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April 10, 2000
You've got to laugh at these folks who send out bulk e-mail messages with subject lines such as "I learned the secret to financial success, now you can, too!" I'm sure that they feel like they are riding the technology wave and leveraging the power of e-commerce to build their business. In truth, they are simply doing the exact same thing that hucksters for generations have been accomplishing through various other means.
As the rest of us know, the Internet in general, and e-commerce in specific, is a lot more than just flooding the wires with random e-mail messages and hoping that someone actually believes you enough to send you some money. But what exactly is e-commerce, and how does it relate to you?
With all the various companies (including Microsoft) providing Web and e-commerce infrastructure, it is easy to think that all you have to do is install the software, click through a few wizards, and you are up and running. I also suppose that some folks out there who have learned how to use the Macro recorder in Excel call themselves "programmers."
While it might be technically correct to label any Web solution that does the appropriate level of "money handling" as being e-commerce, I'd like to think that you know better, and are willing to make the extra effort to create a quality user experience.
Recently, I made a software purchase on the Web, an interaction that for me illustrated the importance of paying attention to how you utilize e-commerce. I've had a wide range of interactions with the software company itself, and the people there have always been helpful. They provide a great product that exceeds my expectations as a user. The few times that I've had to work through issues with their technical support folks, it's been a breeze. I decided that another one of their products would be useful for a project on which I was working—and since that product wasn't currently available in my local computer store, I decided to order it directly from the company's Web site.
This is where problems started to crop up.
The Third Party
Being quite experienced on the Web, I quickly noticed that the actual order processing steps were being shunted off to a different company -- one that no doubt provides e-commerce services to other companies as well. From my own experience, I sure hope that they aren't being used by too many companies. The Web pages displaying the forms I needed to fill out were slightly confusing; the very "feel" was awkward. It's difficult to directly lay my finger on what was missing, but the pages just didn't have the "snap" that I've grown to expect through using other sites. For example, the address input fields allowed me to put in only two lines (plus city, state, zip), thus making it difficult to list a shipping address that included both a person's name and a company name. The pages also didn't supply a field for comments, which I could have used for clarifying the address information.
For ordering the software, the site allowed you to order either a "download" copy or a "physical" copy. The download copy costs a little less, plus you get to start using it immediately. Instant gratification has always been important to Web users. But with the download copy, you don't get printed copies of the manual, and you also don't get a physical CD that you can safely store someplace. For myself, I always like having a physical version of the software, and am willing to pay extra for this. It would be reasonable to think that the vendors would allow you to order the physical copy, but would provide access to the downloadable copy, so you could start using it immediately. Unfortunately they didn't. It was an either/or situation. If you wanted printed manuals, and you wanted to begin using the product immediately, you would have to place two separate orders. In the FAQ, the vendors even mentioned this, and then described a rather convoluted process that you would have to go through to get your money back for the "downloadable" order once the physical copy arrived. I was able to download a "demo" copy of the software, which was essentially the full version—but I needed a "key" number to unlock the features of the full version. So all that was really needed as part of the order process was for a "key" to be generated as well.
Just as I hit the submit button to finally place the order, I noticed that I had accidentally mistyped part of the address. But the order was submitted and on its way. As I was browsing through the Web site to locate an e-mail address to send an address correction to, I received an incoming e-mail from the vendors letting me know that they had received my order. I quickly fired off a message back to them letting them know how to fix the address I provided. Within a few minutes, I got another reply from them telling me that their order processing infrastructure didn't allow them to modify this information once an order was submitted. Sounded a little odd, but fortunately the address wasn't too far off, and my order would probably be able to make it to me anyway with only a slight delay.
I thought that this would be the end of the "experience"; unfortunately this was not the case. When the order finally arrived, I tried to using the "key" number to unlock the demo version that I had already installed, but it didn't work. I tried installing the version from the CD overtop of the demo version, and that didn't work.
Back to the Source
After spending a while on this, I finally contacted the software company's product support. The support technicians were a little confused, but they helped me to remove all the necessary entries out of the registration database so I could ensure a clean install off of the CD. Eventually, I was able to get the CD version installed, and it quickly became clear why I was having trouble. The "physical" version that was sent in my order was an older version then the electronic version that I downloaded. And since the "new" version had a copyright date of 1998, it's not as though this was simply a situation in which the online copy got updated before the physical copies found their way to the stores.
As you can probably understand, I'm not mentioning the companies involved here—but imagine for a moment that this was your company. That this was the experience a user had when ordering a product through your e-commerce setup. Are you sure that you have properly designed your "storefront" to provide your customers with a great experience? Or that you have thoroughly evaluated and tested any service vendors you plan to hire? Don't just plug technology into your solutions, but understand the technologies you use, and know how to leverage them to their fullest. If you are simply installing e-commerce software onto your Web site, but not taking the time to truly understand how to best implement it, then you might as well be spamming out "get rich quick" e-mails. And you know how much respect that will bring you.
Robert Hess hosts the MSDN Show.