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Reducing online customer complexity

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19th Mar 2007
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Consumers are facing increasing layers of complexity online - too much information that is too difficult to navigate. How can firms make it easier for them?

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By Louise Druce, staff writer

If you want to change your mobile phone, fancy a new laptop or need to find out if you can get your electricity cheaper, chances are you’ll head straight to Google to find the best deal. But with a whole host of product comparison websites clamouring to tell you which is the best buy, it’s getting harder to tell which is really the right product for you.

On the other side of the fence, with so much choice out there, companies themselves are finding it increasingly hard to cut through the information overload and gear their products to an audience who are likely to come back for more. “Consumers love that they are able to access detailed product knowledge at a click of a button, but companies are making this information available reluctantly because it means they are having to work harder in gaining knowledge about their customer base,” explains Neville Upton, CEO of the Listening Company, a customer insight specialist whose clients include Volkswagen, AOL, Microsoft, BUPA and Sky.

“The internet allows consumers to pass through their ‘awareness’ and ‘consideration’ phases almost anonymously and, as a result, companies need to find additional ways to gather data and learn who their customers really are,” he adds.

For the moment, however, consumers are facing increasing layers of complexity. “There is too much information, it's difficult to navigate and it's always prejudiced because it has got the spin on it that the company trying to sell you the product puts on it,” says CEO of customer and employee experience consultancy H2X, David Williams, who has also engineered customer experience programmes with organisations including British Gas, Royal Mail and American Express.

“It’s exceptionally difficult to compare and contrast exactly what you do and don’t get from the product because a lot of it is buried in the small print.” That’s why Williams believes many comparison websites still leave a lot to be desired.

“They are not geared up in a way that compares the main features and benefits of the various products and services, and they are not really written from a customer’s point of view,” he adds. “It’s really interesting that we trust a review from someone we don’t know on a website more than we trust what brands are saying about their own products and services.”

A strategic approach

So how can companies strategicaly approach the issue of customer complexity? Firstly, you have to understand your customer base and how they like to navigate their way to your products, and then orientate your product architecture in line with how they like to view each category.

“The advocacy of customers needs to be measured and then your customers should be used as the sales force,” says Upton. “Your customers will always be your best source of information for other prospects and existing customers and companies need to ensure that all services meet and then exceed their expectations.”

"By making things easy to buy and understand, customers will be happier and will stay longer." Neville Upton, CEO of the Listening Company

The Listening Company recently launched the ‘listening lab’ and the ‘listening panel’, which allows companies to fully understand the expectations of consumers. The listening lab establishes the financial impact of word of mouth on a client’s business through quantitative research, then identifies and explores positive and negative influences on a brand’s promoters and detractors.

The listening panel uses consumer advisory panels to connect, collaborate and co-create a client’s market. This method, Upton believes, means businesses can turn fickle consumers into loyal customers only too willing to recommend them. The company is then able to leverage this knowledge to allow clients to make informed changes in terms of understanding if there is a need to reduce customer complexity.

Coupled with insider knowledge about customers is also the need to make websites easy to use. It’s all about simplicity, says Williams – simple wording, simple navigation and simplifying the product range to remove unnecessary, and off-putting, terms and conditions. “The pitfalls are a one-size-fits all strategy,” he warns. “By simplifying everything and making it easy you can’t differentiate and, therefore, cannot profit optimise. Companies need to differentiate their approach.

“The benefit, however, is easier accessibility to your products or services. By making things easy to buy and understand, customers will be happier and will stay longer. Companies will not only reap the benefits but enjoy the experience of making things easier for customers.”

Compare and contrast

There are, of course, really successful product comparison websites, such as Which? and confused.com, that are specially geared towards making consumer choice easier. But even they aren’t immune to the need to reduce customer complexity. uSwitch, for example, realised that in order to ensure customer satisfaction and higher conversion rates, the process that customers undertake to complete transactions needed to be as simple as possible.

“Transaction problems still plague online retail sites. Many offer their customers a range of successful sophisticated interfaces to entice them to spend but, amazingly, most still rely on customer calls or post transaction surveys to alert them to problems,” says Geoff Galat, vice president of marketing at TeaLeaf, the company responsible for giving uSwitch a more comprehensive understanding of each customer journey on its website.

"Transaction problems still plague online retail sites. Many offer their customers a range of successful sophisticated interfaces to entice them to spend but, amazingly, most still rely on customer calls or post transaction surveys to alert them to problems." Geoff Galat, vice president of marketing at TeaLeaf

“To add insult to injury, they often ask those customers to retrace their steps in order to pinpoint why and where a transaction went sour. Not only is this reactive and incomplete in terms of customer services, but it is time consuming, ineffective and extremely detrimental to both the top and bottom lines.”

TeaLeaf offers a 360 degree view of the website through the eyes of the consumer to see who they are, rather than just using metrics. By understanding how customers interact with the site, organisations can analyse their motivations, behaviours and the obstacles they encounter to improve the customer experience.

“In a competitive marketplace with hundreds and thousands of other options available at the click of a mouse, online businesses can’t afford to fail even one customer. Not only will the customer leave the site (maybe forever), if it goes unnoticed that same problem might actually impact hundreds of others,” says Galat.

“In order to combat these issues, today’s e-businesses must actively manage the customer experience using a user-centric approach – observing everything customers see, everything they do, the problems they experience, and take immediate corrective action when necessary.”

Signage and quick navigation are also key to encourage additional sales, Williams adds. Once the customer has got to the product or service they want, they will start to relax into the experience and then think about accessories or extra services they might want. Easily visible click-throughs are a good way to draw them in. Then there is the issue of security and stability.

“Online customers now expect much more. It’s no longer acceptable to them if a site crashes mid-purchase,” says Galat. He cites a survey by Harris which revealed that 85 percent of customers expect online service levels to equal those offline, with 40 percent happy to abandon a transaction and go to a competitor’s site when something goes wrong during a purchase.

“Combine this with the fact that most sites are increasing stock levels annually, providing customers with a level of choice seen on the high street; online retailers will have to work much harder in the coming months to maintain high customer service levels.”

Read more features, practical case studies and white papers about customer trends and how to improve your customer value proposition.

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