Hardly a day goes by that I don't hear some variation on the following statement from a client: "We have a Web site, but it just doesn't seem to be contributing to our business in any tangible way. It's not helping our sales and it's not reducing our costs. We're not sure what to do next."

As I talk further with these clients, I usually find the fixes they're considering involve making improvements to the way the site works or the way the site looks.

The clients often suggest building a Flash intro, rethinking the layout of the site, or adding live chat. After listening, I usually end up suggesting that they're looking in the wrong place for a solution.

In my experience, ineffective commercial Web sites don't need design, navigation or technological fixes. In fact, the key problems are almost always related to how the existing business and the Web site work together.

It's true that building your company's Web site requires implementing the nonbusiness elements of design, navigation and technology, and that there are always improvements to be made in these areas. However, at the end of the day, these are secondary considerations. What's going to make or break your site is how you address some key business issues.

Deceptively Simple

Consider this example. No matter how modest the effort, one of the first things generally placed on a Web site is a Contact Us button. This is supposed to allow a visitor to easily send a request, make a comment, or ask a question of the company. It's a fantastic, valuable tool for both the customer and the business, and it takes all of about five minutes to set up. Few commercial sites these days are without one.

Notice, however, that this tool suddenly requires a number of actions and decisions:

  • Somebody needs to respond to the comments that come in.
  • A business rule needs to be created regarding how quickly comments will be responded to, whether it's within four hours or four days.
  • Replies to questions need to be complete as well as consistent with answers given through other company channels, such as telephone, Web site and printed materials.
  • A tracking system needs to be set up. At the very least, you'll want to compile basic information about the questions, such as how many you receive each week, which questions are asked most frequently, and whether the comments are positive or negative.

I'm sure you can think of other steps as well. It's a lot of work for one little button!

Unfortunately, many companies just activate the button and do none of the back-end planning. Visitors send questions and never hear back.

The result is a Web site that is unresponsive, frustrating to use and a negative reflection on the company. This is the exact opposite of what the Contact Us button was intended to do.

For Every Action, a Reaction

And that's just a simple button. The operational impact only increases with the addition of other, more complex, features, such as newsletter subscriptions, order placement, appointment scheduling or bill payment.

But don't get depressed. The news is good. With enough planning, you can anticipate the resource requirements, business rules and operational processes you need.

What you need to do is map out how each element of your site will affect your business processes and make a firm commitment that nothing will be put on the site without its requirements having been thought through.

So, if your site isn't delivering the results you had hoped for, first take a step back and consider how it fits into your business overall.

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