Customer Interface: Customer-Colored Glasses

As the Web moves from something to be mastered to something with real business value, we revisit some fundamentals

My area of expertise is marketing, and, for both those in the upper reaches of the executive tower and those deep in the thick of the technology implementation forest, the term marketing is a bit nebulous on a good day. Mix it with World Wide Web and things start to look surreal.

So let’s parse marketing out into usable, meaningful realms of Web functionality, the subject of this ongoing Web Business column. This is where the wizardry of corporate image making meets the alchemy of data processing and communications systems.

We start with that basic form of getting somebody’s attention.

The Advertisement

Getting somebody’s attention on the Internet is harder than getting it just about anywhere else. Television has a captive audience staring into the tube as images spew out at an MTV mile a minute. Hitting them between the eyes with “Call Now!” or “Limited Time Offer!” is easy.

But the Web is different. The Web audience isn’t passive. Prospective customers are seeking something and the advertiser tries to persuade them to look at something else. That’s heavy lifting. It requires all the strategies from the advertisers’ bag of tricks as well as all of the technology that can be brought to bear without going overboard.

Bright colors, animation and big, bold text help, but the best thing advertisers can do is take careful aim and pitch messages to targeted audiences. Advertisers are using collaborative filtering and behavioral modeling technology to send the right message to the right person at the right time (see “Close Encounters,”). For this kind of power, savvy ad servers are looking to tools such as Aptex Software Inc.’s SelectCast for Ad Servers (http://www.aptex.com). SelectCast monitors behavior to build a profile and then delivers banner ads to match the surfer’s interests. The fact that you read about ocean corals yesterday and are investigating Hawaiian hotels today might prompt SelectCast to deliver an ad for scuba dive shops on Maui on the very next page you see. This customization is something even the best of direct mail practitioners only dream about. If you get your message to a pair of receptive eyeballs, then you stand an excellent chance of getting them to the next phase.

The Brochure

The banner ad, sent to the desktops of people who demonstrated interest in your product, has enticed users to your Web site. Your challenge now is to keep their attention. That means sharpening your skills as a host and an interface designer.

Making information easy to find and doling it out in compelling chunks is, of course, essential. But even more important is keeping a pair of customer- colored glasses firmly on your face. What’s it like to view the world, your world, through a customer’s eyes? How hard is it for the customer to understand the value of the products and services you’re offering? Are you using dense industrial jargon? Is your site organized by business unit? Time to glue those glasses to the bridge of your nose.

When prospective customers arrive on your virtual doorstep, you want them to travel through your site as they might move through a conversation with a talented salesperson. They should learn what they want to know at the precise moment they’re interested. Your Web site should help them teach themselves.

It’s a good idea to think of your Web site as an electronic butler. It should be present without being intrusive. It should anticipate each visitor’s needs. It should be suitably obsequious, sensibly sagacious and graciously enlightening. Much of your ability to serve your customer boils down to one question: How well do you know your customer? No, not as an aggregate. I’m not looking for broad brush strokes or demographic averages. I’m talking about tracking individuals, knowing each person’s unique preferences. Every month, we hear about new user-tracking tools such as cookies and log-ins and embedded URLs that identify, observe and catalog site visitors.

Treating those visitors as individuals is the key. Show them what they want and use their personal profiles to figure out what they might want. You’ll be able to cross-sell and up-sell like a pro. That’s the best way to get those electronic prospects to the finish line.

The Order Form

This is the easy part. No banner ads, no careful coaxing, no databases that need TLC or newsletters that need constant updating. This is where the rubber meets the road, where the deal is struck and the check is signed. Only two rules apply here. Be informative and be quick.

Make sure that the “brochure” portion of your site has sufficient information. If you want people to be able to make a buying decision, then you had better provide everything they need to know. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document can be a powerful tool. Believe it or not, the U.S. Postal Service keeps a pretty decent FAQ at (http://www.usps.gov) Not only does it give you a short list of hyperlinked questions, but the answers are peppered with links to let people drill down into more and more detailed information.

And what if they want to know just one more thing? Give them a way to get in touch with a human being. Give them a phone number. Give them an e-mail address. Then respond. Give them answers as quickly as possible. Don’t let them get away. FedEx has a six-hour response policy. Volvo Cars of North America Inc. (http://www.volvocars.com), on the other hand, has a Talk To Us page that lists phone and address contact information but says, “We are planning to implement an e-mail capability in the United States in the future.” Some get it, some don’t.

When it comes to terms, conditions, return policy, damage allowances, liability and guarantees, it’s up to you to have it all available at the click of a mouse. Worried that your competitors are going to know too much about you? Don’t. It’s too late. Competitors have always been more motivated to find out about you than have your prospects. Trying to keep information from the competition is simply keeping more potential clients from learning what they need to know.

Being informative is important. Being quick is imperative. If prospective customers are on the verge of becoming real ones, don’t stand in their way. Don’t use big graphics that slow loading. Don’t ask unnecessary questions on registration forms. Don’t wait until tomorrow to confirm their orders. It takes less than five minutes to buy a book, CD or a hundred shares of stock online. Do it faster.

If you’ve been successful at all of the above, congratulations. You are now entitled to use your Web site as the platform for the most labor-intensive and important part of the relationship.

The Customer Service Department

Sometimes the best marketing you can do is showing off your customer service expertise. By offering superior service via your Web site, you are making a statement to and about your customers. You’re telling people they’re important. You’re telling them you care. You’re also adding value to your products and gaining a competitive edge. You and your competitors sell the same widget. At least, that’s what prospects think. The products are about the same size and about the same price. There are a few differences, but they’re a little hard to identify. When prospects can see an exclusive level of service offered at your Web site, the decision becomes much easier. A widget that comes with online technical support, automated configurators and testers as well as a customer discussion group makes that widget just that much more valuable.

To keep them deciding in your favor, make your Web site anticipate and serve every customer need. Questions about installation or implementation? Here’s the knowledge base. In need of training? It’s online.

Need a specification alteration? Send us e-mail. Got an esoteric question about using this product? Try the Customer Forum and ask thousands of others like yourself. Suddenly the competition doesn’t look so competitive anymore.

Where Do You Want To Go Tomorrow?

Software agents like Jango (http://www.jango.com) that search multiple vendor sites on your behalf are starting to crawl onto the Web. But within a few years, they will be the norm. Your customers will send robots to review your product information, determine if it falls within the specified realm of interest and decide if it’s worth reporting back to the human. If an agent is looking for a low-priced widget and it heads over to your site, it will slice right through your catalog. But it might also read the “Special Deal! Today Only!” banner and decide that it’s worth mentioning to the boss. You might end up creating two classes of information: one for humans to see and respond to emotionally and one for agents and robots that respond only to specs and prices. Then you’ll have to start tracking the profiles of your customers’ robots.