Migrate Loudly

Rather than alienate paying customers, Staples goes out of its way to tell Web surfers about upcoming changes to its site.

Whenever eBay Inc. makes a change to its site - new color schemes, a better search engine - the complaints flood in. Users don't like change. Especially users who are new to the Web and who may have purchased their computer specifically to participate in online auctions or shopping.

Software makers can force consumers to learn a new interface or to become familiar with a new color scheme. But on the Web, confused users can easily click to a competing site.

As a result, sites such as eBay often unveil "stealth" redesigns, making multiple minute changes over time so that customers won't notice. "(EBay CEO) Meg Whitman is on the Staples.com board. She was in a meeting talking about this migration and said that as far as even changing the background of all eBay's pages from white to off-white, they did it in gradations, because even a slight change was really a shock to people, and (eBay officials) hear about it," says Colin Hynes of Staples.com.

Staples.com took that advice but opted for the opposite approach: let users know what they were getting, and why. It's akin to the old adage about how to tell a speech: Tell people what you're going to tell them, then tell it to them, then tell them what you told them. "You have to be very helpful," says Hynes. "We knew from experience that if you change the layout of a retail store, you can have a lot of upset customers. So we took a lot of precautions to make sure the transition was smooth."

Warning: Changes Coming!

Before the launch, the Staples.com home page had a link titled "The new Staples.com is coming." It took users to a page that introduced forthcoming changes and reassured people that their current account settings and preferences wouldn't be lost in the redesign.

To coincide with the redesign, Staples did many things, such as direct mail and e-mail campaigns, to alert users to the newly redesigned site. The e-mails even targeted users of specific features. "One said, 'We know you have e-mail reminders set up, and e-mail reminders will not change,' " says Hynes.

Staples also conducted informal presentations within the company itself. "As in every organization, everyone is very focused on an area of expertise. So we did a very extensive education so people can understand what the site is," says Hynes.

When the new redesign launched, the home page sported a "click here to see what's new" link. A new section of the FAQ explained all the changes and the company's reasoning behind them. The marketing department commissioned a new round of television advertisements. People could also call a toll-free number that guided them through the new features on the site.

For the most part, things have gone smoothly. "I won't say it's been 100% of people not looking for the old site, but by and large it's been enthusiastically received," says Hynes. Staples uses third-party ratings service BizRate.com to let customers rate the various aspects of the site. And results of the survey "have been incredibly enthusiastic," says Hynes. - Mathew Schwartz

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