Delivering Exceptional Online Customer Experiences in the Era of Google

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Anyone in customer service understands the importance of fast, reliable service to customer satisfaction, corporate reputation and the bottom line. In the online realm, customer demands for exceptional experiences are even more stringent, and failure to deliver can have a huge, lasting impact on customer loyalty, brand and revenues.

Online customers want to get in and out of virtual stores with an unprecedented level of speed. This is known as the “Google Effect” and it means that customers expect all the websites and web applications they interact with today to be as fast and reliable as Google. For the average user, 0.1 seconds is an instantaneous, acceptable response, similar to what they experience with a Google search. As response times increase, interactions begin to slow and dissatisfaction rises. The impact of a slowdown can be devastating: Amazon has calculated that a page load slowdown of just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year. In addition, Google itself found that slowing search response times by just four-tenths of a second would reduce the number of searches by eight million per day — a sizeable amount.

Consider what can happen when online retailers fail to deliver high-quality online interactions:

  • Trying to purchase a new racing bike, an online customer struggles to research products. Frustrated by slow performance at every turn, he leaves the site and purchases the competition’s racing bike.
  • Drawn by a manufacturer’s sale on electronics, an online customer tries to buy a new device. The website is slow, performs inconsistently and then actually locks. Not wanting to miss the price, the shopper calls a call center for help — a higher cost channel — but even the call center is jammed. The customer, originally intrigued by the sale, abandons the idea to buy.
  • A large site, featuring a highly prized celebrity accessory crashes. The retailer’s website relays the message: “Sorry, we’re experiencing some technical difficulties right now.” The competitive brand, which sells a very similar item, enjoys significantly increased sales for several days — all from the initial company’s promotion!

Not only do customers want their interactions to be faster, but they also want their experiences to be richer, featuring functionality like online product tours, product catalogs and ratings and reviews. These features can make web pages “heavier,” which is at odds with the goal of achieving speed.

Increasing complexity in the application delivery chain

Delivering fast, reliable experiences has been made more difficult due to increasing complexity in the path between the data center and the customer, known as the application delivery chain. First, there’s the increasing complexity that starts in the data center.The growing use of multi-tier architectures, virtualization and other new technologies in the data center makes it increasingly difficult for IT to ensure optimal application reliability and speed. There are so many potential points of failure that trying to identify the root cause of an application performance problem can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Second, there’s the Internet, which is also making things much more complicated. Third-party components are assembled by the browser and can include functions such as content delivery networks (CDNs), ad networks, video, news feeds, shopping carts and web analytics. A slowdown for any one of these services can degrade performance for an entire web page. Today, there is significant complexity at the edge of the Internet that online retailers didn’t have to deal with back when applications ran solely in data centers that they fully controlled. Additionally, the mobile explosion forces retailers to ensure strong performance across a variety of mobile carriers and devices, including smartphones and tablets. Greater desktop browser diversity only exacerbates this challenge.

Finally, it’s not just the data center and the web that are more complex. Cloud computing infrastructures also affect application performance. Cloud providers rate themselves on availability, but availability does not necessarily translate to high-performance for your customers.

What does all of this teach us in the world of modern web applications?

With so many points that can result in a sluggish or unreliable website or application, how can you ensure rapid application performance and reliability? The key is for organizations to adopt a new generation of application performance management (APM) centered on an understanding of the true end-user experience. Several important points underscore this message:

  1. Traditional APM tools that provide siloed monitoring of various IT system and network elements are no longer sufficient. These tools leave many blind spots because they don’t show how the systems interact with one another and the performance of the overall system. For example, even if all your servers are up and running, this is no guarantee your customers are having a fast, reliable experience. This is especially true for servers in the cloud.Even if a cloud service provider is exhibiting five- or six-nines availability, a sudden spike in a cloud customer’s application traffic can result in application slowdowns for others sharing the same resources. In addition, even if all your data center systems and network components seem to be operating perfectly, there could be something else going awry beyond your firewall — i.e. a slow CDN. Today, the “Internet is the data center” and if you focus solely on elements in your data center, you’re leaving huge portions of the application delivery chain unchecked.
  2. To a similar end, online retailers need united coverage across the complete application delivery chain. Online retailers can derive maximum benefit by monitoring the data center and Internet components of the application delivery chain in conjunction, in a “single pane of glass” approach. This is key to understanding the full spectrum of performance-impacting variables and quickly identifying faulty elements when poor end-user performance is detected.
  3. Online retailers must understand that the explosion of mobile means customers are accessing websites and applications all the time. Online retailers can’t just rely on sample data to test applications, since cost-incurring issues can occur outside the testing interval. Compuware research from the 2012 holiday season showed that Thanksgiving evening — as opposed to just Cyber Monday — is now also a prime time for online holiday shopping, as customers browse their tablets from the comfort of their couches. This is a growing trend known as “couch commerce,” which has grown more prominent just in recent years as the lines between Thanksgiving evening, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are becoming increasingly blurred. Mobile means that no time is okay for mediocre or poor online performance. Online retailers need to be measuring and monitoring all applications 24 hours a day, seven days a week and combining this with deep-dive diagnostics that allow them to identify the source and cost of problems and then prioritize resolutions accordingly.

There’s good news for online retailers

Fortunately, leading APM vendors are delivering cost-effective, fast time-to-value solutions that are based in a true understanding of the customer experience. Armed with the knowledge of performance degradation, organizations can then quickly canvas the entire application delivery chain to find and fix a wide variety of performance issues before customers even notice them.

Going a step further, Compuware is offering services to its own customers called the Compuware Performance Pit Stop Service. This service is specially designed for those “on the front lines” for delivering exceptional online customer experiences. Modern applications are not just growing more complex, but business demands are driving application change faster, and IT teams are running leaner than ever. Compuware’s Performance Pit Stop Service is targeted at solving this dilemma by providing experts on-demand who can immediately help solve specific application performance problems using Compuware’s industry leading technology.

Finally, Compuware also offers a variety of free tests, which anyone can use to quickly learn how their website performs across browsers, compared to their competition, and across mobile applications.

End-user experience is the key to ensuring flawless customer interactions

With the holidays rapidly approaching, online retailers are once again considering how they will maximize e-commerce revenues, which have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years even as in-store sales growth has remained weak.

By now, we all know that fast, reliable interactions are absolutely critical to an online retailer’s success. So why are so many e-commerce businesses vulnerable in this area? The simple answer is that there are so many connection and potential failure points standing between the back-end of the data center and customers’ browsers. Any one of these areas along the application delivery chain can experience problems and take customers from a satisfactory experience to complete frustration.

Additionally, as modern applications execute more code at the very edge of the Internet — i.e. at the level of browsers and devices accessing various service provider backbones and CDNs — retailers must have a granular view of this experience. Only a new generation of APM can overcome all the complexity of modern application delivery chains and deliver this view. When combined with deep-dive diagnostics spanning the complete application delivery chain, organizations can proactively identify, pinpoint and fix the source of application performance problems, preventing damage before it is done.

headonly_small— Klaus Enzenhofer is a Technology Strategist for Compuware’s Application Performance Management (APM) Business Unit. He can be reached at Klaus.enzenhofer@compuware.com.

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