Helpful Intrusiveness

How can you make personalization really helpful to your customers? Even if you believe in the value of presenting them with unique purchase opportunities based on the intelligence you’ve gleaned from their prior paths through your maze, they may not.

Let’s look at the results of a longitudinal (and entirely unscientific) study of the behavior of fussy shoppers (i.e., my friends and me) on sites that “help” by telling visitors what they think they need to know. The subjects’ response in 98 percent of instances was, “Yeah, right,” followed by their clicking to close the personalized “helpful shopping suggestions” window or ignoring the in-page table with “Your Special Interests.” (We are such ingrates!)

What the Fussy (and Confused) Shopper Wants

What I want is helpful information when I want it. When I’m wandering through a category of products not sure of which model I really want, that’s when I need to know which widgets are compatible with the high-capacity widgetizer I bought three months ago. When I’m scrolling down the FAQ because none of the titles really gets at my question, that’s when I need to be asked if I’d like to talk with a real person.

I want help when I’m doing the unpredictable stuff human beings do when they’re shopping. I want it when, in a department store, I ask the first salesperson I stumble across (access randomly, if you will) if this department carries any piece of equipment that makes yeast dough rise but doesn’t actually bake the damn bread for me.

Now your site, too, can provide that comforting, random sales help.

Helping Your Visitors Find Help

HumanClick software, among others, enables stealth real-time observation of site visitors and immediate chat initialization. This means that the visitors can click the HumanClick icon on your site to request help or information via a chat session. Also, you can proactively open a chat session on users’ screens if their behavior tells you they’re having trouble. By “you,” I mean one of your helpful customer service staff. (In other words, probably you.)

Apart from allowing you to be helpful to customers, this kind of real-time watchdog software can help you enforce your copyright on your site’s valuable content — all that useful information you so painstakingly provide to help your real customers. Some site owners who use such software have caught content poachers in flagrante pirato, traced them via their ISPs and other tracking info, and ordered them to remove the stolen material from their sites. For an example of a “spying on my own site” success story, check out WebProNews.

But we’re talking about customer service in a positive sense, not the justice served up to content pirates.

To experience such helpfulness, visit a site that’s already supplying it, from purveyors of tennis shoes to e-books to health information to software to — gee whiz! — marketing services. You might also want to check out similar services that provide a range of customer contact methods. lets your customer click a button that displays a window to enter the customer’s name, phone number, and the product of interest so your sales rep can call.

LivePerson has partnered with Siebel and offers a customer interaction suite with an “integrated knowledge base” of preformatted FAQ responses that integrates with live chat — striving, in my humble opinion, for the right balance between operator involvement and efficiency. SMOOTHSALE, on the other hand, is chat intensive and emphasizes its support of closing the sale with its Instant Selling tools.

The Human Touch

Your profit margin and volume will determine how much of a human touch you give customers. Sending an email or making a phone call in under an hour is the minimum you can provide with any hope of actually making a sale; think of how many other sites they can click to within an hour. Chat on demand seems to be rapidly becoming the industry standard, and customers get spoiled fast. (You know about me and Nordstrom.) Staffing up for that and managing it isn’t easy, but the databases of questions and responses you can use to feed your automated FAQ should pay off in the long term.

No matter what approach, tactics, and software you use, if you treat the fussy customers as if they’re physically in your shop (only better), you’re likely to win their loyalty. A bit of reality is a good thing for building their confidence and trust in your business. Maybe pushing a webcam of your smiling, industrious customer service staff (they’ll never know it’s your cousins) during the chat will make you look like Gateway. (So long as your reps aren’t dressed like Danni Ashe; no, I’m not linking to her site!)

Recess: If it’s later than 10:00 a.m., you need to take a break. Golf, perhaps, or maybe you’d rather shoot soccer goals. If you need coaching, you know where to find me.

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