Fidelity Investments recently made changes to its embarrassingly outdated SIMPLE retirement plan website.  Its goal was to make the SIMPLE site, well, simple to use.  Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happened.

By way of background, SIMPLE plans are retirement plans for smaller businesses. They are designed to be easy to use.  For years, SIMPLE customers like me made do with Fidelity’s archaic site, which is a portal to make retirement deposits into employee accounts.

Revising their legacy website was a great idea.  Regrettably, the way they did it offers marketing lessons to all of us.

Lesson 1: Communicate to your clients that changes are coming!  Avoid surprises.

Several weeks ago Fidelity launched its new SIMPLE website.  They did so without first informing their customers.  The way customers learned that a change had been made was by logging in.   People who had the old website bookmarked were greeted with the ever-so-descriptive message, “Application Error.”

It appears that no one at IT talked with anyone actually using the legacy site about how they used it and how they accessed it.  They apparently expected that people would type in the website address each time (which would have avoided the error message).

Lesson 2: Make sure the website REALLY works before going live.

After my initial frustration staring at the “Application Error” message, I was able to find out through a Google search that Fidelity had changed its site. I found the new site, entered the funding instructions, and then called Fidelity to ask why the new site didn’t work.  The representative asked me to fax in my instructions regarding my funding because the site wasn’t working.  Funding is the whole purpose of the site.  Is there anything more basic they should have figured out before taking the site live?

Lesson 3: Live websites are not for beta testing, and your customers are not beta testers.

Fidelity was still working out the bugs, but decided it was better to do its beta testing live. Unbeknownst to me, my account was included in their test.  The explanation was hardly comforting.

Even less comforting was when I happened to check my bank balances after Fidelity’s website failure – they showed that Fidelity had pulled money from my account without my authorization.  What took seconds for Fidelity to grab from my account took them days to get back into my account.  It also took me many phone calls, and a lot of aggravation and time.  They sent me a check for $100 for my troubles.

Today I had to call Fidelity to ask why my most recent funding instructions hadn’t gone through on their shiny new website even though I followed all of the instructions.  My mistake was that I followed all of the visible instructions, but not the ones that were not visible.  It turns out that you have to scroll down to see the “Submit” button hidden at the bottom of the new page.

Lesson 4: Make it better; not slicker.

For all their size and resources, Fidelity’s SIMPLE website update is only a cosmetic change.  It changed nothing of substance in their cumbersome process.

The lesson is simple:  If you’re going to take the time to revamp a customer website, identify changes that will actually make the site more useful to your customers, and then implement them. This means you have to know what your existing customers think about the site, what they like and what they don’t.  This provides you with your most basic roadmap to the most important function you can achieve: making customers happier using your website…and your services.


-By Berbay Principal Sharon Berman

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