Web Feedback Foretells Future Success

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A simple concept dawned on savvy marketers decades ago. They realized the goods and services they sold weren't the real source of growth and profits. Satisfied customers drove the company's success.

These visionaries created a variety of disciplines and tools to provide the customer with an improved commercial relationship. From zero defects to statistical process control to total quality management, the fads came and went. Their hearts were in the right place and the tools they built were first class, but their offline efforts lacked one important feature: a condensed, customer-driven improvement cycle.

The first bottleneck was the feedback collection process. Mail-based surveys took an average of six months from creation to analysis. Then came telephone surveying. This approach eliminated a great deal of time from the data collection process, but brick-and-mortar companies could hardly react to the information overnight. Employee empowerment has taken center stage to speed up the satisfaction delivery process. The solution again, however, created a problem: It eliminated the collection of macro-level data that had shed light on changing customer wants and needs.

Now switch gears to the Internet. Here is an economic environment in which companies can collect business-critical data and react to the findings by changing some lines of computer code. It is this electronic arena which holds great opportunity for creating and maintaining true customer loyalty.

Why do we rarely hear the concept of business improvement speed mentioned as a competitive tool of Internet business? We've all been told the primary advantages of an e-commerce site vs. a pure brick-and-mortar business reside in the elimination of time, geography and information barriers. This is true, but where is loyalty being created in this equation? Which company will these Web shoppers ultimately choose to do business with? That's where business improvement speed comes into play.

Consider the following steps of the customer-driven improvement cycle:

• Differentiate among different types of customer and prospect groups based on their relevance to your business.

• Identify the attributes each segment finds important to its purchase experience.

• Evaluate the performance of your company and its competitors in delivering these attributes.

• Prioritize corrective opportunities and take action.

• Monitor your progress.

Consider how this process works. If you can gain insight into buyer and nonbuyer preference differences, you can develop a strategy to turn nonbuyers into buyers. Understand where heavy purchasers are becoming dissatisfied, and you can make changes to retain them. And if you can do this all faster than your competition, you've created a sustainable and powerful business asset.

Condensing the customer-driven improvement cycle is readily available to companies operating in the electronic world. Three activities can put your company on the road to successfully achieving this goal:

Automate the collection and analysis of customer feedback. Forget about snail mail or phone surveys and throw away those calculators. Web-based data collection is instantaneous. Web-based reporting tools can, with the click of a button, do the work of a team of statisticians and allow the results to be accessed from any remote location.

Read the results on a regular basis. Even if your company doesn't have a formal research department, make at least one individual in your company responsible using the customer feedback you collect. The Internet is a busy place: If someone isn't accountable for monitoring your satisfaction measures, there's a good chance it won't get done.

React to changing customer needs and wants. Don't fall prey to your own ego. Too many failed businesses once did business this way: "The customer doesn't know what he or she really wants." The truth is, the customer usually does know. Also, don't let urgent problems get bogged down in committees. Develop a prioritization process that can identify changes which must be made immediately.

Unfortunately, a condensed customer-driven improvement cycle isn't an asset line item on an accounting balance sheet. Achieving this goal will not yield immediate results. In fact, there's a good chance you'll consume some human and financial resources in the short term. However, the long-term benefits will be worth the work.

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