Strategies for Retaining Your Online Customers

What every online business owner should know…

It takes a great deal of effort to attract customers to your website. Effective search engine optimization can achieve a superior position in ranking results, while skilled advertising promotes your brand to new audiences. Everything from business cards to company vehicles should display a company’s website address while summarizing its purpose, and modern site design should be geared around simplifying a customer’s journey to the checkout. With global ecommerce sales predicted to be worth $4 trillion by the end of the decade, lucrative rewards are on offer to successful e-retailers.
Sadly, it’s easy to lose customers once you’ve attracted them to your website. From confusing site navigation and complex ecommerce platforms to data siloes and poor service, numerous issues can affect customer retention. From a new client’s perspective, the first transaction represents a make-or-break litmus test. Are they satisfied with their experience, and would they be willing to purchase from you again?
Retaining existing customers while attracting  new ones is the most efficient way to achieve long-term corporate growth. Indeed, it can make the difference between a business thriving or failing. Kissmetrics have reported 40 per cent of visitors won’t come back to an online platform after a negative experience. That negativity might stem from something as trivial as having to enter form data twice, or ‘hidden’ taxes at the checkout.

In this special feature, we consider some of the key strategies for retaining online customers:

  1. How can your existing website influence customer retention strategies?
  2. How to build confidence in your brand by optimizing purchases
  3. Techniques and tricks used to increase customer retention: from personalized marketing literature to one-click reorders

1 Brand and website optimization

Brand and website optimization
Two thirds of online shopping carts are abandoned before purchase completion. Ecommerce platforms feel more distant than a real-world store, with products only visible in two dimensions on a screen and no advisors on-hand to offer reassurance or drive sales. Persuading people to trust an unknown internet retailer with their financial details is understandably difficult – yet encouraging them to look elsewhere is surprisingly easy…
Speed and reliability
Sluggish page loading times sound the death-knell for customer retention strategies. Kissmetrics claim 47 per cent of site traffic will depart if content doesn’t display within three seconds. Fortunately, this issue can be averted by appointing a site hosting partner like Midphase. Our 99.9 per cent service level agreements and industry-leading infrastructure ensure we can pipe your site’s content to users on any continent. We also recommend investigating data-saving techniques like compressing photos and graphics, streamlining HTML code and enabling caching.
Security is second only to accessibility on a typical customer’s priorities list. The end-to-end encryption offered by SSL certificates is vital for building trust, while 2FA for credit/debit card transactions will persuade consumers to hand over card details with confidence. Again, Midphase can help with the technical aspects of developing a secure site, providing key functionalities like SSL certificates for secure browsing.
A focused message
Nielsen Norman Group claim the average visitor stays on a website for just 59 seconds. That doesn’t leave much time to grab their attention, or explain whether your site can meet and exceed their expectations. The homepage or canonical URL (the page designated in search results as a preferred landing page for visitors) has to be instantly compelling. Avoid complex backgrounds or processor-hungry graphics/videos, in favor of clear sales messages. Every subpage and paragraph of text should focus the audience’s attention on buying.
Today’s online marketplace is mature and increasingly congested. It’s not enough merely to sell products already available through other dropshipping platforms. Your brand needs to provide at least one of the following attributes, and to an extent rival sites don’t or can’t match:

  •      Affordability (e.g. minimal margins through dropshipping, low postage rates)
  •      Exclusivity (proprietary products, exclusive trading deals with suppliers)
  •      Quirkiness (witty blogs and news pages, ‘scarcity indicators’ instead of stock levels)
  •      Huge product ranges (complementary items, an extensive choice of sizes/colors)
  •      Exceptional service (same-day delivery, 24/7 customer service).

Without one or more USPs, customer retention strategies will be flawed from the outset. Shared values (or simply value for money) are crucial for building a bond with the public.
Product information
Product pages represent the best chance to persuade customers to make a purchase. There should be multiple images of an item available, such as in a slideshow – for instance, show the back of electrical appliances so customers can see which sockets and connections it supports. Product descriptions need to be appealing and comprehensive, with sizes and prices clearly listed. Going into detail can elevate your site above competitors, which can also increase customer retention in future. Full 360-degree tours can be information goldmines, alongside embedded videos from YouTube, whose ultra-fast servers ensure near-instant file accessibility.
Universal presentation
It’s always annoying when a mobile site doesn’t have the full functionality of a desktop platform, or navigation menus are different on an iPad compared to a MacBook. A responsive site template will automatically reformat to suit the display settings of each device, while retaining the aesthetics and functionality people are used to. In particular, a mobile checkout should never feel inferior to (or less secure than) a desktop ecommerce portal.
Being open and honest is always the best policy for creating a sense of integrity around your brand. Don’t populate your website with exaggerated claims about improbable feats unless you can definitely back them up. It’s far better to provide an accurate representation of what you’ll do and when, rather than promising things you’ll struggle to honor later. If anything, overestimate things like delivery times, so customers are pleased when something arrives ahead of schedule. This requires anticipating periods of peak demand, and possibly adjusting customer expectations accordingly.
2  Streamlining the buying process.
Streamlining your online sales process
Having established that your website isn’t deterring customers through poor design or functionality, customers will begin arriving at the checkout. This is perhaps the most critical aspect of long-term customer retention strategies, since their buying experience will determine whether they remain loyal to your brand. Simplicity and reliability are the rules any web designer or business owner should follow in terms of checkout functionality…
Database management
Few things will deter repeat custom more effectively than an item listed as ‘in stock’ suddenly being unavailable as an order progresses. This is preventable with effective database management, indicating stock levels and availability in real time. A truly effective database will also make curated suggestions for similar products, enhancing the shopping experience. Ecommerce platforms relying on dropshipping should have more than one trading partner in situ to ensure dependability. It’s also recommended to have an automatic stock reordering process set up (or at the very least a notification system) to ensure key product lines are always available.
Checkout efficiency
Whether you’re using a WordPress plugin or a proprietary portal, the checkout process should be seamless. Don’t ask for any non-essential information at this stage – it’s all about getting the transaction completed quickly and efficiently. Pages should be clean and minimalist, with unambiguous headings beside each field. Ensure transactions are confirmed as rapidly as possible, since nobody wants to spend thirty seconds staring at a ‘Do not refresh your page’ message. The inexperienced might want to adopt a ready-made ecommerce solution like Shopify or Etsy.
Unambiguous pricing
Hidden taxes and stealth postage costs are among the leading causes of checkout abandonment. Make it clear from the outset what customers can expect to pay, so there are no nasty surprises at the end of their transaction. Offer clear explanations of additional taxes like import duty on overseas orders – customers won’t mind if you’re charging these at cost price. International postage can be eye-watering, but again, overseas customers will accept these fees if your rates are as low as anyone else’s.
Handing over financial information to an unknown company isn’t something any of us undertake lightly. Consider what you look for when conducting transactions yourself, and incorporate these attributes into your own site. Essential features include a brief privacy policy, SSL certification, an invitation to save card details rather than automatically storing them, and displaying card details in an order confirmation with most of the digits asterisked out. Enable people to edit their baskets right up to the point of order, rather than forcing them to close the web page if they want to add another item (or edit their billing or delivery details).
Payment diversity
Every website accepts credit and debit cards, so what can yours do differently? Consider fringe cards like American Express and Maestro, as well as electronic money transfer services such as PayPal and Switch. If your products are based around technology, you could even accept bitcoin payments, something an increasing number of blue-chip firms do nowadays. WordPress offers numerous financial plugins, while payment providers often help ecommerce sites to accept transactions by providing their own platforms.
A vital way to increase customer retention involves keeping in touch as an order progresses. Unless people have specifically opted out of correspondence, inform them about the following stages of their transaction:

  •      Order confirmation and payment receipt.
  •      Order dispatch, with an estimated delivery date. Only promise a particular date if the customer has paid for a specific delivery slot or method.
  •      Successful delivery, since customers might be out or away. Delivery drivers sometimes leave parcels in odd places, where people might not think to look.

Packaging and delivery
This is one area where firms can elevate themselves above competitors. Those boring brown boxes do nothing to enhance a brand’s exclusivity or prestige. Even small, affordable touches like colored tissue paper and ribbons create a sense of theater. Customers will be delighted with a small freebie, a thank you note or even a modest discount voucher. Choose a reliable delivery partner whose focus on quality dovetails with your own ethos, rather than trying to cut corners by employing a firm who may undo all your good work on the doorstep. Speed usually comes second to quality in a customer’s list of priorities.
Packaging should contain a pre-printed returns label, and it’s great if the packaging itself can also be used to send an item back. Even the best ecommerce platforms will receive occasional returns, so make this process as easy as possible. The best brands offer pre-paid returns postage and clear instructions about how to send items back. Emailing the customer when the returned item has arrived back safely is also a reassuring touch, Refunds should be processed quickly, without requiring additional customer data. Handling this with tact and speed is a key tactic among online traders seeking to increase customer retention. 
Attracting customers back.
Attracting customers back
The steps above should ensure each new customer has a satisfactory buying experience with their first transaction. Now begins the process of persuading them to come back, which will naturally be much easier if they hold positive associations with your brand. Each of the following techniques has been proven to boost sales and reactivate past customers…
Traffic analysis
Audience behavior provides a compelling argument for the success or failure of a website. Knowing that a third of visitors abandon your site on the postage section of the checkout indicates a strong antipathy towards delivery costs, And realizing that 50 per cent of incoming traffic doesn’t progress past the homepage suggests your key USPs are being lost. And if that’s the case for all web traffic, it will certainly apply to repeat customers – assuming the drawbacks being identified by platforms like Google Analytics haven’t already put them off…
Strategic marketing campaigns
This is where knowing your customers can yield rich rewards. If a customer orders something pet-related, they almost certainly have a pet or know friends/relatives who do. It might be worth investing in an algorithm that can suggest related products they could be interested in, and sending them an email or using cookies to display suggested ‘you might like’ items on the homepage next time they visit. Every customer is unique, and nobody wants to feel like they’re being targeted with the same messages as everyone else. Which leads onto…
Personalized correspondence
Try to avoid sending out generic emails, and incorporate a customer’s forename (or title and surname) into each email’s introductory sentences. Not only will this reduce the risk of correspondence being regarded as junk, since every sent message will be slightly different, it also adds a welcome degree of personalization. Imagine receiving two letters from rival retailers, one addressed to you directly and the other addressed to “The Homeowner.” Which brand would you feel more engaged with?
This is also a good opportunity to expand on a previous order by listing complementary or rival items – again, making the customer feel special while encouraging them to spend money in an area they’re likely to want/need to. Don’t forget to remove any obsolete contact details from your databases, since cleansed databases are far more valuable.
Social media activity
Websites should be liberally decorated with social buttons so people can follow your brand or advertise their purchase on their preferred social media platform. Amazon are especially good at this, and it’s surprising how often people feel the need to celebrate buying a new electrical appliance or garment. Once a customer has signed up to one of your social platforms (ideally from a choice of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), you can maintain brand awareness through daily status updates and key messages. Not only is social media marketing free of charge, it’s also predominantly going to reach existing customers.
Registration and account management
To streamline the checkout process, it’s advisable not to force people to register and create an account. This can be a major stumbling block when trying to convert leads. Once they’ve completed a transaction, however, the first thing they see should be a ‘register your details’ page requesting a simple username and password combination. Registration can be incentivized with a discount on their next order, a bonus if they refer someone else, or simply a promise that they’ll know about new products or sales before anyone else.
Either way, harvesting email addresses and contact phone numbers is a crucial step towards retaining someone’s custom. Without these contact details (and permission to use them for marketing purposes), you’re reliant on brand recall and people bookmarking or remembering your site. Use cookies to simplify future visits while displaying a clear message about what these cookies will be used for. Also ensure that forgotten passwords or PIN codes can be easily – but securely – reset.
Easy repeat purchases
If customers have created an account, ensure they can view their past orders with no more than three mouse-clicks from signing in. Enable one-click re-ordering, as well as allowing them to place the contents of a previous order into their basket to change payment or address details. Modern consumers are time-poor, and they’ll be likely to re-order disposable or time-limited products if the mechanics of doing so are smooth. Even if they haven’t registered, it’s possible to add a button into confirmation or dispatch emails inviting them to reorder the same goods with a few clicks of the mouse. These can be saved for a later date.
Superior customer service
The repeat purchase concept above is one of many ways an ecommerce company can elevate its customer service above the norm. However, excellent service goes beyond time-saving tricks. It involves clear communication at every stage of an order, including delivery acknowledgement. It requires a switched-on attitude to social media, responding to enquiries or complaints within hours and turning a negative experience into a positive one that the whole world can see.
Firms that excel at customer service offer no-quibble refunds, swift resolution of issues caused by third parties like delivery firms, and voluntary feedback forms. The vast majority of unhappy customers simply go elsewhere, so ensure any negative feedback is immediately and decisively acted upon.
Testimonials and reviews
The voluntary feedback forms mentioned above are one way to gauge popular opinion. However, there are stronger alternatives. People love being asked their thoughts, and the internet’s democratization of opinions is perhaps best evidenced by the sheer volume of product reviews and brand testimonials.
Send emails to customers a few days after their order has arrived asking for their feedback, and enable them to review products on your website. As well as generating additional traffic, this can be a key driver of new custom. Offer future discounts or gift vouchers in exchange for testimonials, because taking the time to create a positive review will cement that brand in the reviewer’s consciousness. It will also reinforce their confidence in the firm, which will come into its own next time they want to order something…
Reminders and rewards
These days it is not necessary to passively wait for customers to come back. Why not send targeted reminders if the products they’ve ordered are finite or limited, such as a sack of cat litter or a month’s supply of contact lenses? Anticipate when a re-order might be optimal, and send a polite (and brief) email or text reminder a few days in advance inviting them to replenish stocks. At worst, the recipient will ignore it. At best, the nudge will persuade them to re-order, in the same way policy reminders act as a catalyst for account holders to renew. This is another area where strategically-targeted rewards can be beneficial, such as ten per cent off a second order or money off bulk buys.
Finally, don’t stand still. A good retailer is always looking for new avenues to explore, and additional ways to generate income. Expanding product lines is an obvious technique, but there’s plenty more you can do in terms of innovations. Think about extra services you can provide, look for delivery and billing refinements such as click-and-collect with partner stores, and consider whether diversification into new areas might be worthwhile.
Many online retailers expand their products and services during key periods, such as in the run-up to Christmas. Plenty of marketing surveys will indicate seasonal fluctuations in demand, or requirements for specific services like gift-wrapping. Investigate what other online retailers are doing, and consider whether you can adapt any of their incentives to suit your own target audience.