Sunday, December 31, 2006

Web sites should not be bolt on optional extras

As our day-to-day lives become more more dependent on the Web the quality of website becomes more important.  Unfortunately many companies treat their web presence as some kind of bold on optional extra.  Consequently we end up with web sites which frankly aren't very nice to use and can actually be misleading.

That's from a customer point of view from a corporate perspective things are potentially even worse.  Companies that created a bolt on website are not maximising the benefits they can achieve from the web and properly from an IT in general.  Not only are they not maximising the benefits of the holding if only costing the more.

This had been brought home to me in the last few days by the travel company Going Places this is a UK-based package holiday company with High Street travel agents.  Such companies are having a pretty rough commercial time at the moment three factors have come together to make business more difficult:

  • First the rapid growth in budget airlines in Europe means customers have more choice and package holiday company's charter airlines have competition.
  • Second the Internet means that travellers like myself can put together our own holiday schedules without a travel agent.
  • Finally all customers are familiar with travelling abroad so they don't feel the need for the comfort blanket of a package deal.

That said package holidays can be convenient.  So while I arranged my own honeymoon online couple of months ago without a travel agent insight, for my skiing holiday next year I opted to buy a package deal, sheer laziness on my part to be honest.

Actually it wasn't that lazy because the websites operated by the main package tour companies in the UK are pretty damn the awful.  I wonder how many people really want to download an entire 200 page full-colour holiday brochure in PDF format.  Then there is a search facility.  Unless you know what you're actually looking for it very hard to find anything.  And when you do know what you're looking for the search facility shows you holidays which aren't available. 

These guys have just picked up their off line model and dropped the online without any consideration for how it is used or what improvements they could make.  No wonder these companies are losing market share.

But actually this was trumped by experience at this weekend, again with the Going Places website.  From reasons I won't go into I actually needed to go to one of their branches.  Naturally I consulted their web site for the location of my nearest branch - although it is surprising how many web sites make this simple task difficult.

Helpfully the website for me my nearest branch was located at 42 High-Street Ealing.  So on Friday morning I dutifully made my way to this address only to find no travel agent.  Thinking I must have the wrong address I bought a coffee in a coffee shop with Internet connection and check the address.  Then I dialled the company's premium rate telephone number to ask exactly where the shop was.

Now the punchline: the operator told me the shop had closed over a year ago.  She apologised but told me there is nothing she could do about the website.

Let's think about this the moment:

  • The website is totally disconnected from the company's practices, it is not up-to-date and there is little they can do about changing it
  • The website is misleading potential customers and creating bad customer relations
  • Tthe website is not connected with company strategy which seems to involve closing branches

This is a company that has just reported its first year in profit after four years of losses.  Even as outside it is pretty obvious to me why the company has difficulty making money.

Obviously this is a company that treats its web site as a bolt on extra.  Potentially this company would make more money if it just stopped doing a website altogether rather than having a bad one.  Instead it could concentrate on doing what it does well (whatever that might be) instead of spending many an energy on a poor website.

Unfortunately for consumers to many companies are creating bad web sites which do not create a positive experience.  Everybody suffers consumer, the company and even the website designers and fully know most of the failings in the website.