Yet vendor Web sites still function by and large as old-school brochures, Forrester analyst Laura Ramos said. They tout the company's products and services rather than help the customer make a buying decision.
"It's all about me as a company," said Ramos, who covers marketing at the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm. "There's very little, 'I understand you, my customer, and here's how you can be successful.'"
Online "company brochures" can work, she said, but only if the language speaks to the user. On many vendor Web sites, however, customers are forced to fill out lengthy questionnaires and jump through other vendor-serving hoops.
"They ask you for too much information. They put up roadblocks to finding the cheaper products," Ramos says. And forget about getting a phone call back from the online customer service. "Vendors are missing the boat. They don't seem to realize they have a live customer on the Web site with every online visitor."
"I don't like Web sites that ask you to sign up before you can even look at what products they offer," Walker said. Some sites don't let her easily see prices -- she's had to "dig deep into the site to find them or even start the order process to find out the price."
Filling out a billing address is another pain, with some sites automatically declining at the slightest error, or giving her the boot even when the address is correct, Walker said. Then there is that "one company" McKee orders training from that dawdles through each step, keeping her occupied on the Web site for an hour to get one person signed up -- "if the site doesn't crash in the meantime."
Another turnoff? Long intro pages. "Sometimes you get an option to skip them, if you're lucky," she said.
IT vendors don't have a monopoly on bad Web sites. Business-to-business (B2B) user experience is generally poor, according to Forrester's annual review of B2B sites. Only two of the 16 major B2B Web sites tested in 2006 passed the Forrester criteria for usability: Wells Fargo Bank, with a passing grade of 30 out of a possible perfect 50 points, and Deloitte.com, which earned a grade of 27. The average score was 7.9, well below the passing mark of 25.
"Average scores in general were low, as basic design flaws hampered even the best sites we tested," said lead author Alan Webber in the Nov. 30 report.
Of the four industry sectors reviewed -- financial services, logistics, software and professional services -- the professional services companies outperformed the other sectors, buoyed by a strong performance by Deloitte.com. Bringing up the rear with an average score of 5.3 were the tech software companies: IBM (-1), Microsoft (6), SAP AG (7) and Oracle Corp. (9).
The significant flaws included: missing or buried essential content; inefficient navigation and search; illegible text and wasted space; and poor performance, in areas such as reliability, speed, privacy and security.
Death of the salesman -- Not
Underperforming Web sites means salespeople must -- and still do -- play an important role in buying decisions, according to the Forrester data. Nearly the same percentage of CIOs, 75%, said sales interactions are a primary source of product information.
One reason behind the renewed appeal of these events, according to Forrester, is vendors have learned to tailor them to targeted audiences. The more informal and intimate venues allow for up-close-and-personal product demonstrations, one-on-one conversations with sales representatives, talks by industry gurus on the latest trends and peer networking.
"Business buyers need to establish a relationship with their vendors," Ramos said. "While Web sites and product collateral convey product and service capabilities in detail, IT decision makers want to look someone in the eye and shake their hand before trialing a new technology or signing a contract."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer