Personalizing communications is not easy. Most companies do not have the expertise or the technology to do it well on their own. There are personalization vendors that specialize in this process, providing turnkey solutions for businesses. Steve Van Tassel, senior vice president of products for personalization at NetPerceptions, says: “If a company’s top business priority has nothing to do with a website it may be in luck, since personalization vendors are looking for new outlets for their software anyway. The pure dot-coms went away, so our primary emphasis is on the contact center more than it is on the website, by far. Although the Web’s instant and accurate flow of data made it an ideal early channel for real-time personalization efforts, pragmatism is dictating a new direction. The business volume that flows through the contact center is much higher than that on the website, so it’s easy to quantify short-term benefits of personalization.”[13 ]
Clothing retailer Norm Thompson takes this to heart by applying personalization technology to its outbound customer service phone calls. The company can trigger voice messages to its customers either confirming shipment of their orders or letting them know that a certain item wasn’t in stock and will be delayed. These are not stilted artificial speech messages. The Norm Thompson application uses pieces of natural human speech that have been recorded and electronically spliced together for a natural sounding message.
A customer can automatically receive a phone call saying, for example, that two of three ordered items were shipped, but that the third item is back-ordered until next Monday. This is especially effective for the large number of customers who either don’t have Internet access or have requested that the company not contact them through the Web or by e-mail. Norm Thompson is empowering the customer to make the choice of communication channel. Steve Jones, Norm Thompson’s marketing vice president, says, “In the past back-order notification could take days and if the customer had ordered an item for Christmas or for someone’s birthday, we might not have left them time to buy something else. Now we can alert customers to a potential back-order within hours and the customer can be given the opportunity to cancel the order, leave it as is or select something else.”[14 ]
Customization to put the customer in charge of the relationship can’t be based just on transaction history and demographics. It cannot be just a computer function. It requires dialog with customers to let them tell you how they want the relationship to grow. My favorite comment on this comes from Sandeep Krishnamurthy, a contributing writer for Digitrends:
... individuals are not their past behavior. Rather, they are hedonistic agents passing through life making idiosyncratic choices as they go along. No single choice defines them nor does it satisfactorily predict their future behavior.
Personalization will work in the future. But this will occur, not because firms will arrive at better predictors of human behavior or better models. Rather, personalization will work in the future because firms will learn to place consumers in charge of this process.[15 ]
Personalization and customization will work only when a company can gain an in-depth understanding of its customers: What are their individual needs? What do they like? What do they dislike? How do they want to be contacted for different interactions? Are they more concerned with quality and value or are they price shoppers? Do they want high-touch, personal service? If so, are there times when that is not required?
Good customization should serve those who want sophisticated options as well as those who do not. Some customers won’t go to the effort of using all the personal features you provide. Some won’t need them. Some will surprise you and use the customization in unexpected ways that you can develop for use by others.
A few tips from an expert:
Don’t make your customizable site too hard to fine-tune.
Don’t make users go through a long process over and over again to teach the system what they like.
Don’t limit the customization to users’ requests. People also need recommendations, surprises, and new ideas.
Use “creeping customization” or “progressive customization.” Start people off with a generic version. Let them customize it gradually as they see fit. Then watch what users are doing and actively recommend personalization ideas.[16 ]
There is one cardinal rule that must be obeyed. Once you have asked for information from the customer, don’t ask for the same thing again. The study quoted earlier, sponsored by the Personalization Consortium, found 87 percent of people surveyed were annoyed when a company asked for the same information more than once.[17 ]
[13 ]Jason Compton, “On Time, On Target,” destinationcrm.com, November, 2001, p. 2.
[14 ]Lenny Liebman, “Personalization Branches Out,” internetweek.com, November 6, 2001, p. 5.
[15 ]Sandeep Krishnamurthy, “The Main Problem with Personalization,” digi- trends.net, June 15, 2001, p. 2.
[16 ]Jesse Berst, “Why Personalization Is the Internet’s Next Big Thing,” ZDNet AnchorDesk, April 14, 1998, p. 2.
[17 ]Michael Pastore, “Valuable Consumers Demand Personalization,” CyberAtlas, May 9, 2001, p. 1.