5 Ways to Make Picky Customers Happy

Last Updated Aug 24, 2011 3:07 PM EDT

In the digital age, what do customers really want? Typically, marketers answer this question by focusing on consumers' desire to be "social"--to express themselves online and connect with others via Facebook or other social networking sites.

But my own research suggests that customers are equally driven by their desire to use digital tools to customize their life--both online and offline.

Customers Want Choice Online and Off
Marketers and psychologists have known for years that people are drawn to any opportunity for more choice (look at the ever expanding selection of products in the beverage aisle of your local deli). Yet the digital world, with its offer of limitless inventory and a near-infinite Web, has radically transformed people's expectations for customization. Today, consumers don't just want more choices, but also better choices. The catalog of 1.5 million books on Amazon would be a nightmare without effective search tools and recommendations.

Business today can create great value for customers by harnessing digital tools to offer the right kind of customized products, services, and experience.

Here are 5 approaches to digital customization being used right now:

1. Customized commerce. As online shopping becomes increasingly customized, users have the opportunity to explore how a product would suit them, and not just a generic customer. Lancôme's "Magic Mirror" Facebook app lets visitors upload a photo of themselves and virtually "try on" makeup products to see how they would look on themselves. The site My Virtual Model lets users create a customized full-body avatar to try on products from retailers such as Adidas, Levi's, Land's End, Best Buy, and Sears. Land's End has seen a 45 percent jump in its conversion rates and 15 percent increases in the average order value among customers using this customized shopping interface.

2. Customized products. In other cases, customers are looking to show a personal flair by customizing a product so that it is unique to them. For the launch of its 2010 Mustang, Ford offered car lovers an online tool for choosing custom detailing and body parts (if you liked your design, the site gave instructions to have the detailing work done at a local auto shop). The Nike ID platform allows customers to design a unique pair of shoes with their own signature colors and look. And the "My Starbucks Signature" microsite allows you to mix and match ingredients to design your own personal Starbucks drink, with over 87,000 combinations possible.

3. Customized services. Hotels have long known that guests will come back when you can offer them a more personal touch. Nowadays, that includes using social media and digital tools to capture and serve guest's unique interests, like Marriott's new GoBoard digital concierge. Affinia Hotels offer a "MyAffinia" web portal for selecting just the right amenities to be in your room on arrival, from an Ibanez guitar, to walking guides for the city, to your choice of 6 specialty pillows (magnetic therapy pillow, anyone?). The website for American Express's Zync Card allows customers to select from a variety of "packs" of card benefits, from the "GO" pack for travelers to the "ECO" pack for green consumers or the "RESTAURANT" pack for foodies.

4. Customized media. Today's networked customers expect increasingly customized media as well. Pandora has attracted 80 million users to its digital radio service, beating out traditional radio stations for young users in cities like New York and L.A., thanks to its ability to stream a customized radio station of your own choosing based on the songs or artists you tell it you like. Both Twitter, and magazine-like apps like Flipboard for the iPad, allow users to curate and assemble their own mix of media voices, in essence creating their own customized news channel.

5. Filtering out the noise. Making these choices can be a challenge, however. And for many of us, our digital lives are marked by an overload of too much information, too much media, and a need to filter out what is most valuable and relevant to us. This creates another opportunity for businesses to create value, by helping deliver more tailored and personalized information and options to choose from. Netflix uses your own movie ratings to deliver suggestions for your viewing. Wal-Mart is now using data from users' Facebook profiles to decide which products to display in its ecommerce recommendations (if the user chooses to login). And Google uses a variety of customer data to personalize what you see in we searches and your Priority Inbox on Gmail.

Who's Choosing for You?
Of course, when Google or Wal-Mart is filtering what you see, that does raise the question of who is doing the customizing, you or them?

Eli Pariser's recent book "The Filter Bubble," criticizes the practice of web personalization done by unseen algorithms, without awareness of the customer. To address this concern, many companies are giving customers the option to modify, or provide feedback to these filters, or to turn them off altogether (on Facebook, for example, just choose "Most Recent" instead of "Top News" if you don't want their algorithm to choose which of your friends' posts you see in your news feed).

The digital tools, interfaces, and algorithms available for customization will continue to evolve. But they won't be going away anytime soon. Because customers have shown, time and again, that when given the choice, a customized product or service is what they are looking for.

Related:

image courtesy of flickr user, Stefano Mazzone
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David Rogers analyzes the five core behaviors of today's networked customers, illustrated with dozens of business cases and a framework for digital strategy planning in his new book, "The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age." He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, and speaks at conferences worldwide. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa. Find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/david_rogers and on Google+ at http://bit.ly/DavidRogersGplus.
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    David Rogers is a consultant, speaker, and author of The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age. He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa.

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