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It is one of the supreme ironies of the Internet that the computer, so long derided as impersonal, is now being used to create highly personal experiences for Web site visitors. Because a computer can sift through vast amounts of existing information according to preprogrammed rules, computers can now take company information (or special interest information) and combine it with information supplied by prospective customers and digest it in a way that is meaningful to each individual. What are the best ways for businesses to personalize selling and customize products in order to build business. Although many of these methods are still in their infancy, a great deal can be gleaned as to current strategies and technologies and techniques and strategies can be implemented. To attract new customers, companies can now establish Web sites that provide highly individualized recommendations based on information provided by the customer. In this way, it's possible to tell a prospective customer exactly which product, among a plethora of possibilities, is just right for that individual or that business.

The strategic idea behind these efforts is clear: By empowering the customer with information about how a specific offering meets his or her needs, the company positions itself as a knowledgeable place to buy and also demonstrates how its products are just right for that individual customer. This information, properly used, gives an existing supplier or retailer a clear leg up on the competition: The Company is able to use its information to establish itself as the supplier of choice and to suggest services to existing customers before they request them. Companies can maintain effectively private Web sites for individual clients so that they can both provide extraordinary service and recommend new products that will be of value to these customers. In the past, this type of personalized communication was virtually impossible: Retailers and suppliers lacked the detailed information necessary to provide these recommendations and the ability to cost-effectively communicate it to individual customers. However, today we have moved into an era where technology allows firms to cater to the individual needs of customers in a way that have not been possible before.

The value of these initiatives, both in tightening the bonds with existing customers and in attracting new customers, is high. Another business tool made possible by the Internet is something that previously was available only to the wealthy: product customization, done quickly and inexpensively. How are companies making use of several levels of "personal" recommendations ? In adopting any strategy based on personalization, privacy is a central issue. The ability to make the customer feel comfortable enough to give you the information you need to create a tailored product or solution is among the primary challenges companies must overcome. 1) The Web's ability to help companies establish marketing intimacy is possible because a Web site combines five elements: 2) An opportunity to present information in an interactive format, permitting customers to express their preferences to the owner of the Web site 3) Virtually costless online communications between the potential buyer and seller 4) A visual component that lets potential buyers see prospective purchases and how they would appear if personalized The ability to store tremendous amounts of personal information about their customers 5) An unprecedented ability to create systems that configure products so that costly errors are eliminated, thus reducing the expense of creating custom products Presently, one-to-one selling can be viewed in two general categories, recommending and customization. Brick-and-mortar companies have long known that for the most part, either a motivated buyer has done a great deal of research on a particular product, or a product has been enthusiastically recommended by a friend or business associate. This knowledge leads to two keys to establishing a Web site that motivates buying: Ample information (so that the buyer needn't do any more research—and, in the process, possibly depart your Web site for another) A positive recommendation.In the past effective recommendations were generally person to person, there are several reasons why these technology-based recommendations are valued now. One has to do with the dizzying array of choices that now faces consumers. A cosmetics firm may offer hundreds of shades of lipstick or eye shadow; financial services companies have become true supermarkets filled with choices; well-known cold remedies now have multiple versions that end with words such as "plus" and "sinus" and "cough.

" A generation ago, the dilemma posed by the array of choices was generally solved through one-on-one interaction (selling, if you will). Someone with a cold would have stopped by his or her local pharmacy and chatted with the pharmacist about which of the three or four cold remedies carried by the pharmacy would be best. Depending on your product and customer, several types of recommending functions may work best. But first, let's take a moment to consider how to judge effectiveness. Personalization, like any business initiative, should be used judiciously. There are real costs that accompany developing personalized applications: They range from the hard cost of development dollars to the cost of disappointing customers or prospects who expected a better experience. It's important to assess whether a personalization effort will be effective and contribute meaningfully to new sales or customer retention before investing the time and money in bringing it to market. The criteria for establishing an effective recommendation system are different for every product. The system chosen is dependent upon a balance of the following: (1) the nature of the product, (2) the amount of information needed from the potential buyer to make an effective recommendation, and (3) the likely willingness of the prospective buyer to share this needed information with you.

Will consumers will trust the information they receive from companies on the Web as much as (or more than) they trust sales representatives? All evidence to date suggests the answer is yes. People believe that no trusted brand will risk its good name by posting misleading information on the Web. As you go about creating an online recommendation system, your overriding goal should be to make the online shopping experience better than what a customer might encounter in the physical world. Therefore, you need to ask yourself: "What can my company accomplish using this medium that can't be accomplished in the physical world?" Payment issues online seemed to have been taken care of by the credit card companies as a matter of routine. What about issues of privacy? Consider gathering data anonymously. Recommendation systems that provide advice to consumers anonymously are likely to be far more popular and, therefore, more effective. In these cases, you are able to provide the prospective buyer with value without needing to jump the hurdle of "you can trust me with this information." If you'd prefer to record the identities of site visitors, you are one step ahead if you are a recognized brand. Consumers are already predisposed to believe in your company name. In this case, address the privacy issue head-on with a statement that precedes your online registration form: "The information gathered here is to help us better serve you; we will not share or sell this information to anyone.

" Finally, if you plan to share customer data with others, then you need to be explicit about it and receive the customer's permission. The worst thing you can do is fail to inform the customer that some piece of information you determine about him or her may be used in some way the customer does not expect. Product customization is possible because of a convergence of two elements: the Web as a one-to-one communications technology and manufacturing processes that allow for the development and delivery of custom products. Designing your own custom desktop computer at Web sites such as Dell has become "commonplace," but what about designing your own swimsuit or, perhaps, golf clubs? These customized services provide several valuable benefits for companies: (1) They help to drive new business, and (2) customers are willing to pay a premium price for an individually designed product, which means these products and services sometimes have higher profit margins than standard offerings. The ability to interact with customers and say, "I can create the product that is just right for you," is one of the most powerful features of the Web. Expansion of this Internet capability will be the inevitable result of the combination of (1) manufacturers creating products that permit increasing customization, (2) further advances in computing power at ever decreasing costs, and (3) new software that is continuously enhancing the options available to businesses to personalize. Smart companies realize that the more involved the relationship becomes with the customer, the better their rate of retention. They are implementing this strategy in a wide variety of creative ways, involving both personalization and customization, and will certainly enhance their applications significantly over time: 1). Companies are creating extraordinary convenience for customers and establishing systems to speed the fulfillment of custom orders.


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