Product selection in the digital era
Recently our washing machine broke. This was quite inconvenient, especially as I had a full laundry basket which still needed to be washed. And it was (of course) in the middle of the week, late in the evening. So when were we going to get around to organizing a replacement?
But this is the age of technical convenience. My husband and I Googled for just over an hour, determined the best washing machine for our needs, placed an order via an Internet shop at 23:58, and were woken up in the morning at 6:30 by the delivery men, who installed it in 15 minutes. My laundry was back in action by 7:00!
As a consumer, I was incredibly impressed with this level of service. How convenient to not even have to leave my sofa–no discussions with a temporary student shop assistant with little real knowledge of appliances, no need to drive to town and fight for parking. Most importantly, due to the myriad comparison websites, my appliance choice was spot-on. Yay for Internet shopping!
The flip side to this, however, is that when you walk through our local town center, every second or third shop space is vacant. The traditional sales process, with the emphasis on product display in a show room and direct customer contact, is being replaced by the digital store. It’s interesting to see how retailers are trying to combat this. For example, a local indoor ski slope has opened a ski shop, with the focus being that you can try out new skis on the artificial slope before you purchase them. What a brilliant marketing tactic to bring the digital customers back to the physical shop store.
In the technical sector, we have been aware of this for a long time. Our product strategy has moved away from providing complicated tools requiring high levels of assistance for operation.
We now provide tools which are readily available to download, with trial licenses so that users can easily experiment and get some experience with the product. Of course, the question is, are you setting your potential customer up for failure? If they download our product, and are unable to quickly create a prototype project that proves capable of solving their problems, then it’s only too easy to move on to the next product.
Just like physical retailers, we need something extra to entice customers into our “store.” Videos explaining how to use the tools; sample projects which portray typical customer use cases; online chat services providing immediate support. And of course, the tool itself should be easy enough for a novice to be able to get started. But we need to go further.
Web store fronts need to offer the ability for customers to easily refine what their real requirements are and match them to the product portfolio on offer, so that they start a trial run with the correct product, and aren’t overwhelmed by the wide choice. Using my washing machine example, an online store can offer a product selector tool that asks the appropriate key questions:
- Family size as an indication of required washing machine capacity
- Ability to pre-program for off peak wash times
- Spinning programs – how often do you wash delicate clothes/blankets etc
- Energy efficiency level
A potential customer needs to be excited enough by the possibilities of the products that he or she takes the next step of contacting a service representative. And that representative needs to have the technical expertise to be able to guide the customer in their choices. A 2012 article from Harvard Business Review examines this idea in detail.
Twenty years ago, we were thrilled that we could buy a CD or a book via the Internet. This was relatively safe, as choosing music or reading material is a personal choice which doesn’t require consultation. In the intervening years, we have seen the digital purchasing model being extended, with various methodologies to provide the expert advice previously provided by sales assistants. Travel sites use matching techniques to filter in on your personal requirements. Banks and insurance companies use simulation techniques to allow you to modify the pertinent variables so you can easily see what your customized mortgage/insurance premium costs will be.
Expert knowledge automation is an inherent part of the technical purchasing model. Enterprise customers who try to solve a complex problem often require multiple products operating together. However, many future buyers will wish to extend their personal buying preference to the business world, demanding the ability research online, compare options, and even make buying decisions without engaging a sales person. To simplify this decision making process, we will need systems which will prompt them with the right questions so that they are guided to the correct product choice(s) to meet their custom needs. We need to think about how we can get the customer to take our product down the ski slopes and be so thrilled that they want to sign up straight away.
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