How to drive users away

Transport for London's website is at the core of the collection system for the city's new congestion charge. Early indications were that it can already teach many other sites a thing or two about functioning without hold-ups.

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The launch of the London congestion charge has pushed the web a little further to centre stage in everyday life. There are other ways to pay and register, but it seems clear from the publicity that the website is designed to be at the core of the system.
The charge site may have collapsed amidst hoots of derision by the time you read this, but when I looked – on launch day – I was pleasantly surprised. First, that it worked at all, if rather slowly. Second, that both one-off payment and registration processes were straightforward (the automatic postcode finder was not intuitive, but that is a minor moan).
It set me thinking about other sites that I have used recently – both as an individual and a small business person – as an alternative to pen, paper, telephone or fax. Sadly, the Charge site is near the top of a scale that dips very deep, thanks to three main irritations: clunky security/password systems, inadequate forms and – most intractable – the fact that it is still hard to trust the web.

They shall not pass – easily

Passwords are a pain. Most of us, I imagine, try to use the same user name and password combination when we can, but there are sites where we have to find an alternative: someone has bagged ours already, or the site is peculiarly fussy about the letters it will accept.
This intrinsic awkwardness is not enough for some companies, especially those that pride themselves on security. Lloyds TSB has a small business ‘portal’ which has useful content in it, but I am unlikely ever to tap it again. Having registered a while ago, I guessed my user name and password and clicked the button. Nothing happened. I tried again, twice, then got a message saying “Your password has been entered incorrectly three times”. I was told I would have to ring a number to have it reset “for my security”. Fair enough had I been told that I was putting the wrong user name and password in – but I was not.
Then there are the added security measures, much favoured by financial services that use the principle that if the customers are baffled, crooks will be too. My business has an account with Abbey National . It asks for additional security information every time I log on. Sometimes this is straightforward (mother’s maiden name), but at other times it asks for my “memorable question”. This must not only be the right question but in exactly the right form. “Dog name” may let me in, but “Name of dog” will not. Whatever this question is, it is surely not memorable.

Forms that don’t function

Online forms are an integral element of many commercial websites. Get them slightly wrong, and you can be sure you will turn potential customers away or persuade them to pick up the phone. Some companies have got it right: Amazon is close to foolproof – a function of constant honing over the years. Virgin Wines is good, too. But too many companies still throw up unnecessary hurdles. I tried to change my address on the Marbles credit card site, and was told I had used the wrong format when giving the date of my move. There were no clues as to what the correct format was – so I picked up the phone.
When a few months ago I tried to sign up for a credit card with Egg, I had a struggle. No guidance was given on formats, and I managed to get something ‘wrong’ on every page. At the end of the process I was presented with five sets of terms and conditions. I reckoned three of these applied to me, so I printed them out – on 26 pages of paper. Egg has vastly improved its process since, though it still does not accept that my employer does not have a street address (it has a post office box number). I know enough to put in random scribbles to fool the computer – but I am reasonably experienced. Small hiccups like these will be enough to turn away more timid users; and that means most users in this comparatively new medium.

The cost of a second opinion

But even if a site works like clockwork, I often pick up the phone. In the past month I have booked a cross-channel ferry and bought home insurance, and in each case the online and offline prices were quite different. Hoverspeed flagged up discounted prices for early bookers. I filled in the forms – no problems there – and was given a price. I then rang, because I was taking dogs and needed to ask some questions, and was quoted a price £100 lower. The opposite happened with Royal & SunAlliance’s More Than insurance system. The man in the call centre came up with a premium £50 higher than the site had offered me. This, he said, was far more than could be explained by any web discount.
All of which mean that I will continue to use the phone as well as the web for all but the simplest transactions. Serious e-commerce operators know this, which is why they are putting emphasis on making a multi-channel approach work (have any yet succeeded?). But by really smoothing out those irritations of detail, they could surely slash the number of phone calls they are fielding. And that is a route to real savings.

First published 26 February, 2003
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