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8. "Be Careful Second-Guessing My Needs"

This area is fascinating. I have observed customers making brilliant and smart use of the Web, only to find them ambivalent toward it (or, when too much liberty is seen to be taken; disdainful). You would think that anything that helps customers personalize or customize what they get from a Web site would be a good thing. Wrong.

I've had to put my disappointment aside to realize that usefulness is just that. We are limited in our knowledge of our customers, one way or another. The better we know our customers, the more we can directly address their needs. But that's stating the obvious, right? Maybe. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious because lots of Web sites just aren't getting this right.

Be very careful assuming you know what customers need-what they need to know or what they need to get. Remember that their use of a Web site is only part of their whole experience, and what you know from a customer's Web site behavior may not tell you enough to second-guess what makes them tick.

Personalization

Many Web sites invite customers to personalize content and functionality for their own uses. Creating a home page has become quite a common concept-and maybe that's part of the problem. People take an idea that may have worked on another site and apply it to their own, without realizing the fundamentals of what it takes to make it successful.

To work well, personalization is dependent on what's being personalized. Personalized irrelevance is never going to be relevant. Customers just can't be bothered with the process of personalization unless they get something that's useful to them. And, of course, the process has to be user-friendly as well. Customers do not want to go through a painful process to create something that may not end up being useful to them.

Recommendations

Many Web sites also make recommendations to customers. Customers may find these useful, be ambivalent, or find them a waste of time and space. Why? Because, to state the obvious again, the better we know our customers, the more we can directly address their needs. And sometimes we don't know them as well as we think we do.

So we can make recommendations on what we know we know, and find out what we don't know, before making recommendations. For example, we do know what a customer has done on our Web site (well, we should). If we base our recommendations on a good dose of Web site behavior, then we might have a better chance of being useful. Also, if we ask customers to select the things that they find important, or identify with, before we start making recommendations, we will also have a better chance of being useful.

In general, if customers' needs are not well understood, it is better to provide customers with adequate, quality information and leave it up to them to make their own decisions, rather than take the liberty of second-guessing their needs.

Decision support

Customers want to find out which product or service is best for them, and some Web sites will offer content and/or functionality to help them make the best choice. That's fine, but sometimes this help is couched as "customized solutions"-generating solutions on the basis of customer needs. This type of decision support is an all-or-nothing proposition to the customer who would say, "Either make a recommendation based on adequate knowledge or don't bother making a recommendation." Hopefully, this directive will become less needed over time as we utilize the Web to better understand our customers. In the meantime, care needs to be taken not to make the worst of a good idea.

Blunders

Ill-informed solutions

A business customer wants to evaluate the types of advertising and promotion they should be engaging in. The customer goes to one of their favorite Web sites, which has a center just for small businesses. The Web site says that it can offer helpful advice and solutions to small businesses. The customer finds a section on advertising and promotion right away-it's obviously a hot topic for small businesses that have tight budgets and need focused results.

The customer is given three areas of selection: type of business you are in, what you are likely to spend, and how well you pitch yourself against your competitors. The customer makes a selection under each of these areas and clicks on "solution" to get some advice on the type of advertising and promotion that might work best for them. The results come back as a list of different types of marketing approaches, a long list it seems, and a lot of the approaches don't seem that suitable.

The customer decides that the tool doesn't know enough about their business, who their customers are, the products they sell, geographic considerations, things that have, or haven't, worked in the past, etc. The tool hasn't told the customer any more than what they already knew. Fortunately, it didn't take a lot of time to go through, but the customer is unlikely to go back to the Web site for advice.

Personalized irrelevance

"Why would I want to personalize that?" was a good question from a CEO trying out an extranet now on offer from their service provider. Apparently, the extranet is aimed at sharing privileged information with the industry's top decision makers.

Unfortunately, the site offers content areas that don't really seem to relate to what this customer wants to do, or know about, as CEO. However, the site assumes that personalization of the extensive database of articles will deliver most of the site's value. While this type of personalization is a good idea, this CEO can't be bothered trying to find some content that might be of interest, and anyway, they can only personalize by broad subject areas, none of which, on the face of it, are particularly relevant.

The CEO decides this particular site is of little value and not worth the effort.

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