August 23, 2004 -- Some statistics offered up by Canadian newspaper columnist John MacIntyre are interesting with respect to their implications for the ways many of us do business. In his weekly column, "Figuratively Speaking," MacIntyre reports that 54 percent of Web users who have stopped visiting a given site in the previous three months cite a lack of simplicity as the primary reasons for doing so. More importantly, some 70 percent say they would go to a competitor if a Web site is difficult to use. These stats, from a survey by the Customer Respect Group Inc., send a message to any business--print providers included--who have hung out their shingle on the Web and in hopes of attracting new customers and making it easier to do business with existing ones. If you think about your own Web habits, think about the sites you no longer visit because they are too cumbersome to use. What made you stop? Unclear structure? Too hard to find what you wanted? Awkward to do what you went there to do? There are plenty of reasons, and many sites aimed at servicing customers seem to be in a constant state of flux. I do most of my bill paying online, and visit several sites each month in addition to the one from my bank. Over the past year, each site has changed its look and feel multiple times, seemingly searching for the ideal interface. Most have gotten simpler and easier to use, but some continue to be baffling. In my opinion, sites intended to convey and distribute information or service customers' needs are in many ways a reflection of how a company thinks about its customers. I wrote recently about companies that seem to go out of their way to avoid communicating with customers, and Web sites are surely another way of keeping customers from finding what they need. Furthermore, according to a study by Harris Interactive, 41 percent of adults using the Internet use it to get information about products and services. That is an overall number, and it is likely much higher among companies--maybe like your customers--who want to have the ease of remote job submission and be able to use the Web as a communication channel with your company. Which brings me to your company's Web site. How easy is it for existing customers to navigate? What about for new customers? Do you describe the products and services you offer? Do you show the value you deliver and the attributes that make your business unique? Decide what you need to begin with--think of it as a wish list--and be sure to talk to some key customers Your own view of your site may well be a little myopic or biased. But have you done any customer research to find out the parts of your site that work well and those that may cause frustration? Have you asked customers how your site can work better for them? After all, the Web site is at once an electronic brochure and a conduit for doing business. And given that a hard-to-use Web site makes people very likely to look elsewhere for the services they need, it is important that your site be one that works for your customers. There are a number of products available to make it easy to have a compelling, branded Web site. They vary in cost and sophistication, and most can be customized to provide the interface you need to keep customers coming back. Some are available from print engine vendors while others are from firms specializing in virtual customer communications. And if you prefer, you can always have a custom site developed. However you choose to proceed, decide what you need to begin with--think of it as a wish list--and be sure to talk to some key customers about what would make the world a better place for them. As the site is developed, run it past those customers to provide a sanity check on what you have created. This helps you build a site that works for your business instead of against it. The Web is not going to go away. And as your Web site becomes part of business as usual, it must be accorded the same level of attention you give all your customers when you see them in person.