Companies are notoriously obsessive about their search engine rankings. I can’t recall how many conversations I’ve had about the commercial imperative to be higher up on Google’s first page. Or even onGoogle’s first page.

It’s a shame that more companies don’t match that fixation with a focus on servicing thosecustomers whoenquire via their website.

Traffic to a website is like a funnel. A large percentage of every website’s traffic consists of people who arrive and then leave. This is normal behaviour, though the bounce rate on companies’ Google Analytics is often the subject of a lively discussion, too.

Of those people who stick around, only a fraction will visit more than one page – and fewer still read pages at length. Finally, a minority will purchase or make an enquiry.

The logic often applied at this point is that “we need to be higher up on Google, so more people come – which means we’ll get more enquiries”. Possibly true, but the real payoff is to be gained by making sure that those treasured few who do enquireare given a faultless, fastand informed response. But what’s the point in getting more enquiries, if you’re not doing enough with them?

You’d think that companies leap on enquiries and process them with alacrity. (Ask any seasoned sales person – an enquiry much older than 24 hours is cold; longer, it positively has rigor mortis.) My experience – both empirical and anecdotal – is that this isn’t the case.

When I’ve been commissioned to perform website audits – including mystery shopping of the client and its competitors – I’ve never, everhad a response rate greater than 50% of those enquired to. Yes, you read that right – half of the companies didn’t even respond.

In a survey of training companies, less than a fifth responded within a week. Of those, just a couple provided exactly what was asked for. And do you know what was most damning? Only one company followed up the enquiry with a phone call. What this effectively means is two-fold: a company in this industry could mop up, simply by mailing literature, providing a quote and following it up; nearly every company was throwing away money on website development and search optimisation. There’s no point in driving traffic to a website if you do nothing with that traffic.

Likewise, in a survey of car manufacturers, less than half responded with the requested brochure. Most spectacularly, one manufacturer’s brochure arrived over a year after the enquiry was placed – sadly, far too late to be counted in my report to the client.

When I’m enquiring for my own personal reasons, things aren’t much better. I recently had a tripod delivered which had a faulty part. I e-mailed the manufacturer to ask about a replacement. No response. (This is worse than an enquiry not being answered. When something’s not right, the difference between a quick response and no response is the difference between giving someone an experience to rave about – orgiving them one to fume about. Good disciples drive more word-of-mouth business; bad ones kill sales.)

Another enquiry about the data transfer rate of a Thunderbolt hard disc drive took a week for me to get a “we’re looking at it” response. A couple of days later, the best information they could provide was from a subjective and somewhat unscientific third-party magazine review.

The lesson here is that enquiries are valuable. They’re the most valuable things to come from your website. How they’re processed should be given as much time, attentionand money as you’d give to search optimisation and driving traffic. If not more.

Every single enquiry is a seedling with potential. A customer in utero.I remember a client telling me, some years ago, that they’d multiplied their sales by around 40% by doing one simple thing: they put a service level around properly resolving every enquiry within four hours if simple, twenty-four hours if complex.

Websites should not exist in isolation. They should be a living extension of a business. They’re what marketing people call a touch-point. Touch being the operative word. The customer’s reached out and touched you. He or she wants something. Not having adequate processes for responding to website enquiries is, in the customer’s eyes, no less rude than being ignored when posing a question face to face.

It’s that simple. You give the customer what’s asked for, quickly, and multiply your sales. Or you carry on ignoring them – and let them go somewhere else. Because if you don’t answer their questions, someone else will.