Perfectly formed?

SCS ComputerlabGetting data

Recently I have found myself chewing over the pros and cons of on-line forms with a number of clients, so I thought I would set down a few points about how we really ought to be handling that critical moment when the viewer crosses that all important barrier and becomes a customer – or else clicks away and is lost.
I do not suggest that there is a right and wrong to this – I just want to share a few ideas about the way we are soliciting for information from our viewers.

Consider; our goal is to nurse the viewer past the natural resistance they feel in introducing themselves to an unknown individual (namely you).  Is the best way to do this with a vast form that wants name, address, e-mail, name of parents, inside leg of next of kin and all the rest and all heavily dotted with a rash of red asterisks indicating fields YOU MUST COMPLETE.
(My dad had a field, he used to plant vegetables in it – I assume this is not the same thing because I don't do much stuff on line.)

Finally, a pet hate of a colleague of mine, when you fill it all in and shoot it off into oblivion or at least to an unknown e-mail address– where is your copy of what you wrote for follow-up purposes or for your own records?

Daunting or what?

Now, no one said the form you design has to be so complex and demanding – but if you want to harvest all the information you need at the first contact, it may well need to be. 
So is a form the ideal first contact tool?

Variations on the theme.

If we need to follow up on the customer anyway, why not come home to the fact that we will have to talk to them and so just get them to “form” us an e-mail, or even a simple e-mail link to which we can reply with a prepared e-mail that says hello and offers simple options for specific groups of clients.

For example, if the request is just for information, we do not need to demand a lot of background from the client. 
If it is a booking for a flat or car, we need to know much more – and so with our more flexible approach we can ask just what we need to know.

But we ask it in a context that the customer is far more used to, their e-mail client.

A valid criticism of this approach is the lack of automation in the process – you need a human at your end to make decisions and to dispatch the e-mail.

For my part, I feel that unless you are a vast organization that is likely to be handling dozens of e-mails every day, this is another double-sided issue. 
The element of “personal service” evident in the interaction between your company and the client can only help reinforce their decision to do business with you.  It offers you the opportunity to offer help and advice to clients, to mention your promotions and special deals and perhaps to improve the sale for both parties. 
It is questionable policy to avoid contact with your potential clients!

So – before employing the on-line form, consider the following.

  1. If you do not need to use some form of automated booking or response system, do you really need such an impersonal on-line persona for your company?
    2. If a form is necessary for you to conduct business on-line, keep it as unchallenging as possible.  Write the form the same way as you wrote your site, primarily as a communication tool.
    3. Security! Make sure no-one else can use your from sending script to send their own spam e-mails and leave you holding the baby.
    4. Watch your Webstats closely – is the form the commonest exit page? (i.e. people see it and leave?)
    5. Follow up – if you are likely to need to e-mail the client to follow up on the data they have sent you, the form is not working for you and needs fixing - or replacing.

To form or not to form, it's a decision you need to make. 

Just think about it first.

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About the author

A commentator, designer and HTML wrangler whose experience dates back to when the web went Eeek! Eek! AAAAaaaaAAAAhhhhhh TSSSSSSssss down a 56k modem, those days before Flash was a security risk and Wordpress was still just for blogging.
These days he still designs, hand codes HTML/CSS and watches the latest developments on line on behalf of SCS Computerlab :-)