One of the biggest lessons I have learned when it comes to succeeding online is the need to shift perspective. Many organisations think that by simply taking existing products, services and processes and transferring them to the net, they are doing what they need to do to succeed. This is simply not enough as it doesn’t recognise that customer expectations and behaviours in the online sphere are distinctly different than in other spheres.

Online consumers are empowered, independent, more price conscious, more informed and more critical than consumers in other spheres. Customers who do not have their expectations met in the online world are, according to Tealeaf in the UK, increasingly likely to tell others – 8 out of 10 frustrated online customers will tell others about their bad experience. Furthermore, 7 out of 10 online consumers will seek out and use  online reviews to influence their purchase decisions.

The way consumers think and act online is different to how they think and act offline. To succeed online you need to understand how your customers behave when they are online.

Galapagos finches survived and thrived by adapting to their new habitatsI love the metaphor provided by Chris Meyer, writing in Seth Godin’s new book, when explaining how Capitalism will not die, but adapt to the new world. Meyer cites Darwin’s discovery of 13 species of finch on the Galapagos Islands. These finches all evolved from a single species, the Blue-Black Grassquit Finch commonly found along the Pacific Coast of South America. Once in the Galapagos Islands the finches adapted to their habitat – the size and shape of their bills reflect the plants that were available to them on each particular island.  These finches survived by adapting to the particular environments they found themselves in.

Businesses that seek to survive or thrive in a networked economy must adapt to this new world they are operating in. In many instances this involves unlearning how to sell and service customers. As Meyer puts it:

You have a lot to unlearn, and no short-term incentive to do it. But better not ignore the competitor with the strange looking beak.

Many of the assumptions you make about how customers purchase can be thrown out the window. What works in the offline world (retail, face-to-face or via telephone) in many instances simply doesn’t work online. You must seek to understand anew and then validate regularly how customers go about researching and purchasing online. Your marketplace offering should be continuously adapted to meet the ever-changing behaviours of customers. The evolution of e-commerce on the web has been extremely rapid, and with it customers’ expectations of online transaction processes.

Where to start?

Talk to your online customers. Understand the steps they go through in informing their purchase decisions and what their expectations are of online transaction processes. Give your customers what they want. For example, if price is the most important thing for them, then make sure that the prices/rates are clearly visible or accesible from your home page. I am constantly amazed by companies that try to bury their prices even though they know that it is the one thing that their customers want. If 99% of your customers abandon your online shopping process before the check-out are you satisfied that you know the reasons?

Check out your competitors’ online activities. We often have a tendency to scoff at the mistakes of our competitors. However sometimes an apparent mistake can be a clear market differentiator (remember those funny looking beaks). It is always worth understanding the rationale behind why your competitor has gone down a particular route. Are they on to something? It took many of the larger airlines a long time to realise that the new low cost online carriers were on to something. By not reacting quickly enough they allowed the online players to steal a march in the marketplace.

Look to the best in other industries. Too often we spend our time watching our competitors or those in our own industry in other markets. Industry practices and models can become ingrained and players miss an opportunity by not looking elsewhere to understand how to improve. In the sector I operate in I quickly realised that the entire industry was behind the curve and it was actually fairly pointless to spend too much time examining what others were doing.

By looking at sectors that are very advanced online – travel, tourism, music and retail – there is a greater opportunity to learn best practice. Companies such as Amazon, Apple, TripAdvisor and eBay between them will spend millions each year on usability and are also shaping customers’ expectations of what good looks like.

The wonderful thing about learning to be a finch in the online world is that understanding your marketplace is incredibly easy. All of the information you seek is readily available with just a few mouse clicks. While there is no replacement for getting feedback from your customers – one-to-one, in focus groups or through usability tests; there are many free online survey tools that will help you get the answers to your questions very quickly.

Over the next few weeks we’ll take some time to see what good looks like across a number of different industries. Hopefully we’ll start to uncover some new insights into how to sell more online.