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1. Evaluate Competing Business and Products

Customers have to decide between businesses and products. Web sites are a part of that decision-making process.

When deciding among businesses, customers will either actively or passively get information from a company's Web site. Customers want to make sure they like a company enough to do business with them. Customers are more likely to actively search for, and evaluate, information on a company when they are new to the market for a product. They're likely to look at parts of the site that give them an idea of what the company is up to. Customers who already have dealings with a business are less likely to actively seek out their general company information. However, they may actively seek out information on a particular incident or company activity if it affects their preference for that company.

Potential and existing customers will get a feel for a company just by being on its Web site. How customer-centric the site feels will give them an idea of the quality of the customer service they can expect. How well the company has used technology will give customers an idea of how switched on it is.

Of course, a company must be the type a customer is looking for, and must offer the type of products a customer wants. The search for, and evaluation of, product information is key for new and existing customers. Customers will evaluate different products offered by one company and by different companies. Sometimes that evaluation will result in a sale (either online or offline) and sometimes it won't, but it is all critical to the decision-making process. Customers may also evaluate product information available in other forms, like brochures, as part of their decision-making process.

The importance of being able to find useful product information has been reinforced in GVU's tenth user survey. The survey showed that the provision of quality information is the most important attribute of a vendor's site. In addition, the greatest cause for customers to leave a site is not being able to find the information they were looking for.

Customers' evaluation of product information is not about passively viewing product blurbs. Customers seek out product information and interact with Web sites, and a business, to find out what suits them best. Customers are quick to use any sort of useful interactivity to get a better view of what a product offers them, how much that will cost, and how easily they can get it. The more usefully interactive product information is, the more the customer will use it.

Mortgage calculators provide a good example of useful interactivity. Customers enter the amount of the desired loan, and the various features they require, to find out how much it will cost them, over a certain loan period. By changing the variables and running the process a few times, customers get a good idea of what they're in for.

Customers will provide information on themselves to get an intelligent response. This can take many forms, not just strictly mathematical as in the mortgage calculator example. They will enter information to get a personalized response. And they want as much help doing that as possible. They want to compare the various scenarios they've generated and the responses they've got, and they may do that right then and there on the Web site or come back a few times to try things out.

Customers will take time out to evaluate products. The more useful the information, the more likely they are to spend time evaluating them. If product information is not useful, chances are customers will abandon your Web site for someone else's. The tenth GVU user survey showed that Web users can spend up to half an hour looking for the information they want.

Sometimes, you can't tell customers everything they need to make a decision. In these cases they will ask you questions or request more information. Or customers may not be able to locate the information they need, and they'll come straight to you and ask for it.

At this point, customers are pretty single-minded, and they're unlikely to give you a whole lot of background information when asking questions. This can make it difficult to direct and respond to customer questions. You can lead customers to ask more meaningful questions, if you give them some simple selections to make when entering their comments. In fact, sometimes this makes inquiries easier for customers.

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