Know What Your Customers Want Before They Do

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In the world of e-commerce, it pays to stay on top of trends. If you’re adept at predicting what the next big thing is, it can go a long way toward building long-standing relationships with customers, and having satisfied customers who come back regularly to visit a Web site is good for the business.

Staying on top of trends, however, is not necessarily about what the next hot product or service will be — listening to your customers and using what they tell you to make informed decisions also can help pinpoint what they want.

Monitoring all your Web customer touch points — the contact call center, sales staff, resellers, etc. — is one of the best ways to gather that kind of information, said Tom McCracken, director at LevelTen, a professional Internet strategy and Web design company.

“There are secondary sources, different reports and media and so forth, but we tend to stay away from general media because the media sometimes try to create stories that don’t exactly exist,” he said. “People call and ask us about different things they’ve read about, and then six months later you never hear anything more about those things. If we get five or six reports about something that’s a new or emerging trend, then we’ll start to look into it. Customer touch points are the best place to get that information.”

McCracken also recommends setting up some sort of feedback loop. He said most companies have not tapped their contact call centers very well for feedback mechanisms. “Things get told to customer service reps, but there’s no way for those customer service reps to let other people know, and there’s no real way to create reports around that. Put in customer feedback loops. It’s nice to do client surveys and those kinds of things, but a lot of times those are focused on ‘How are we doing?’ versus ‘Where can we move in the future?’”

Setting up a feedback loop can be different for every organization, and it depends on what sort of IT infrastructure is in place. There might be a technical facet that can be implemented on the company’s actual Web site, but sometimes the solution is as simple as enabling customer service representatives to input notes.

“A lot of times the notes are there, it’s just that no one’s looking at them,” McCracken said. “If we’re building a Web site — and a lot of times the contact centers are using the Web site as a primary mechanism to support customers — we add certain things so that when they’re logged in, they can add notes. You’ve got to train your CSRs to put the information in. You’ve got to have a mechanism for them to gather that information, organize it and then you’ve got to have someone filtering through it, saying, ‘What sort of trends are we starting to see?’ Siebel CRM has some nice tools already built in — it just depends on what got implemented. Sometimes we’ll help customers build these things from scratch. Sometimes it’s even paper sheets. A lot of times we recommend using paper before we implement anything technical because it’s faster. Larger organizations in particular tend to have long IT cycles — it might be six months to a year before you even get requirements into a new release, particularly one that’s dedicated to call center software.”

Online surveys are another technique that can be used to gauge customer’s future needs and desires. McCracken, however, said they have to be done in the right way. “One of the best ways is after someone has purchased something, then send them a survey — don’t just pop it up when they’re bouncing around the Web site,” he said. “Focus groups can be used, but they get a little pricey to put together. One of the other interesting ways we’ve had some success with is monitoring key words in the search engine. There’s a few different ways of doing that. There’s tools that will tell you what people are searching for. There’s also ways to bid on terms and see how many people are clicking through on things.

“For example, if we’re looking at a phone system, and people are trying to gauge how important people think voiceover IP is or how important people think SIP is and some of these emerging technologies, a lot of times people will look to see what people are searching for online — look at the ratio of how many people are putting this information in,” McCracken said. “Blogs can also be an interesting way to tell what’s hot, but you kind of have to have someone dedicated to reading them. We do it sometimes with clients. We have a clipping service, and we’ll look for emerging trends and try to get opinions from blogs, but that’s more of an art form than a science.”

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