November 1, 2006

10+ Rules of Geek E-Commerce

Whether you know it or not, there is a booming marketplace out there called the Internet and one of the most successful uses for it has been E-Commerce. There are many markets, from grandma who wants pictures of her grandkids delivered to her doorstep to, yes, Geeks. In this article, we’re going to focus on how to provide E-Commerce to Geeks; how to get them, how to keep them, and how to get them back if you lost them. Please try to remember that the scope of selling to Geeks isn’t just restricted to shops like ThinkGeek (which target individuals) but businesses of all shapes and sizes with very diversified markets; geeks have jobs too.

Everyone knows that the best marketing is word of mouth! You do know this, right? Word of mouth can either make you, or it can break you. It all depends on what is being said about your business. The key is to both drive new business and to retain old business (repeat customers rock!). The path to success in each of these areas is your customer service. Customer service is the lifeblood of your organization. Almost anyone can sell something once – it’s selling the second time around that is the difficult part, especially if the customer (henceforth, your Geek) has had a bad experience with your company.

Try to follow these rules (listed below in semi-random order), and you’ll be well on your way to success when selling to Geeks. Many of these rules can apply to more than just Geek E-Commerce. These are basic rules that any organization can and should follow.

Rule #1, “Your Geek is Always Right” AKA “Don’t argue with the customer”

Remember that Geeks aren’t just a single individual. You may think that you can pick them off as the weaker members of the herd and deal with the fallout easily enough; in many cases, you would be dead wrong. Geeks are often the head of the herd for their organizations. Their advice and the sweat of their brow are responsible for generating billions of dollars of revenue each year for many companies just like yours. Without their advice and suggestions, and their spending money (disposable income from all those huge paychecks you write to them!) your company quite possibly wouldn’t exist.

Your Geek has friends (See #3) and they hold grudges. It takes five times (did you hear the pop, where I pulled that statistic out of my…) more work to get a new customer than to keep an existing one. Just pony up and accept the fact that “the customer is always right,” even when he’s not.

If your Geek says something is broke, it’s broke! Simplify your return process, for example refer to Newegg’s policy. Trust that your Geek isn’t going to return something he bought and waited soooo earnestly for, unless it’s broke or just wrong. Oh, and make sure you pay for the return if you shipped the wrong item – don’t charge a restocking fee unless your Geek ordered the wrong thing.

Don’t be afraid to admit when your company was wrong. It will endear you to your Geek. Believe it or not, Geeks will typically admit when they are wrong too… call it a shortcoming, or call it a plus, this is the one time your target audience will work in your favor. Their honesty is usually a factor of their work environment. Geeks are trusted with invaluable amounts of corporate data. They (by virtue of their jobs) typically have the ability to browse your email, and they work with systems that process hundreds of millions (or more) dollars per day. They have government organizations looking over their shoulder every day of their careers (SOX, BSA, etc.) and have the equivalent of the military “Top Secret” in your very organization. If you can’t trust your Geek to be honest about whether or not his widget is broken, you’re in the wrong business.

With all that being said… remember the inverse “The customer always lies…” (You can’t win for losing can you?) Test what you get back… Sorry, there’s always the one jerk out there that ruins it all for the rest of us. At this point, I will refer you to rule #3.

Rule #2, “Listen to your Geek, he knows of what he speaks” AKA “He wouldn’t’ have bought it if he didn’t know what to do with it… mostly.”

Unless you are a huge company I doubt that you could afford to staff your support/RMA/help desk with other Geeks. (Even then, I doubt you could afford it, or that you could find enough Geeks to be successful.)

Don’t try to befuddle your Geek… trying to out-tech your Geek will result in a poor customer experience. Remember that you are not here to prove that you know more than they do, you are here to “make a buck.” You’re not going to make another cent from your Geek if you alienate him or make him feel inferior. Geeks (believe it or not) typically have a low self esteem and live in their own community where they have their own social standing (remember when you picked on them in school, this is your fault!) Your Geek will lash out if cornered. Refer to rule #3.

So, how do you deal with your Geek if he’s having issues? It’s a simple process. Listen to what your Geek has to say, deal with his complaint, and listen some more. The whole point here is that your support person needs to be patient, empathic, and supportive.

Believe it or not, your Geek may have a question or two! This is OK, it means you have earned your Geek’s trust, and he wants you to advise him. Use this to your advantage… but be cautious, don’t be wrong. Make sure you know your products, know your manufacturers and know your customers. It is vital that you train your staff. Please, if you don’t have the answer, don’t B.S. your Geek. If you have the resources, forward your Geek to a Subject Matter Expert, or try to help them locate necessary assistance. Even if you have to forward your Geek to another company, ask your Geek to call back and “update his service ticket” with what he has found. If you have the ability, give him access to his “service ticket” online.

Rule #3, “Geeks can be petty and vindictive” AKA “I have more friends than you do”

Remember, word of mouth can destroy your company. Geeks can screw you over in more ways than one. They have access to knowledge and tools that would amaze and scare the daylights out of you. Most of the time your Geek will take the moral high-ground (remember rule #1?) but not if they feel that you have taken the first step in a downward trend. If your Geek feels that you are a “lost cause,” you may very well be, quite soon.

Geeks have friends. Lots of them. Everything from World of Warcraft buddies, to forums to users groups. Geeks Blog, they know how to “work the system” better than you do. Heck, your Geek may have even written the system. Your user ratings are at risk (See #7).

If you’re not a Geek yourself, do you really think your drinking buddies are going to click that link you send them to help you get your ratings back up to four stars? Trust me, your Geek’s friends will happily click away, lowering your score with every click. Most of them will write a three line script to do it for them.

Have I scared you yet? Good. Do the right thing; your Geek will usually do the same. See #1.

Rule #4, “Geeks like free stuff” AKA “Gimme schwag, baby!”

Coupons, discounts, depreciated or branded trinkets, movie ticket vouchers, T-Shirts. I will quote one Geek “If it’s free, I’ll take it!” Another Geek in response says “Even if it’s crap!”

Offer contests with prizes; your Geek loves to compete!

If you’ve been in business for a while, do you have any of last year’s gear lying around? Who buys 16MB USB Flash drives anymore? Throw one in the box. Your Geek will love your for it. If there’s a chance your Geek might get freebies again, he’ll come back. Trust me, I’m guilty.

Rule #5, “Respond, and communicate”

If you are guilty of having voice mail, and email that doesn’t use auto-responders, shame on you. Answer your phone and email with a sense of urgency. This is a good customer service rule of thumb for any organization.

Geeks don’t like being sent to /dev/null (and if you don’t understand what that means, you need to hire a Geek.)

Set up a ticketing system, it’s cheap and effective. Geeks love service tickets. They like to think that you care, and that you are addressing their concern as a top priority. Your Geek is familiar with these systems from work, and understands how queuing works. This will help your Geek to understand his place in line and as long as you update the ticket with some expediency your Geek will be happy… even if you take a long time to resolve his issue.

Geeks may be further incented to purchase from you, if they see you show a visible interest in support.

Rule #6, “Make it easy”

Make it easy to find and buy stuff. Also, make it easy to get support and information about the products, even if you link to the manufacturer site. If you don’t have something your Geek wants, tell him where he can get it. He’ll come back to you every single time. Provide an email address, online support system, and phone number where you will be committed to answering.

Your website needs to always be available. If it ever disappears, put up a maintenance page. Your Geek will worry about your stability if your website keeps going away; from your Geek’s perspective, your site going down is a distinct lack of investment in your core business. Inaccessibility is anathema to your Geek. It better be there, or else.

Provide consistent information, per product forums with ratings. Drop products that are rated low, and build a community around your products. Let your Geek blog about their product experiences, and what he uses it for; including “action photos.” Good examples of this in action are ThinkGeek and Newegg. In the end, your Geek will work for you, and you won’t even have to pay him.

Don’t offer “rebates” unless you have to; your Geek would rather you offer instant discounts instead, when possible. If you must offer “rebates” check out what Bestbuy and CompUSA are doing with their rebate programs.

Rule #7, “Mind your ratings”

Your Geek will research a purchase prior to making it. He will try to ensure that his money is being spent well. Everything from trade magazines to Google searches are a part of your Geek’s investigations. Once the product has been decided on, he will use many resources to ensure that he is getting a reasonable price from a trusted company; if this is the first time your Geek has made a purchase from you, he will most likely check your reseller ratings, Froogle ratings, and will do a search for your company name before committing to a purchase. Even if your prices are a tad higher than other vendors, he will often still buy from you if your ratings are high, or he has had a previous pleasant buying experience.

If your Geek has a bad buying experience, he will tell his friends, he will comment on his blog, and he will demerit you on your ratings. See #3. Be sure to keep reading onward to #9 also.

Rule #8, “Track your shipments” AKA “Where’s my stuff?”

I can’t stress this enough; your Geek is childlike in his want and desire for his new widget. Send your Geek tracking information about his order. Most shipping companies allow for tracking of packages, including the US Postal Service. If you can’t provide tracking information, then at least notify your Geek of when the shipment went out, and an approximate number of days for delivery.

This is a small thing, but it pays dividends in greater proportion than you can ever imagine. Remember it’s the buying experience that will bring your Geek back for more!

Rule #9, “Fix or prevent negative buying experiences” AKA “Geeks don’t always hold grudges”

So, you’ve messed up royally. You’ve angered the Geek gods, and now you are suffering the consequences. How do you fix it? It’s not easy, but it can be done. Your Geek won’t always hold a grudge, if you make an effort to let them know that you did appreciate their business, and that you want to improve your process. Geeks appreciate being asked for their advice, it makes them feel important.

Send an apology card, free stuff doesn’t hurt (See #4), gift certificates, or a personal call from someone in “management” that can talk to them about their experience.

If you can catch the problem before it escalates, open a service ticket, talk your Geek down, be sure to communicate with your Geek. Remember, your company may have a policy, but rules are made to be broken (yes, even these 10 should be broken occasionally!)

And lastly, always, always, always provide what you’ve promised.

Rule #10, “Geeks buy for companies” AKA “You’re cool, can I buy my stuff for work from you?”

Remember #1? Geeks work for companies, and at those companies, your Geek may very well be a big-wig. He may make purchasing decisions or recommendations, and he may want to use your company to make large purchases! Don’t run your Geek off; he may be your conduit to bigger deals. If you can, be sure to let everyone know that you take purchase orders! This is huge for companies, including small ones. If you offer leasing, let your Geek know… it’ll pay off in the end.

Treat your Geek like he’s another corporate customer, as though he has the same buying power as a Fortune 100 company, and he will love you forever. Offer corporate discounts on personal purchases for Geeks that have set up corporate accounts (trust me; you want access to their corporate account, not their personal bankroll.) Examples of companies that have done this, and succeed are Dell and CDW. Both of these are powerhouse companies, which know how to treat employees of their corporate customers.

Always try to keep it simple as in #6.


Well, that’s about it… ten very basic rules for dealing with Geek E-Commerce. Mind them and your Geek will come back and possibly bring his friends, and their friends.

Please let me know if you have any suggested modifications, or opinions about this matter. I’m always open for discussion.

Good luck! May the gods of Geekdom smile upon your business!


Jerry Gilreath is the founder of The Gadget Workshop & a true geek. Jerry is a frequent shopper online, and lives up to Rule #3.

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