Monitoring user experience and investing heavily in customer service is a vital part of successful e-business, according to senior managers from some of the UK's leading online brands.
Speaking at the ZDNet UK IT Priorities conference on Tuesday, Brent Hoberman, chief executive of Lastminute.com, revealed the extent to which his company looks for customer feedback. He explained that Lastminute.com actively uses analytical software to track user behaviour, and also relies on its customers to pass on their criticism.
"If everyone who reaches a certain page then leaves the site then we know that page isn't working. Last year our homepage was much slower, so we had a much high abandon rate than today", said Hoberman.
"Users can evaluate the Web site in real time, so we watch to see if the trend of responses is changing, and every time someone makes a purchase we email them asking them to rate the experience", Hoberman added.
According to Betfair's chief technology offer David Yu, today's customers have much higher expectations than a couple of years ago, and expect more from IT than many other areas of their life.
"It's ironic to me that we have homes, cars, and software. Each is a magnitude of complexity more than the last, but people are relatively understanding if their boiler breaks down, while tolerance of IT failure is very low," said Yu.
But Esther Dyson, former founding chair of ICANN and CNet's editor-at-large, responded that "if people weren't as tolerant of software as they are of other things, Microsoft might not still be in business".
Dyson praised one US telecoms company which plays an automatic message at the end of every customer support telephone call, asking customers to say how useful the call has been.
Because online businesses lack the physical contact with their users that a traditional high street store enjoys, it can be harder to judge how their products and services are being received. Ian Turner, Macromedia's European director, urged conference attendees to give as much attention as possible to their customer support calls.
"Every good company has a good call centre behind it", said Turner, who revealed that when he started his present job he spent a day listening in to some of the calls coming into Macromedia.
"Listening to customer interaction is one of the most startling things I've ever done. There are things that everyone does that annoy their customers, and then they just don't call you", Turner told the audience.
During his listen-in, Turner learned that Macromedia was forcing a government department to buy a particular product from them in US dollars, even though this was a chore to the department concerned. "We stopped that", said Turner, adding that in many cases people were doing the wrong thing because "it's always been that way."
Turner condemned Amazon's telephone support service as "dreadful." In response, Hoberman suggested this was one reason why the e-retailer is able to offer such good prices, given how expensive decent customer service can be.
Yu agreed that customer calls are crucial to the success of e-businesses, and said that Betfair monitors how long it takes for a call to be answered and how many calls go unanswered.
Betfair also relies on users to post into its online forums.
"It's amazing how much feedback we get about the company. It focuses us there are real customers out there, and pretty much everyone in the company reads that forum every day", said Yu, who added that it allows site engineers to fix a bug and then see how their work is received.
Mike Barrett, European Technology Director for CNet Networks, warned that while the key to e-business success is delivering on promises, the level of expectation of an online customer is higher than when they visit a real-world store.