Imagine that you are entering a fabulously beautiful hotel. The regally arched ceilings are painted in gold and bronze, and large crystal chandeliers hang in even spacing along the entire length. Plush, velvet chairs and couches surround a fireplace at one end of the lobby, and a sumptuous bar with high-backed leather stools is visible to your right. To your left, mirrored elevator doors lead to several towers. All along the length of the lobby are beautiful white holiday lights twinkling from floor to ceiling.
In those mirrored elevator doors, you catch a glimpse of your reflection -- travel-weary, lugging your suitcase in one hand and a heavy coat in the other. You've been traveling for the better part of a day, and you are ready to take off your shoes, have a shower, and get ready for an evening in this exciting new city.
There's one problem, though: you can't find the registration desk. It's a large lobby, and you are all the way at one end. You walk along one wall to the fireplace on the other side, but you can't find that desk -- and beautiful but tall velvet armchairs are blocking your view across the lobby. At the fireplace, you turn around and walk across the other wall, and finally -- set into a deep pocket in one of the walls, you find the registration desk.
It is empty. You ring a bell. Nothing happens. Shifting your suitcase to the other hand, you wait. And wait. And wait...
This is the experience of using many of the business or organizational web sites I've seen. I arrive with a task in mind (check in?), and I spend too long looking for the way to achieve that task, and then too long again waiting for the organization to answer my questions or do what I've asked. When you imagine the visitors to your web site as travel-weary guests just looking to check in, it becomes clear that your goal is to move that desk to a visible spot, staff it well, and empower your staff to make things happen.
Move the Front Desk
All I want to do on most web business or non-profit organization web sites is figure out how to make contact with the site owner. I may have different reasons that I need to contact the organization -- to make a donation, to request a quote, to purchase a product or service, or to share my own information -- but that's usually the focus of my attention. If the contact page does not have information about all of those things, it's as though the desk is invisible. Your contact page should have:
- Your physical address. This is especially non-negotiable if you have a publicly accessible space -- an office, a store, a studio or a place where people might come find you whenever you're open.
- Your phone number. Even if this goes directly to a voicemail box, you must accept that there are people out there who want to connect to you using their own voice, and not electronically.
" address if you like, but it does need to exist, and you need to check it. You can set that address up to forward all messages to your personal account if you like.
- Your social media accounts, if you have them. Link to them in text, with "chicklets" (those little square images that have the social media branding on them), with buttons or banners or even full-on feeds from each network, but if you use social media, add the links to your contact page.
- A list of all the things they might want to ask of you, and where they can find that info on your site. This will vary for each site, but if you find you are answering the same questions in lots of emails or phone calls, you may want to create a mini-FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on your page. It might look like the contact page to the right.
Staff Your Front Desk
You can't be sitting at your computer (or your smart phone or tablet) all the time, and you can't be on duty all the time. Mostly, the citizens of the internet understand that -- except when they don't. You may have a beautiful, artfully written contact form on your site, but if your users complete that form and receive a generic "thank you" or -- worse! -- are simply returned to the home page without so much as a hint that their form information has been received, then they really don't know what happened to their inquiry. Here are some acceptable ways for your form (or an autoresponder on your generic "info@..." email account) to respond to a customer/donor inquiry:
- "Thank you for submitting your comments! We will read them carefully and respond to them in the next 24 business hours."
- "Thank you for completing our contact form. We will respond to you in the next three business days, but if you need a response more quickly than that, please call us at (123) 4-TOMATO between the hours of 9am and 5pm, Monday thru Friday."
- "Your comments have been received. Please expect a personal response in the next seven business days. We are active on Twitter and Facebook and welcome your comments, suggestions, and ideas."
- "We have received your inquiry and will be in touch as quickly as possible within the next two business days. In the meantime, please feel free to browse our FAQ and list of services to learn more about our firm."
Now comes the most important part: you must respond to these messages and inquiries. Must. Every time. Every time. You must respond via email to the contact form, you must respond via Twitter to the tweets and via Facebook to the posts and comments. You must respond to the blog comments on your blog. If you have set up a communications vehicle for your company, you need to have someone ready on the other end to do your end of the communicating. Otherwise, you have a nice registration desk without a hotel concierge in sight.
Empower Your Staff
When the messages get through to your "info@..." email account, or when your customers or donors post to your Facebook or other social media accounts, be sure that whomever you've asked to answer that email or handle that social media has your permission to do so with some level of expertise.
For email responses: Never have your staff send an email response that is clearly templated, includes any suggestion that the person writing it can't do anything to help the recipient, or -- worst of all -- is later negated by an opposite response from you. If your designated staff member needs to get more information from you before giving a full response, s/he should say so in the email: "Thank you for writing! My name is Chris, and I want to get you the best answer I can. I'll be checking with the owner to be sure we can do what you're asking, and I'll get back to you by tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!"
For Facebook or other social media posts: Give your staff good training in the appropriate responses to comments from your customers or donors. A good strategy takes just a few minutes to communicate -- you may want your staff to "like" any complimentary posts, provide a quick apology and ask for private contact information for any posts with complaints, and check with you before getting an answer for any posts requiring additional information that s/he doesn't have.
The bottom line here is that you owe it to the visitors to your site to make their stay a pleasant one. No matter how pretty your lobby is, when your guests arrive travel-worn and needing your assistance, make sure it's easy for them to find what they need and connect with you to get it.