Today's customers are increasingly starting their buying experiences online. Even if they end up going to a store to make a purchase, a large number of customers are doing a lot of research online and learning about organizations even before they speak to a salesperson.

Further, while doing research, customers are automatically eliminating certain organizations and creating preferences for others, solely based on the information they find on a website, reviews by other customers, and the overall online experience.

This trend makes it essential for organizations to ensure their websites are not only well-presented and easy to navigate, but also provide customers with added value, allowing them to stand out from among the competition. "Whether retailers like it or not, users are doing a lot of research online," says Eric Hansen, SiteSpect's CEO, adding that the online and brick-and-mortar experiences are becoming increasingly mashed together.

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Organizations are also benefitting from added information that allows them to better understand their customers, notes Scott LiPera, global practice leader for commerce and content within eClerx's sales and marketing services division. Just like customers who walk into a brick-and-mortar store give organizations tips about their needs and preferences through non-verbal communication, online shoppers are also leaving a trail of information through their digital body language, which should be analyzed and the insight used to improve the online experience. Here experts share advice around five tips for organizations to enhance their online experience.

  • Give customers options: While it might be complicated for brick-and-mortar stores to display all of their available stock, for example all the different sizes and colors for one style of shoe, this is possible to do online. eClerx's LiPera says a big mistake that online retailers make is to only show a small selection of choices. Therefore, if a particular item is available in different colors, organizations should make sure that customers can see all the combinations online. Even color swatches don't provide the full experience that customers expect and might cost them a sale.

  • Add value through novel ideas: Organizations have the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competition by providing customers with added value. Lexus of Stevens Creek, for example, is leveraging software from FlashFoto to allow its customers to picture themselves in one of its vehicles by uploading photos of themselves to the Website. Brendan Harrington, the company's president and general manager, says the company wanted to get prospective customers to become emotionally connected with the vehicles, even before going to a showroom to see them. "We wanted to make our Website more interactive, fun for our customers, and more personalized," Harrington says.

Navin Nagiah, the CEO of DotNetNuke, recommends integrating communities where customers can interact with each other within the ecommerce site. "When you walk into a store, you can see products and talk to other customers," Nagiah notes, adding that this immersed experience needs to be mimicked online.

  • Don't focus only on conversion rates and facilitate feedback: Jonathan Levitt, CMO at OpinionLab, says many companies are "too obsessed" with conversion rates and make the mistake of focusing exclusively on them. Instead, Levitt says, business leaders should also pay attention to customers who access the company's website but don't make a purchase. "Try to capture the feedback of those who don't convert," Levitt says. He also stresses the importance of understanding where a customer stands in his buying cycle and tailoring the experience to his needs.

Most customers are more than happy to help organizations improve the experience they deliver. However, companies need to make it easy for customers to leave feedback. "Don't bury your feedback link," Levitt warns. He suggests having an always-present feedback tab that is visible to customers and makes it easy for them to leave their comments. Further, Levitt recommends that organizations should reach out to their customers to request feedback in certain instances, for example when they abandon their shopping carts.

  • Personalize the online experience: Just like customers who walk into a store have different needs and preferences, online shoppers are also requesting a personalized experience. "You need to design a site that caters for different types of buyers," notes DotNetNuke's Nagiah. SiteSpect's Hansen says business leaders need to make sure that their website can accommodate different scenarios, for example including user-friendly elements geared towards shoppers who aren't sure what they're looking for. Hansen says organizations need to take a close look at their customers' digital body language to determine the appropriate information to present to them. "If a customer is searching for a specific product, don't show him other items that aren't related," Hansen says.

  • Provide a consistent cross-device experience: Today's customers are accessing company websites from different devices and organizations need to make sure that the online experience is consistent irrespective of whether customers are using a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone to access that site. "The brand experience needs to be consistent but optimized for that particular device," says eClerx's LiPera. He adds that the online experience should also be consistent with the in-store feel, especially since many customers are looking for added information, for example customer reviews, on their smartphones, while they're in a store. OpinionLab's Levitt agrees, adding that organizations should also be careful of how they use in-store exclusive specials, which might create a divide with the online experience. "Companies need to understand that customers are looking for the same experience online as they are in stores, and should mimic them online as closely as they can," Levitt notes.

Irrespective of how many improvements they make to the online experience, it's imperative for organizations to constantly test their online properties to make sure these are working as they should. SiteSpect's Hansen says certain elements, for example the search and checkout experience, need to be tested regularly to make sure that customers aren't encountering any problems, and if so these can be addressed immediately. "You need to test constantly since what works for one site might not work for another," Hansen says.