Appeared in Inc. Magazine, September, 2000

Increasingly aware of the costs of acquiring new customers on the Internet, companies are scrambling to implement relationship management initiatives and to adopt practices that deliver a superior customer experience. A foundation of any such initiative is a clear understanding of the customer’s goals. Companies must ask what does my customer hope to achieve by coming to my web site?

While customer surveys and focus groups can be valuable tools, such research has its limitations. Surveys often reveal more about the expectations of the surveyor than the experiences of the responder, and focus groups can be influenced by group-think even with the most skilled of moderators.

To understand your customers’ goals, you must converse with them.

  • Seek out your customers where they already congregate. Communities of interest exist everywhere, from Usenet newsgroups to email lists and web-based discussion groups. Engage your customers in supportive conversation and help resolve the issues that brought them into the discussion in the first place. This is not a place to debate with your customers’ instead, it is an opportunity to learn how your product or service might better meet your customers’ needs.
  • Read your email. Studies indicate that hundreds of top companies, dot.coms among them, fail to respond to customer email for days — or don’t respond at all. Such a failure foils potential sales and erodes existing customer relationships. Worse, it’s a missed opportunity to learn about your customers’ needs and their perception of your products.
  • Analyze how your web site is used. Your customers voice their opinion hundreds of times every day — with every click. Your web server’s log files capture that data, and reveal precisely how your site meets your customers’ needs — or fails to. In these logs you may find that large numbers of visitors abandon your site before your home page has finished loading. You may learn — as did many e-tailers during the ’99 holiday shopping season — that your shopping cart system is an obstacle to order placement. Invest in solid analysis tools, and use the results to refine — or replace — your web site’s interaction design.

Demonstrate that you are listening. Seek out opportunities to improve incrementally based on your newfound knowledge of your customers’ needs. Adjust your site’s navigation. Slim down your web pages. Remove the obstacles.

And, of course, don’t forget to ask for feedback.

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