"If I was a local t-shirt printer, there would be word of mouth. We're national online, so we're not going to get enough local penetration that customers are actually talking to each other," says Marc Katz, President & CEO of CustomInk.
His customers ranged from church groups to college fraternities. They all had two things in common -- they needed some t-shirts, caps, or mugs printed up custom for them, and they were at least slightly hesitant about placing an average $400 order with a virtual company.
"If you buy a camera at BestBuy.com, you can read about it on ConsumerReports.org. You know exactly what you're getting," explains Katz. "Ordering from us requires more trust because it's custom."
Katz couldn't afford a national ad campaign to build brand trust for CustomInk. So he had to make the site itself work harder for him, to convince hesitant shoppers to convert. His Web team did all the standard things, including:
- Putting an 800-number at the top right corner of every page with the tagline "Talk to a real person"
- Promoting free shipping
- Posting a money-back guarantee
- Including a red "As seen on TV" icon
- Placing both Verisign and Better Business Bureau icons on pages
The tactics worked, the site's sales rose to $100,000 per month.
Eager to find ways to keep sales growing, Katz began a program to survey customers. "We manually sent an email to every customer after shipping to see if everything came out ok. We got so much useful feedback from those emails that we automated the process." (Link to sample emailed feedback request and survey form below.)
Rather than holding the information close to his vest, Katz decided to send all survey responses to every single employee via the in-house email system. This process was also automated. The minute feedback came in, everyone saw it.
Praise helped keep everyone motivated, and hearing about problems they could fix made everyone feel empowered and in control. Staff morale rose accordingly.
Katz began to wonder, if making all customer feedback public within his company worked, why not try making it truly public? How transparent can a company become to customers without risk? CAMPAIGN
Katz and his operations team instinctively believed the only way the program would work as a trust-building tool for the site was if shoppers saw all survey responses -- the good, the bad, the ugly.
"Anyone can fish out a couple of positive comments to post on their site. If it's obviously censored, it doesn't inspire trust. The key is to be transparent, to let people see everything overall."
The only comments that would not be posted were those that customers themselves decided to make private by unchecking a permission-to-post box at the start of the survey form.
However, the team debated how to handle negative postings, beyond responding directly to the unhappy customer. "We agonized. Should we save a little space to put a response in italics? Ultimately, we decided the more we do, the less authentic it is. We have nothing to be ashamed of. If you have the last word, it somehow takes something away."
What if a comment wasn't bad per se, but it still wasn't something you might want on your site? For example, what about comments with spelling and grammatical errors, or frat brothers who decided to post something crazy just to see it go live?
The team decided to run the comments anyway, without editing. In fact, they made a marketing point with this policy. New customer feedback was posted to a prominent spot on the site's home page every 30-minutes, under a heading entitled "Uncensored Customer Reviews (typos and all)" (Link to sample below.)
If someone posted something badly typed, it helped the site look genuine. If they posted something silly, the comment disappeared from the home page within 30-minutes anyway.
However, comments never disappeared entirely. As part of their openness campaign, the team also made a highly detailed database of all customer comments available to all Web surfers. This database went far beyond the short testimonial to include complex survey results on every aspect of customers' feedback.
Plus, the Web design team worked hard to invent a user-friendly lay-out so it was easy for shoppers to review this data. (Link to sample below.)
Figuring that shoppers might want to see comments from other consumers in their demographic, the Web design team created several versions of the main site, such as CustomInk.com/greek for sororities and frats. In these versions, the customer comments that appeared on the home page were from clients in that demographic.
CustomInk's business has doubled year-over-year every single year since the company started posting comments publicly on the site in early 2002. Consumers will place orders for more than a million t-shirts on the site in 2004 (not to mention other custom products.)
Katz says, "One of the funniest parts is the incredulous reaction I get when I tell other business owners about posting uncensored comments. They look at you like you're kind of crazy or really, really confused."
He notes that some competitors have copied the idea -- but in every case they flinched away from revealing 100% of comments, warts and all. So, he sees CustomInk's courage as a definite competitive advantage.
On average 42% of customers take the time to answer the feedback survey. (This is an unusually high response rate, probably due to the fact that the order is a high-ticket custom one, and clients can see how many other customers have posted comments already.)
The public database currently contains more than 10,000 survey answers from the past three years. Only about 1% are negative. Katz notes, "We've gotten some bad ones, but even most of those are not extremely negative. It's someone who's a little disappointed, a legitimate comment that we can follow-up on."
One drawback of the program has been email overload for CustomInk's 55-employees. They get so many survey responses that "it's almost like spam." So, the operations team are currently revising the automated program to email feedback to just the staffers who worked on a particular order mentioned. Useful links related to this story:
Samples of feedback survey, plus how the results appear to the public: