Website Uptime, Your Reputation, and Your Bottomline

The week before Christmas online sales rose 16% over last year according to a report on CNN. Black Friday and Cyber Monday also set records for online sales in 2011. While certainly good news for retailers the implications for any business online is clear: Your customers and prospects are online and they are comfortable completing sales online. So what happens when your website isn’t available?

Just ask Victoria Secret. Black Friday turned out to be a black mark for their online sales due to an extended outage of 80 minutes during peak online shopping. Frustrated customers took to twitter and Facebook to complain - not only about not being able to shop but issues with orders even after the website returned. The company's official Facebook posting simply asked customers to “keep trying”. That means details of what exactly happened aren’t clear. Their servers may have been overwhelmed by the demand, or they may have had an equipment failure. Whatever the issue, it’s clear they weren’t prepared for it based on the extended outage.

And Victoria Secret wasn’t alone. Several major retailers had outages of varying lengths on Black Friday: Toys ‘R’ Us, Footlocker, the Gap, Cabela’s and Macy’s just to name a few. Though Victoria Secret topped the list for worst available uptime - from a user’s perspective. Server monitoring indicated that their systems were up and running but user’s saw a “Temporarily Unavailable” notice that redirected sales to their phone line.

This highlights the necessity to monitor your servers and systems from every angle possible. You want to know what your users are seeing. The quicker you respond and mitigate the issues the less time your customers spend complaining about you on social media sites and more time researching or buying from you. These days your brand’s reputation is tied to how your website performs. Angry or frustrated people are more likely to complain - loudly - so you’ll have to launch damage control campaigns as well as fix the technical problem.

So what will really happen to the large online retailers that experienced outages this holiday season? Those mentioned here probably won’t see any real impact in the long run. They likely lost out on sales during their downtime but may have made them up when their websites became available again. Given Victoria Secret’s reaction, or lack thereof, they obviously viewed it as a minor hiccup. Well established brands aren’t immune to a customer exodus but they aren’t likely. But if you have a smaller less established brand your website may be the first and only impression you get to make on a prospect. Being unavailable, or other technical issues, may cost you a customer forever.

To ensure that you’re always ready and able to serve customers and prospects you need to have a performance plan in place so you can meet the demand. You also need to be using a website monitoring service that alerts you to any issues immediately. A combination of planning and monitoring should guarantee your prospects and customers will be able to access your website. What they do when they get there is all up to you.