Does your website take care of its visitors, or does it send some of them away in frustration? Companies that really don't care toss phrases like "customer care" around so loosely these days that it's a phrase that has lost it's meaning. I guess they think if they say they care, you'll believe them. But when you need care is when things have gone wrong and often, there are no plans in place to handle errors.

We expect our websites to respond consistently to every visitor, but the truth is that sometimes things are out of our control or we can't fix an issue as quickly as we'd like. How much effort have you put into making sure you are taking care of customers when things go wrong?

On a recent flight, I got stuck in the dreaded United Airlines concourse G at Washington-Dulles airport. This outdated, horribly unorganized barn of a terminal was worse than usual- all the planes were held up for 30 minutes or more. There was hardly any room to stand as more and more confused people poured into the terminal expecting to board a flight. This was made worse by the fact that the monitors all displayed incorrect departure info and gave no indication that things had changed.

When you have issues on your site, such as slow response time or out of stock items, do you have friendly error messages to let the customer know what's going on? If a process takes a while to complete, do you offer a "wait screen" that lets them know it will be a few minutes and asks them to please wait?

The incorrect information caused huge backups at the gate as people tried to find out what was going on, worried that they had missed their flights. The irritated agents kept repeating over the loudspeaker that they were NOT boarding flights and NOT to approach the deck until your flight was called. They never told us why we were being held up or what to expect- they basically just told us to stop bothering them.

When you do have errors on your website, do apologize for the error and give visitors a chance to report it? Or does your site "have an attitude" with messages like "If you are unsure on how to use this feature, please read our help files" which implies that the user has done something wrong?

In the confusion and chaos, the airline overlooked announcing my flight. I and 9 other passengers who had followed the rules and "waited for our flight to be called" were left behind. The aggressive passengers who had crowded the desk heard the gate attendants say it was time to board.

Are you leaving visitors behind? Is a 404 error rate of 2%-10% acceptable to you? If you have broken pages or links on your site, fix them! The more aggressive users will continue to look for what they want, but many will assume the page doesn't exist, since that is what your server told them.

Your logfiles will show how many 404 errors you are receiving and a free tool like Xenu's Link Sleuth will show you broken links, both internal and external. ANY visitors left behind are too many. Include a site map on your 404 error page to help users find the page they were seeking.

We were told to go to "Customer Care" to re-book our flights. We tried the bank of direct service phones… but there was no answer. The service center was closed, apparently. We queued up for the ONE service attendant who was trying to handle over 30 aggravated customers, each of whom wanted to complain loud and long about their treatment.

We waited 45 minutes and the service agent helped 2 clients. We were then told the terminal was shutting down and we'd need to go get in the main customer service line in the primary terminal. On arriving in the main terminal, we were preceded by another 20 or so angry customers who had already been waiting for THAT single agent for an hour.

When you offer users options for help, how quickly do you respond? Live chat assistance is annoying if it's never turned on, and emails that aren't returned in 24 hours or less make a bad situation even worse. Remember that websites are accessible around the world, not just in your time zone. Make it clear what hours you are available for assistance and what the expectations are for off-hours help response.

As a contrast to United's "it's-your-own-fault-you-missed-the-plane-we'll-get-to-you-when-we-get-to-you" attitude and their reliance on human help, Delta takes care of everything with technology. When my connecting flight was late arriving in Atlanta, I arrived at the gate to find I'd already been booked and confirmed on the next flight out. I was pointed to a bank of scanning machines where I passed my missed boarding pass under the laser and in seconds, it printed a new, updated boarding pass. A uniformed agent was available to help, polite and pleasant, and apologized to me for the inconvenience.

You can minimize a bad situation by being prepared, letting users find their own answers, and automating as many processes as possible. If you have significant user issues that regularly require attention, maybe it's time to upgrade your technology and fix it. Remove the need for humans and let people find the information they need on their own instead of waiting for you to get back to them. Implement a knowledge database or at the very least, have a comprehensive FAQ page. Focus on making the answers easy to find.

No one wants errors, delays or confusion on their site, but ignoring the fact that "things" happen leaves your visitors abandoned, annoyed, and confused. It's not much better than an airline blaming passengers for their screw-ups!

Errors do happen and while you can't have a 100% error-proof site, you can show your customers that you do care by communicating with them promptly and in a friendly manner, giving them alternatives, letting them find their own answers, automating as much as you can and testing your system regularly. Customer feedback is gold- the complaints will help your business a lot more than the compliments! Take customer feedback seriously and show your customers that you really do care.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
September 13, 2005

Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.

Search Engine Guide > Scottie Claiborne > Caring for Site Visitors- When Mistakes Happen