Scaling Back on Customer Choices

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The Internet is all about information, and lots of it. There are analyses and descriptions, commentary and reviews of a seemingly limitless array of products available online. Product information and choices available for consumer consumption are many, and if you want a consumer to stick around your site long enough to plunk down a credit card and buy something, offering too many choices can actually hurt you.

“People can only absorb a limited amount of functionality per (Web site or application) release,” said Bernard Drost, chief technology officer for Innoveer Solutions. “You don’t want to follow up releases too quickly because you want to have them really understand the functionality that they’re using right now. We try to take one business scenario and model that out. When we hear that there are very many exceptions that need to be handled, we try to figure out a way to either model it up so that there is a more generic process that they can follow but still do their job while using the application.”

When building a consumer Web site, there are a few things Drost cautions against using, including excessive links or pages. These things can detract from the site’s purpose, cause confusion and lead your potential customer to click elsewhere for what he or she needs. “Always try to have a few very good dashboard views when you start. There shouldn’t be too much on it. You should have a one-glance view where you know what it’s about. You shouldn’t have a hyperlink or drill down for everything, though that is easiest way to do it. You should have only one path to get to a certain piece of information. If you have multiple and they can go through “Contacts” to get somewhere the same way you can get through “Opportunities,” be careful because people easily get confused. ‘Am I looking at the same thing or am I looking at something slightly different?’”

Further, when updating site content or adding new products and services, you probably don’t want to make changes more frequently than every three months. Drost said that three months is a nice time to evaluate whether your changes have had a major impact on the business, but it’s usually not long enough for the business to have changed significantly. “You introduce new products, new people, whatever too fast, people get too many things thrown at them too quickly, and they can’t absorb it as well. It also depends on whether the Web site is internally or externally focused. It’s harder to get your customers up to speed on what you’re releasing on the new site. It’s much easier to train your internal folks.”

That last nugget of wisdom does not necessarily mean that you want an external focus for a customer site. “It depends,” Drost explained. “If you want your customers to enter a lot of their own orders like an e-commerce site, of course it has to be externally focused. If you try to help your partners drive business, it’s both internally and externally focused. Your partners can look at what you enter for them because you want to give them some of the opportunities that you see. They sell through VARS (value-added resellers). They may say, ‘Well, it’s better for this VAR to sell software for us instead of us doing it directly.’ You want to distribute these opportunities to your VARS and resellers, and you want them to enter their own opportunities as well, because a lot of times when you do compensation your partner wants to get in on the deal first so that they get the commission.”

Customers are hard to mold, so how you approach internally or externally focused sites is very different. Drost said with partners, a site is more like your company’s own ecosystem. You can train resellers how you want them to do business with you. It’s very hard to tell your customers how they have to do business with you. The customer is always right. If they don’t like how things are set up or you’ve laid out convoluted instructions for them to follow, they’ll probably just go onto the next site. To avoid customer confusion or frustration don’t offer too much information on a page. What they see should be very clear.

“Amazon is very good at that,” Drost said. “When you order something from Amazon the product is very simple. It’s a book or a DVD. Once you get into more complex products where you order something and have to buy other things, you get into a configuration almost. It gets harder. Without buying these three products, (a customer) can’t buy the top-level product because that’s how it’s made up. There needs to be a logical flow to that whole process. If at the end you click OK, and it tells you to go back three screens because you forgot to fill something in, that’s not a good thing. Even more than frustrating, (the customer) finds that, ‘Not only do I have to go three screens back, when I navigate forward again I have to retype everything in.’ These are basic things, but a lot of times people forget.”

In the event there is some confusion, to help avoid having your customer click away from your site, make sure there is a number visible somewhere that people can call or perhaps instant message a real body for help when they get stuck. Everything needs to be quick, because today’s online consumer is notoriously impatient, and Drost said a slow-performing site can be a killer.

If your site offers a large number of products, you can engage predictive technology behind the scenes to help your customers make choices. “Amazon for instance, knows that I like a certain author or genre of books. When I go there it says, ‘Did you know that this author came out with a new book?’ Predictive modeling technologies are very complex. It has models that say if you have ordered two sci-fi books, chances are you’ll buy more sci-fi or something like it. Those complex systems are great, but they cost a lot of money, so you have to have a pretty good budget to afford them. If you can’t afford them, and you have a vast amount of products you want to be sure that people see, categorize them to a higher level.”

Drost said it helps to have a little wizard on the home page that asks a question or two to determine what customers want to do and what available product would best suit their needs. The wizard can shrink the set of possible products that you offer from say, 100 products to 20. “Make two questions that shrink it to a short list of 10, now you are golden,” Drost said. “That really helps the customer who doesn’t want to deal with a hundred products because that scrolls off the page. A dashboard or a home page or whatever you want to call it should not scroll. Anything that’s off the bottom of the screen I won’t see because the chances that I’ll scroll are pretty slim. Consider, are people more mouse driven or more keyboard driven? You need to have enough short cuts to help people get around without using the mouse. The tab layout needs to be logical. Keep it simple. If you can have a non-technical person understand what you’re trying to do, you’re on the right track.”

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