Quality online is a lot like quality offline

MIT Sloan Management ReviewThe Fall 2006 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review includes an article titled “How Do Customers Judge Quality in an E-tailer?” (online full-text PDF is free to subscribers, otherwise $6.50).

When I read that the focus of the article was to answer the question “What are the specific aspects of an online transaction that customers value and use to distinguish one site from another?,” and that the authors had done a survey and some analysis I was intrigued.

Ultimately, though, I have to say the conclusions are underwhelming. As outlined in the article’s abstract:

The results demonstrated that customers’ perceptions of quality and satisfaction with online purchases depend upon three things: interaction with the Web site, delivery of the product and how prepared retailers are to address problems when they occur. Of the three, product delivery has the strongest influence on customers’ satisfaction and future purchase intentions.

In other words, the most important thing is “product delivery.” Not sending people what they’ve paid for, or sending it damaged, or late, has a tendency to make customers not trust a vendor.

Secondarily, “how prepared retailers are to address problems when they occur” is also important. People tend not to like getting stuck in a phone tree, or (worse) sending emails to an anonymous help desk, when a retailer has just messed up something in their order.

Finally, “interaction with the Web site” is important. Sites need to be well designed (“visually pleasing but not distracting”) and easy to use (“Customers want easy-to-use search engines that allow them to find products quickly”). Sites should not be frequently unavailable (“Online retailers need to be mindful that a Web site that experiences problems, thus preventing customers from shopping . . ., is the equivalent of putting a ‘closed’ sign on a brick-and-mortar store”).
Perhaps I was expecting too much from a brief article based on a survey with 388 participants, but when the authors finally conclude that “although indicators of trust in an online retail environment may be somewhat unique due to the physical separation of busy and seller, the fundamental nature of trust remains the same,” I feel I bit like I didn’t get what I ordered.

Is it really that simple? Web users will buy from e-tailers they trust, which means e-tailers who actually deliver as promised, provide good customer service when things go wrong, and have well designed, easy to use, and reliable web sites?

That’s all true, of course, but the devil’s in the details. After all, one shopper’s “visually pleasing” is another’s “distracting.”

E-tailers certainly do need to get the basics right consistently bad logistics on delivery will kill an e-tailer no matter how good their website – but e-tailers will differentiate long-term based on how cost-effectively they can deliver, how they innovate, and how they acquire customers.