ideal is direct online purchase, this might not be suitable for all products. Beyond that, and hopefully in addition, it needs to give detailed local lists of actual stores or dealers to find it at, including complete contact information and direct links to that local stores websites, including links directly to the product on the stores website if possible. Anything that makes it easier to find a place to buy the product should be done. The website might have made the sale, but if it then only gives the customer the phone number for the national distributor, that sale is probably lost. Lastly, the website needs to provide methods for feedback and questions from the customer. I emphasize that there should be more than one method. Railroading people into a limited function web form really doesn't do anyone any good. Certainly a form can be directed to capture necessary information, but it should be carefully studied to make sure it is easy to ask common questions, while not preventing free form discussion. Email, phone numbers and addresses should also be provided.

Much like a salesman that doesn't return a phone call turns off a customer, a company that doesn't answer email does the same. I'd estimate I receive actual responses (non-automated) to about 50% of my email directed at corporations. However, perhaps only 50% of those (25% overall) actually contain a response to my question or query. The rest are basically never returned. Many corporations will send a "we got your message" that often contains incorrect information for me or the corporation and improperly formatted templates. These messages serve no other purpose than to drive me away. As an example, I recently emailed 2 car dealers in the city to ask if they had a specific car available for test drive. The first one responded immediately with all the information I required. The second one took weeks to send me a message that my email would be forwarded to a salesman for reply. Nothing more was ever heard. (Incidentally, I followed up with the first dealer and I'm still considering a purchase there.)

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