By David Peters, CPA
It has often been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. While no one is quite sure where this quote comes from (some say Oscar Wilde, others say Will Rogers), most everyone seems to agree it is true. While clients and business partners might not remember every word that was said, they generally remember how they felt before meeting with you, and more importantly, how they felt when they left. They remember being impressed or a negative feeling in the pit of their stomach. First impressions help us decide whether we want to keep going back to a company — or when it is time to walk away.
That’s why it is so baffling when we see a business with a bad website. Websites often are our first impression to clients, vendors, employees, prospects, and the business community in general. During the pandemic, we have relied on technology more than ever. Unless your target client or stakeholder can look out his or her window and see your office, your storefronts and office signs have become less important. The company’s personality and philosophy are expressed through their website. Even before the pandemic, Google search has made websites the main way people look for services. Some might still drive by an office, see a sign and stop in, but this has become exceedingly rare. People almost always check a company’s website before interacting with any employees. While many website designers will advocate expensive full-scale improvements to get more value from your website, small improvements to strategy and usability can often make all the difference between a good first impression and a poor one.
Decide on a purpose
One of my college friends used to often say, “There is too much information in the world.” While he would say this as an excuse for why he did not use his turn signal when changing lanes on the interstate, I often think of this whenever I look at a financial professional’s website. As I click my way through buzzword-filled, non-descriptive “About Us” pages, I wonder why this information is even here. Is this website even telling me anything? Or did the company launch this website because they felt it was something that businesses do?
Business websites should have a distinct and easily understood purpose. It should be clear from the homepage why the site exists and what you want the visitor to do. If the goal is to get people into the office for in-person appointments, then information about your location, office hours, and how you can make an appointment should be obvious. On the other hand, if the goal is to provide clients with recent GAAP or tax law updates, links to the most recent articles should be square in the middle of the home page.
Some financial professionals might be uncomfortable with this idea. They worry about coming across too blunt or “salesy.” One accounting firm that I used to work with was very concerned about making a “hard sale” to their clients. As a result, they made it so their contact information could only be seen if you scrolled all the way down to the bottom of the page. Needless to say, they were highly disappointed in their website’s performance and felt it was a waste of money.
Poor communication of purpose can actually dissuade people from your services. If we want our website to bolster our business, we must make it clear why it is there. Simply put, clients want to know what to do. A clearly communicated purpose can help them understand.
Make it easy
Early in my career, I remember being called into my boss’s office to help with a “tech issue.” After spending several minutes telling me about the evils of technology and belittling the world’s IT geniuses, he finally revealed his problem: He couldn’t get an online payment to go through on a vendor’s website. After I helped him navigate a website maze and enter his credit card information, he imparted some advice that still speaks volumes to me: “Never make it difficult for your customers to pay you, Dave.”
The frustration my boss felt on that day is common among many of us. We go to a website to do a simple task, like look up a transaction, make a payment, or just find contact information, only to find this action impossible. It makes us frustrated. It makes us angry. It makes us not want to do business with that company anymore.
People want websites that are simple to navigate and make it easy to accomplish common tasks. While flashy websites might catch our eye, our feelings quickly turn negative if we can’t do the things we want to do. Perhaps that is why there is such an emphasis now on mobile websites. According to Statista, 81% of all worldwide online traffic in 2020 was generated through mobile devices. In short, if your visitors want to access your site using their phone, the goal should be to make it easy for them to do this. How we design our website should be in line with its purpose for existing.
Let’s say you are an insurance company and the purpose of your website is to drive new customers. The way you will drive new customers is by helping them get quotes (which will lead to policy binds) and providing easy answers to common questions. You might place a button that says “Get a Quote” on every page in an obvious place. You might provide answers to common questions along the side of each page. You might also have a chat box that is open, in case the visitor wants to interact with an insurance agent in real time.
On the other hand, if you are an accounting firm and your website exists to generate new tax clients, then you might want to consider incorporating functionality into your website that will allow clients to schedule their appointments online. While these items might seem small, they improve the user’s experience. Since websites are an extension of your firm, a good first interaction with your website is a good first interaction with you!
One other thing — people don’t scroll. As funny as it might sound, every website marketer will attest to this. Make it clear what you want the visitor to do, and make it so they don’t have to scroll down to do it!
Measure everything (or at least as much as you can)
When I was the CFO of an internet-based insurance business, I learned quickly that website visitors who give you feedback are often at the extremes. They have either had a terrible experience and want to complain about it (more common), or they have had a wonderful experience and want to praise you for it (less common, but it still happens). What about those people who fall in the middle? Maybe with one or two tweaks, they will become clients for life. They don’t leave feedback because their experience was not a train wreck — but it didn’t leave them in a state of euphoria. Wouldn’t it be good to know about them?
While surveys can generate feedback about our website, it often doesn’t reflect the average visitor. Therefore, we need to develop detective skills to get indirect feedback on our average group. For this reason, it is good to come up with reliable metrics to figure out what people are actually doing on your website. Tracking where people click to most often, how long they spend on particular pages, and where they drop off can lead to deeper insights on why people use your site. This information can help you adapt your website in a way that will be more in tune to your purpose.
Let’s say the purpose of your site is to drive more clients through greater in-person meeting appointments. You begin tracking where people are falling off the website, and you notice that people are leaving once they reach the appointment page where you ask for preliminary information about them. It may be the webpage is too cumbersome to complete (too much information is being asked for). It could be the page design is confusing. It could be that people don’t trust you enough yet to start giving you information. In the same way that you use ratios to tell where problems with financial statements might exist, tracking where people fall off can help focus your attention on the problem area. From there, you might try shortening your online form, or providing a phone number to call if people need help. While the exact problem might not come through immediately, you at least know where to look. However, before you can do that, you must begin tracking and monitoring. While it would be ideal to track everything, too many monitoring tools can slow your website’s performance. Therefore, prioritize the most important components of your website.
Build a better website
Websites are how businesses make a first impression in today’s world. While a site’s look and feel are important, these qualities take a backseat to clearly defined purpose, functionality and user experience. People who can easily find what they want and get the information they need will return time and time again.
David Peters, CPA, CFP®, CLU, CPCU, is the founder and owner of Peters Tax Preparation & Consulting PC, a financial advisor for Peters Financial LLC in Richmond, and a frequent VSCPA speaker and writer. He has more than 16 years of experience in financial services.
Reprinted with permission from the South Carolina Association of CPAs.
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