More of us are shopping online than ever before, with record-breaking sales in the US over the holiday season.  Even smaller companies find it’s easy to set up and manage an ecommmerce site – and it’s a cost-effective alternative to expanding physical space. Yet businesses of all sizes are still slipping up when it comes to meeting customers’ expectations.

Of course, a few great examples such as Zappos set a high standard for online customer service. But all too often, these are exceptions rather than a general rule. According to a recent survey by American Express, shopping online can be a frustrating experience, with 80 per cent of consumers quitting in the middle of a transaction. Companies are also failing to respond to feedback – nearly 80 per cent of customers said their complaints via  social media were ignored.

Another survey by Oracle highlighted the gap between customers’ expectations and their actual experiences. They found that most people expected a reply to social media enquiries the same day. Customers consistently said they valued live help options, such as chat interfaces, yet few companies offer these. A high majority of American customers value live telephone support, saying they prefer to engage with a real person, and feel they are better understood.

However a very common complaint is that it’s difficult to find contact details on a website. Many sites restrict communication to online forms or emails. This can be frustrating for users who want an immediate – or at least same-day – response. For smaller companies, who lack the resources to provide telephone support, it helps to let users know when they can expect a response via email.

Many retailers use a “frequently asked questions” sections to anticipate queries. While this is a good idea in principle, in practice it’s often less than helpful. Too many questions look as if they have been made up by sales representatives, not customers. And basic information about shipping costs or store locations should be answered elsewhere on the website. If you want to keep an FAQ section, base it on real-life enquiries.

Delivery charges and returns can be also an issue. Most customers simply want up-front information about  how much they will pay, and what to do if they don’t like the goods. Not every company can afford to emulate Zappos’ generous one-year no-questions-asked guarantee, with paid shipping both ways. But make sure customers are clear about any charges and conditions before they reach the checkout.

Other key complaints are hard-to-navigate sites, order status pages that aren’t updated, and having to speak to multiple people to get a query resolved.  These hilarious videos by Google make a serious point – customers don’t want to jump through hoops to buy a loaf of bread from a supermarket, so why should they have the same experience online?

It doesn’t always require a lot of time and effort to improve the experience. Sometimes it’s enough for a marketing manager or website designer  to put themselves in the customers’ shoes. Improving the site layout and checkout process can also save time, by reducing the chance of complaints from the start. But when things do go wrong, there’s no substitute for a fast, human response. Getting it right can mean the difference between a one-off sale, and a loyal customer who keeps coming back.