What IKEA can teach us about helping customers

What IKEA can teach us about helping customers

An article about IKEA in The New York Times Magazine got me thinking about how the big-box-store customer experience can be similar to the user experience on a large company website.

The article’s author describes how, years earlier, he and his wife went to an IKEA but left quickly. They found the store “a crowded, labyrinthine mess lacking the adequate amount of staff” and vowed never to return.

Fast-forward to present day. The author and his wife wanted an affordable closet system and knew IKEA carried what they needed, so they reluctantly returned. Immediately upon entering this time, however, they could tell something was different. An employee greeted them and directed them to the closet department. Once there, a salesperson was available to explain their options. Throughout the store, in fact, plenty of staff members were around to answer questions, describe products and offer additional guidance. In short, the author had such a positive customer experience it completely reversed his perception of shopping at IKEA.

Some websites can make you run for the doors too.

It got me thinking of what so many of us go through when visiting a big website for the first time: you hit a busy home page, then click around, use the back button, and try to find the information you need before giving up and abandoning ship. Talk about a missed opportunity! I don’t know if there’s a comparable term in big-box retail, but the speed with which users leave a web page is called the bounce rate. When the bounce rate is high, you’ve got a user experience problem. You may have great products, but your website actually deters customers from finding that out.

IKEA’s customer experience turnaround is attributed in the article to a shift in strategic thinking. Rather than regarding employees as cost centers, IKEA started looking at its staff as a potential source of profit. The company swapped out its old workforce management software — which ensured there were just enough, but not too many, employees in store at a given time — for a solution that distributes workers according to where they’re actually needed. Employees are more productive and happy in their work, engage more enthusiastically and authentically with customers and drive more sales.

So, what lessons can your company website take from IKEA’s example?

People aren’t algorithms: You can’t develop an effective content strategy based solely on internal data or produce engaging content based on internal biases. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, understand why they come to your site and build an experience that speaks to their needs — in their own language.

Roll out the welcome mat: Don’t leave customers to hunt and peck alone. Show them who you are, what they can do and find on the website and where they can go for help. And since “every page is page one,” not every user will enter through the home page, so your brand promise needs to hold up for the entire customer journey, no matter where it starts.

Identify and focus on users’ priorities: As the IKEA example illustrates, turning customers loose amid a vast inventory isn’t enough; you need to help them navigate their options. Things like drop-down mega menus, fat footers, rotating carousels and so on can be effective if applied judiciously but can also leave users confused about where to start. When you understand your customers as real people, you can put resources where the need (and payoff) is greatest, surfacing the right content at the right time, in the right place.

Take the long view and never stop updating: IKEA invests in employees to turn them into long-term contributors. You should approach and invest in content as part of a long-term business marketing strategy too. Pay attention to what new and return customers are doing on your website, and find ways to continually improve and enhance the experience. Listen to what’s happening outside of your website too — on social networks or in calls to your support center, for example — to stay on top of customer issues and maintain consistency in your communications.

Defy misconceptions, exceed expectations: Trying something new and different can feel risky, and I’m sure switching to new workforce management software was not a walk in the park for IKEA. But it’s almost always better than sticking with something old and stale that isn’t performing the way you want.

Customers shouldn’t need GPS to get around a big-box store. They shouldn’t need a Sherpa to find their way around your company website either. What other ideas do you have for helping customers reach their destinations?

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