Be Your Own Worst Customer

web customer marketing testing purchase

Here is a suggestion about how you can make sure that you have the best e-commerce and customer service operation out there: Go shopping!

I'm sure that one of your goals for your e-commerce operation is to give your customers the best experience possible. After all, just because everyone else is horrible, there's no reason for you to be horrible too, right?

So pick five to seven other e-commerce sites and take them for a test ride. Choose two or three of the big e-tailers and catalog sites (i.e. Motorcycle Superstore, Knee Draggers, Bike Bandit, or Dennis Kirk). Then choose three or four dealer-run sites that also sell to the same markets as your store.

Your goal is to probe and test their online systems and their human customer service. First create a standard testing process for how you're going to do the test, and then apply that same process to each shopping experience. Grade or judge each retailer to not only see how well they are doing, but to come up with ideas for how you can do things better. If you find something horrible, make sure your systems are set up to avoid it. If you find something amazing, make sure you copy it.

If you don't have the firsthand knowledge of how you stack up, I'm willing to bet that you're not doing as well as you think you are.

Test how satisfying, helpful, flexible or easy your experiences with each retailer are. One of your goals is to break their systems. You're trying, through somewhat reasonable, real-world inspired actions, to become a nightmare customer. You want to be reasonable about it, but I can guarantee that regardless of how wacky, far-out, or unreasonable you are during this test, there are real customers out there who are worse.

Pick two or three products that everyone carries so you can shop for the same stuff with each retailer. I suggest that one of the items you pick is a product that you know is hard to get, is frequently out of stock, and has a long lead-time to get from the supplier.

Here are a few suggested tests:

  • Go to each e-tailer and place your order. Use the site search function to see if it's difficult to find each product. Can you find them by searching the categories? Are attributes like color, size, etc. listed?
  • Give them the wrong address: Give them your personal address with you order online, then call up a few hours later and have them switch it to your shop's address. See where the products end up.
  • Order a hard part that requires installation. Once it arrives, call them and see how helpful they are at helping you install that part.
  • Order something like a pair of riding boots or gloves. Wear them until it's obvious that they've been used, and then try to return them. Does the retailer give you a hard time or do they accept the return gracefully?
  • On those out-of-stock orders, call the store at least once a day to check status and make note of how patient they are with your badgering. Pay attention to conflicting promise dates. If every time you call you get a different answer or hear "two weeks" regardless of how many weeks have passed, that's a good sign they are not really looking into it or not telling you the truth.
  • After you place your order online, call them to change something with it (size, color, or add an item). Call back later that day and make another change. Then wait to see if what is shipped is what you asked for. If you don't get what you're expecting after making the changes, call them up and find out what happened. Ask if they have a record of your calls. If they do, they are using a good CRM system. If not, they're flying blind.
  • Try to return part of your order. How well does it go? If they require something like a pre-approval for returns or a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) number, try returning your stuff without one. Try returning your stuff without anything in the box other than the product. Call them up after you know it's been delivered and ask about your return.
  • After you receive your order, find your product at a cheaper price on another site. Even if it's just a penny or two, demand that the store refund the difference or you're going to return the entire order. See how they deal with that.

Use these or other tests to apply equally to each retailer. Ideally, you want four to six.

Now for the moment of truth. Perform all of the same tests to your own store. Don't be harder or easier on yourself than you were on the other guys. Be honest. Do all of the tests. Don't assume that you'll be fine and skip one or two. I'm willing to bet that after you do this test, you will be shocked by some of what you find. About your competition of course, but more importantly, about yourself.

All of the things you've just now discovered? Your customers have known them for a long time. Kind of scary, isn't it? I'd love to hear from you about your test findings. Please shoot me an e-mail at