In lockdown 2020, I made extra effort to support small, independent businesses as they were the ones suffering the most. I supported a bunch of unique mother-daughter/one person/quit school/running out of my garage or kitchen type of businesses.

I also posted on Instagram to do my little bit in getting more eyeballs to their work, even if it helped them get one more paying customer. I’m sure we can agree, in this tough economy, every sale counts. I was never asked once to post anything, this was my personal choice.

In the same breath, I also had not-so-great experiences from products I bought but I didn’t share these publicly, intentionally. I understand how to give constructive criticism vs trashing someone’s livelihood. And I know very well a once-off bad experience could be just that.

I recently crowd-sourced what people dislike about the way online businesses are run. This includes Instagram-only businesses where you conduct everything over DM. Here are the biggest gripes about online businesses:

1. DM for price
This was by far the biggest annoyance judging from the replies I received, and most said they will not even buy from the business. If you walk into a supermarket, everything is clearly marked. If you are selling goods, why would you hide the most obvious bit of info that people would want to know? I will never buy from someone who is not transparent about pricing. Separately, if you think there’s nothing wrong with “DM for price”, think about how inefficient it is to sit and reply to each query, when you can be more productive with other things. Where’s the logic? Also state any “hidden costs”.

2. No website, contact info, location
The second most popular reply was collectively not having a website, contact number, email address, location and pick-up points. Businesses have to provide basic information that a customer would need, which also helps partly in trust, and in their purchasing decisions. Eg: I would be inclined to buy from someone near my vicinity as I’d imagine a pick-up option would be made available. When it comes to websites, I would only trust online businesses with a secure website (https) with encryption for payments and upfront courier costs. There’s no way I’m making payment on a website that doesn’t encrypt my personal and payment info.

3. Courier costs
Another major issue is not listing courier prices upfront, which areas are covered, and how long it takes. This one shouldn’t be difficult considering many small independent businesses I know of lists it as one standard price to anywhere in SA. Adding to this, don’t make the customer pay R100 when the owner’s husband comes to drop off (there is no way if your spouse is delivering that the petrol is R100). Also, give the option of pick-up if the buyer is in the same city. This should be the case for home industries. Another gripe was saying you can collect but no contact details were provided. And when an item is shipped, you need to send a mail saying so, with tracking info.

4. Poor English and grammar
People hate poor English and hate when you “typ lyk dis”, and don’t like being called “sweetie/doll” or any terms of endearment. It is unprofessional. Your whole reputation is at stake here when you communicate poorly. Always remember this is a reflection of you and your business. I personally won’t even have a conversation with a person who can’t type properly. There is no excuse if you speak English as a first language.

5. Response/acknowledgement
A lot of replies about the business owner not replying in time, not acknowledging receipt of email/message, leaving it read, and then not being upfront about business hours that queries are seen to. It’s not hard to list business hours – most businesses have this on Google Maps; it is so NB. Also don’t reply to your customer to say “I was busy with my day job” – it is unprofessional, and not something they should be made to feel guilty of. There was another message about picking one platform and sticking to it, not DM and then Whatsapp. Always be clear and concise in your communication, don’t leave people guessing and making assumptions. Again, this is a poor reflection on your business/you.

6. Product info, specs and pics
If people are parting with their hard earned money, they need to know what they are buying. Just share as much info as possible. Most of the replies indicated that customers absolutely hate when an image is posted with no description, or a generic image is used from a supplier. Also if they don’t post a photo from all angles, especially with clothing. You need to list South African sizes, descriptions, materials. People are also put off when a generic image is posted with the words “DM for info”. They want basic info and dimensions where possible. You’re trying to sell a product here, not make a customer feel like they’re pulling teeth.

7. Stock list and availability
Just like DM for price, people do not want to “add you to Whatsapp” for you to send forwarded jpegs, excels or PDFs. They want you to list and only sell stock you have on hand. Do not sell stock sitting at customs, or list a product for sale and say it is available but the customer has to wait three weeks. Similarly, for food pop-ups, people do not want to Whatsapp you for a menu. This is also a gripe of mine. I don’t Whatsapp because 90% of the time I get spammed and people think you’re their friend and its gets unprofessional really fast. I have blocked every person who took it upon themselves to add me to their broadcast messages without my permission.

8. Refunds/Returns/Exchanges
This is so important, and please remember this is one of the key differentiators from a small business to a large one. You can absolutely compete with big businesses, including following the law. Whenever a business says no exchanges or refunds, it is an immediate red flag for me (except certain items of clothing for hygiene purposes) and against the Consumer Protection Act. You’re allowed to return items you haven’t seen, broken ones, not as advertised, or without reason: “Section 44 of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act allows the right to return goods without reason within 7 days of receipt of the goods. To minimise disputes, it is important that consumers are well informed about any new lockdown return and refund policies.” < read more here about returns in lockdown.

This post was written out of my frustrations from dealing with online businesses, or coming across potential ones but I skipped over because of any of the points listed above. As a customer, this is what is important to me, and my blog always reflects my personal experiences.

I know of an instance where an Instagram-only business had their account hacked and deleted, and lost all contact info with their clients, including ones for on-going transactions where they had no way of making contact with customers. I don’t buy from IG-only businesses but this incident solidifies my decision in not putting myself in that position.

To those who responded about me rather focusing on helping businesses improve: I’m in no position to give advice to entrepreneurs as I’m not an expert in this field. Not to mention, the internet is full of free resources and tools on how to improve. There are online courses by Google that are free; there are tons of YouTube channels that share lessons learnt, etc, not to mention general blogs and websites.

If you are a business owner and don’t invest in yourself or take pride in what you do, ask yourself why should customers give you their money? I think this is important to think about. I’m an independent writer who will invest in myself and buy the best tools for my work because I take pride in what I do. Similarly, in whatever field you are, surely you want to take pride in what you do and put the best version of yourself and services out there?

Thank you to everyone who reached out and shared your experiences. I hope I covered it all in these simplified points.