Best practice for contact forms

Contact Forms

Most sites do not sell stuff online. For these sites the critical business component of their site is the contact form. Many businesses use a sales model in which the website’s role is to get the initial customer contact, which sales staff then follow up and close the deal. This is a very successful, proven, business model and this is what most organisations are doing. Not everyone formalises their sales process in these terms, but if you have a website but don’t sell online, that is what you are doing. Of course, that assumes you have a contact form. If you don’t have a contact form, you don’t have a commercial website, you have a hobby site.

In view of this, it constantly surprises me how little attention people pay to their contact forms. Poorly performing forms and poor management of the processes behind these forms is costing many people a great deal of money in terms of lost business. This article is an attempt to address common shortcomings in this area.

The Form Process

Before we talk about getting the best out of our contact forms, let’s examine the “form process” and establish some terminology. People have to view the form before they can fill it in. Viewing a form is a “page impression.” If getting new sales prospects is one of the reasons we have a website, getting people to fill in the form is one of our goals. Because people have to view a form before they can fill it in, getting people to view our contact form becomes one of our goals too. In order to improve any performance we have to first measure it. We therefore need a metric for viewing forms. The percentage of visits in which the contact form is viewed is the “prospect rate.” This is a number you’ll have to calculate manually. Prospect rate is not a recognized metric, it’s one I made up, so you won’t find it calculatated in any web analytics software. It is calculated by dividing the number of page impressions of your contact forms by the total number of visits (not visitors).

Not everyone who views a contact form fills it in. Here we measure the percentage of people who do not fill the form in. This is the “abandonment rate.” This metric comes from IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) and is widely recognized, though no formal definitions exist for it. However, some metrics systems will report this number. Abandonment rate is also used for shopping carts, and can be used for any form page, such as online quote systems. The higher the abandonment rate the worse the performance. We want low abandonment rates.

After someone has completed the form the information contained within it is sent to someone in the organisation. This is handled by the web server. When the visitor clicks the “submit” button (or equivalent) the information in the form (not the form itself) is sent by their browser to the web server. In most cases the web server then places that information into an email message and sends the email to someone in the organisation. In other cases the information is placed in a CRM or similar sales management system. Where the sales management system sits inside the company network (such as ACT) and not on the website, the information is usually sent via email to the company, where it is then imported into the CRM. The most popular tool for doing this with ACT is WebGrabber, which breaks an email into the appropriate fields inside ACT. However, in most cases contact form information ends up as emails inside Outlook.

Managing the Process

The first and most important thing to manage in this process is to ensure it is working. You cannot assume this is the case.

Where enquiries are converted into email and transmitted via the email system they inevitably have to pass through spam filters. Contact form information looks very similar to junk email; it comes from a computer (the web server), not a person and it contains fields not nice paragraphs of text. I have seen many cases where some, or all, enquiries were being treated as junk and lost. This harder to discover where some, but not all, enquiries are junked. If you suddenly stop getting any enquiries from the web you’ll probably notice. If only some are being junked you may not.

I recently worked with a client where 75% of their enquiries were being junked. This had been happening for two years, but no one had noticed, they just thought they got less enquiries than they actually did. In their case we estimated they were loosing potential business worth around 20% of their total turnover. We found a fortune in lost business sitting inside Outlook’s junk email folder.

I worked with a travel business in which most enquiries came from tour operators, not their website. All their online enquiries had been junked by Outlook for six months before it was discovered. You have to ask how come no one noticed the website had completely stopped generating enquiries. This brings us to a related issue – who gets the enquiries. In the case of the tour operator the enquiries came to the sales office receptionist. The logic was that since the receptionist takes the telephone calls and distributes them to the sales staff according to the nature of the enquiry, the receptionist should do the same with the email enquiries. The problem was that in this organisation the receptionist was the lowest paid, least capable, person in the office. When the email enquiries ceased to arrive, she noticed, but didn’t think to tell anyone.

Situations in which the enquiries are going into a CRM system are not guarranteed to work perfectly either. I worked with an international training company which uses ACT and WebGrabber. WebGrabber has to be programmed to understand the format of the email and told which field in ACT each item in the email corresponds (or “maps”) to. Setting up these correspondances is called “mapping.” Any process which places form data into a software system requires mapping of the form elements to the fields in the software. If the form changes, or the fields in the software change, the mapping becomes invalid. Once the mapping is invalid the enquiries either stop being imported at all, or some items stop being imported. In the case of the training company changes in the contact form meant that certain types of enquiry couldn’t be handled by WebGrabber and were being lost. As we all know, computers hate us and will seize any opportunity to hit us where it hurts, so the lost enquiries were, of course, the ones most likely to generate sales.

There are a number of steps which can be taken to avoid these scenarios. Firstly, we need to record the fact that someone filled in the form. The easiest way to do this is to have a separate “Thank You” page which is shown when the server gets the data. With tracking code in the Thank You page we can count how many enquiries should have been received. Some sites change the content of the page when the form is submitted, but keep the same URL. This is no use, you can’t tell if the form was submitted that way.

Once we can count submissions you can start to manage and improve the process. The first step is to compare the number of submissions with the number of enquiries actually recieved. The two numbers should match exactly. If they don’t, something is wrong. If the number of submissions is higher than the number of enquiries received, enquiries are not getting through.

Once we know the enquiries are getting through we can look at getting more. If we can increase the percentage of visits which result in an enquiry we are getting more potential business from the same number of visitors, that’s an improved return on investment – more profit for the same outlay. The first thing to look at is the abandonment rate. If it is above 50% something is probably wrong with the form. I often see abandonment rates above 90%. Usually this is because the form is badly designed.

In my experience the most common cause of high abandonment rates is layering multiple purposes into a contact form. The purpose of a contact form is to let potential customers send you contact information. However, people often use contact forms as a means of doing market research, for example asking: “How did you find our website?” If you do this, understand you are paying for this market research by throwing away potential sales. It is well known that every additional question placed on a contact form discourages some people from completing the form. You need to be sure the market information you gather this way genuinely translates into improved marketing which genuinely leads to additional sales, and that those additional sales are worth more than the lost business represented by a higher abandonment rate. If you think you can prove this is the case I’d love to hear from you, because I’ve never seen it.

Another common cause of high abandonment rates is trying to use the form to pre-qualify leads, for example, asking questions about how much someone want to spend, or what their budget is. Each pre-qualification question looses potential customers who do qualify, but don’t want to tell you this until they trust you more. Personally, I would rather have the sales staff waste a few minutes phoning someone who doesn’t qualify than loose a sale.

The third common cause of high abandonment rates is required fields, questions people have to answer or the form won’t be sent. I once had a real estate company which made “how do you rate our site?” a required question. I had to ask if they were really going to refuse to sell a house to someone just because they wouldn’t tell them what they thought of the site. Removing that question from the form doubled online enquiries overnight. This translated into additional sales worth fifty times the total cost of building and running the website.

Stupid or complex questions can also increase abandonment. One recruitment agency I worked with had “please describe your dream job” as a question. That’s a tough question to answer if you aren’t a good writer. It’s also hard to know what is expected as a response – a few words or a short novel? It’s simply easier for someone to go to another site which has an easier form. In addition, the answers they did get didn’t really get used by the placement staff. They were more concerned with candidate’s qualifications and experience.

The best contact forms are ones which only ask the things a company genuinely needs to know in order to make contact. In most cases this is nothing more than a name and a phone number or email address.

Finally, and most importantly, contact forms need management. In all the cases I’ve cited above, management had nothing to do with the contact form process. Someone in a sales management position needs to be counting form submissions and the resultant enquiries. They need to know what the abandonment rate is, and whether that is good or bad. If your website is designed to generate enquiries, watching and managing the contact form process is the single most important thing to do on the site. It’s what generates the income.