It is one of the supreme ironies of the Internet that the computer, so long derided as impersonal, is now being used to create highly personal experiences for Web site visitors. Because a computer can sift through vast amounts of existing information according to preprogrammed rules, computers can now take company information (or special interest information) and combine it with information supplied by prospective customers and digest it in a way that is meaningful to each individual.
What are the best ways for businesses are to personalize selling and customize products in order to build business. Although many of these methods are still in their infancy, a great deal can be gleaned as to current strategies and technologies and techniques and strategies can be implemented.
To attract new customers, companies can now establish Web sites that provide highly individualized recommendations based on information provided by the customer. In this way, it’s possible to tell a prospective customer exactly which product, among a plethora of possibilities, is just right for that individual or that business. The strategic idea behind these efforts is clear: By empowering the customer with information about how a specific offering meets his or her needs, the company positions itself as a knowledgeable place to buy and also demonstrates how its products are just right for that individual customer.
This information, properly used, gives an existing supplier or retailer a clear leg up on the competition: The Company is able to use its information to establish itself as the supplier of choice and to suggest services to existing customers before they request them. Companies can to maintain effectively private Web sites for individual clients so that they can both provide extraordinary service and recommend new products that will be of value to these customers.
In the past, this type of personalized communication was virtually impossible: Retailers and suppliers lacked the detailed information necessary to provide these recommendations and the ability to cost-effectively communicate it to individual customers.
However, today we have moved into an era where technology allows firms to cater to the individual needs of customers in a way that have not been possible before. The value of these initiatives, both in tightening the bonds with existing customers and in attracting new customers, is high.
Another business tool made possible by the Internet is something that previously was available only to the wealthy: product customization, done quickly and inexpensively.
In an era where a single click can take customers away, leading-edge companies are finding that ongoing, personal relationships can be key to winning. Personal selling, “marketing intimacy,” if you will, deepens the commercial relationship, adding tremendous value for the customer (“This saves me so much timeand it’s just right for me!”) and making it painful and costly for the customer to leave (“Why should I buy from anyone else? Company X knows exactly what I like and need”). Therefore, the more your company can “get personal,” the more likely the potential for long-term retention of customers.
How companies are are making use of several levels of “personal” recommendations. ?.
In adopting any strategy based on personalization, privacy is a central issue. The ability to make the customer feel comfortable enough to give you the information you need to create a tailored product or solution is among the primary challenges companies must overcome.
The Web’s ability to help companies establish marketing intimacy is possible because a Web site combines five elements:
An opportunity to present information in an interactive format, permitting customers to express their preferences to the owner of the Web site
Virtually costless online communications between the potential buyer and seller
A visual component that lets potential buyers see prospective purchases and how they would appear if personalized
The ability to store tremendous amounts of personal information about their customers
An unprecedented ability to create systems that configure products so that costly errors are eliminated, thus reducing the expense of creating custom products
Presently, one-to-one selling can be viewed in two general categories, recommending and customization.
Brick-and-mortar companies have long known that for the most part, either a motivated buyer has done a great deal of research on a particular product, or a product has been enthusiastically recommended by a friend or business associate. This knowledge leads to two keys to establishing a Web site that motivates buying:
Ample information (so that the buyer needn’t do any more researchand, in the process, possibly depart your Web site for another)
A positive recommendation
In the past effective recommendations were generally person to person, there are several reasons why these technology-based recommendations are valued now. One has to do with the dizzying array of choices that now faces consumers. A cosmetics firm may offer hundreds of shades of lipstick or eye shadow; financial services companies have become true supermarkets filled with choices; well-known cold remedies now have multiple versions that end with words such as “plus” and “sinus” and “cough.”
A generation ago, the dilemma posed by the array of choices was generally solved through one-on-one interaction (selling, if you will). Someone with a cold would have stopped by his or her local pharmacy and chatted with the pharmacist about which of the three or four cold remedies carried by the pharmacy would be best.
Today, the pharmacist is hard to find (and is often employed by a separate entity within a chain drugstore), and the number of choices of what to take for the common cold is mind-boggling. Do you want to take the medicine in the day or night? Do you need an expectorant? A cough suppressant? Decongestant? Antihistamine? Something for fever and chills? Normal strength or extra? Customers could get a headache simply trying to decide! Today cold or allergy sufferers need only click to the specific manufacturers “allergy-cold” site, where they are asked to click off their symptoms (itchy watery eyes, runny nose, cough, etc.). The site then serves as a “friendly pharmacist” and recommends the product that will be right for them. While consumers recognize there is a given bias to any company-sponsored Web site, they still welcome the guidance because they trust the branded product provider and they are overwhelmed by choices.
Depending on your product and customer, several types of recommending functions may work best. But first, let’s take a moment to consider how to judge effectiveness.
Thanks to the interactive aspect of the Web, many technological recommendations are firmly based on consumer feedback. At a Web site for a cosmetic company (or in-store) visitor provides information on hair, eye, and skin color as well as information concerning breakouts, response to the sun, and signs of aging. Based on this information, specific products are recommended.
To the public, there’s little that’s more confusing than figuring out what to do with one’s money, so, of course, information and recommendations are vital in this area. Financial service companies are having a heyday with the possibilities offered to them via the Web.
If the visitor is willing to give a little more information, then the recommendation can be customized further and will be that much better.
Personalization, like any business initiative, should be used judiciously. There are real costs that accompany developing personalized applications: They range from the hard cost of development dollars to the cost of disappointing customers or prospects who expected a better experience. It’s important to assess whether a personalization effort will be effective and contribute meaningfully to new sales or customer retention before investing the time and money in bringing it to market. The criteria for establishing an effective recommendation system are different for every product. The system chosen is dependent upon a balance of the following: (1) the nature of the product, (2) the amount of information needed from the potential buyer to make an effective recommendation, and (3) the likely willingness of the prospective buyer to share this needed information with you.
As you go through this process, be aware that we have entered an age in which consumers want to educate themselves about everything from which refrigerator to buy to how to get the best medical treatment. They no longer trust intermediariesadvice from dealers, brokers, agents, and even health care providers is being checked and rechecked by today’s consumer. A well-designed Web site helps meet this need, and the information should be as rich and informative as if the consumer were meeting with one of your top salespeople.
Will consumers will trust the information they receive from companies on the Web as much as (or more than) they trust sales representatives? All evidence to date suggests the answer is yes. People believe that no trusted brand will risk its good name by posting misleading information on the Web.
As you go about creating an online recommendation system, your overriding goal should be to make the online shopping experience better than what a customer might encounter in the physical world. Therefore, you need to ask yourself: “What can my company accomplish using this medium that can’t be accomplished in the physical world?”
Payment issues online seemed to have been taken care of by the credit card companies as a matter of routine.
What about issues of privacy?
Consider gathering data anonymously. Recommendation systems that provide advice to consumers anonymously are likely to be far more popular and, therefore, more effective. In these cases, you are able to provide the prospective buyer with value without needing to jump the hurdle of “you can trust me with this information.”
If you’d prefer to record the identities of site visitors, you are one step ahead if you are a recognized brand. Consumers are already predisposed to believe in your company name. In this case, address the privacy issue head-on with a statement that precedes your online registration form: “The information gathered here is to help us better serve you; we will not share or sell this information to anyone.”
If you are not a well-known brand, a strong privacy statement is recommended, but you should likely take other measures to more fully establish your legitimacy. There are now a number of entities, such as the Better Business Bureau’s BBBOnline, that have developed certification programs. These programs warrant to site visitors that you are a legitimate business and agree to follow certain ethical business practices. Members of BBBOnline have the right to prominently display a logo on their home page. I strongly advise businesses to look into this program.
Finally, if you plan to share customer data with others, then you need to be explicit about it and receive the customer’s permission. The worst thing you can do is fail to inform the customer that some piece of information you determine about him or her may be used in some way the customer does not expect.
Product customization is possible because of a convergence of twq elements: the Web as a one-to-one communications technology and manufacturing processes that allow for the development and delivery of custom products.
Designing your own custom desktop computer at Web sites such as Dell has become “commonplace,” but what about designing your own swimsuit or, perhaps, golf clubs? These customized services provide several valuable benefits for companies: (1) They help to drive new business, and (2) customers are willing to pay a premium price for an individually designed product, which means these products and services sometimes have higher profit margins than standard offerings..
The ability to interact with customers and say, “I can create the product that is just right for you,” is one of the most powerful features of the Web. Expansion of this Internet capability will be the inevitable result of the combination of (1) manufacturers creating products that permit increasing customization, (2) further advances in computing power at ever decreasing costs, and (3) new software that is continuously enhancing the options available to businesses to personalize.
Smart companies realize that the more involved the relationship becomes with the customer, the better their rate of retention. They are implementing this strategy in a wide variety of creative ways, involving both personalization and customization, and will certainly enhance their applications significantly over time:
1). Companies are creating extraordinary convenience for customers and establishing systems to speed the fulfillment of custom orders.
2. E-mail communications and reminder systems are going to be used increasingly.
The ultimate goal of every business is to have a customer who wants to hear from the business about new products that he or she might want to buy. E-mail, for the first time, provides this type of powerful tool, since it’s an almost costless communications vehicle.
3. In business-to-business selling, smart companies are also linking tightly to their customers.
Leading-edge technology companies are offering custom password-protected Web sites for their corporate accounts and high-volume small business accounts. These sites are typically designed to simplify the buying process, and they offer (1) customer online malls offering products preselected by the company to be bought by employees at volume discount prices, (2) electronic mail links to account managers responsible for serving that customer, (3) the ability to track the status of orders, and (4) dramatic increases in the speed of order fulfillment through the elimination of paper forms and a reduction in errors.
This is a clear way of providing customers with additional value and of tying the customer more closely to your company. Most companies will also see an increase in revenues from these accounts.
When companies first began establishing Web sites, most feared they would receive an overwhelming amount of e-mail that they wouldn’t be able to handle. In many cases, two unproductive strategies emerged. Some companies designed Web sites that did not permit the visitor to contact them, making the site little more than a brochure; other companies permitted e-mail messages and then often didn’t respond to them. In either case, this did not leave potential customers with any feeling that their visit “mattered” to the company: the exact opposite of the tight relationship a company wants to build between itself and its customers in a HyperWars environment.
What was called for, of course, was a new category of employee: “e-mail respondents”; yet no one wanted to add staff at an additional expense to a project that was in its infancy. Enter “response software.”
Several intelligent software systems, are able to routinely handle and route questions, so there is no excuse for underserving your customers with the first and most basic customer serviceanswering their questions.
Companies who are successfully managing their e-mail via electronic means are also taking the opportunity to benefit from the
Knowledge they glean.
Companies are finally transforming their Web sites from marketing brochures to vehicles that turn visits into sales leads. Those who develop a Web presence and fail to respond to electronic inquiries in a timely manner run the risk of losing existing and new customers. Industry research also shows that only 30 percent of Fortune 500 companies respond to questions directed to these companies through their Web sites, which means a large number of customers aren’t getting the personal attention winning companies need to provide.
As you consider the possibilities offered by personalization and customization, I suggest that these initiatives be weighed against these criteria:
Will the initiative enhance relationships with my customers by adding convenience or a better ability to meet their needs?
Will the initiative result in potentially high cost-savings for my organization (as in the case of an intelligent product configuration that eliminates costly order errors)?