Let Customers Decide How Much They Reveal

Even with the recent dot-com shakeout, consumer confidence in buying products online has increased to where it is now an accepted part of our culture.

But the expectations of Internet shoppers also have increased. You no longer will lose a sale because someone is afraid to use their credit card online. But you may lose a sale because buyers question your privacy policy, or they thought your last e-mail was spam, or they couldn't get a definitive answer as to when you would ship their order.

The big challenge that most online retailers will face over the next 12 months will be upgrading their stores to cater to these savvier buyers. Here are a few issues you'll want to address as you move to put more control in the hands of your customers.

Privacy vs. convenience. Call it the Great Privacy Paradox. On one hand, consumers have clamored long and loud that they want privacy. Most people, if asked, take a firm stance: “Do not track my purchases or online behavior.” On the other hand, shoppers do think it's cool — downright helpful — to receive on-target recommendations and announcements of new releases that match their interests. If the customer exclaims, “A new such-and-such by so-and-so? Excellent,” you've won a gold star.

The problem is that these two are inversely related. More privacy means less convenience. More convenience means less privacy. Regardless of where you draw the line, you're almost guaranteed to have some segment of your customer base that wants it handled differently.

The best solution is to put the choice in the hands of your customers. Think of it as more personalized personalization. Instead of leaving privacy and convenience as an either/or proposition, give your customers the power to select which personalization features they want activated on a one-by-one basis. Let people turn on/off individual features with checkboxes in their account profile. Briefly explain how each option works and what benefits it offers.

Then the issue is no longer privacy versus convenience. Your customers have control over the decision themselves.

Don't be pushy with e-mail. You can do yourself and your customers a big favor by offering them a finer level of control over e-mail notifications. Let's face it — e-mail marketing is a minefield. Send people the right message (in their subjective opinion) and your sales jump — and they love you for it. Send them something they think is spam, and you tick them off and never win them back.

Rather than an all-or-nothing e-mail subscription opt-in, we advocate a more flexible approach, with different sensitivity settings for each individual customer.

How do you know which e-mails to send people? Let them tell you.

For instance, you may offer different

subscription options on your account profile page. Or, better yet, include feedback links within your e-mail promotions. Instead of a mere unsubscribe notice (a necessary but dangerous way to get “no, thank you” feedback), give the recipient links to tell you “yes, more mail like this” or “no, less mail like this.” Apply this information to broaden or narrow your push recommendations.

Looking down the road. Buyers on the Internet increasingly expect that when they place an order, they will know what's in stock and when it's going to be delivered. They want up-to-the-minute visibility into the status of their order: when it's approved, when it's picked and packed, when it's on the truck. From there they want to link to the carrier's Web site to know when the package boards the plane, when it lands and so on until it reaches their door.

Blame dell.com for setting the standard so high. If Dell can offer visibility into the complex mass customization of computers, why can't your store give accurate order status updates as well? Let customers choose that as one of their personalized e-mail notification options.

If you're a fully automated shop, you probably already have this, or it should be easily within reach. If you're a smaller retailer — perhaps still receiving orders via e-mail — this may seem a long way off. But if you have a well-defined process for validating and fulfilling orders, you may be able to semiautomate pieces without spending a fortune.

Though this is an investment, it can pay off by saving you time that would be spent handling customer service phone calls and e-mail. It's better for your customers, too, because they can get answers at their fingertips, any time of the day or night. It increases their confidence in you and makes them feel more in control. As a side benefit, you will likely find that opening your fulfillment process and looking at it through the eyes of your customers will result in improvements and efficiencies.

Give your customers more control this year. It creates a loyalty that is deeper than merely greeting them by name on your home page

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