A “configurator” is a software tool used to build, price, and quote custom products and services. As geeky as it sounds, it's something anyone who's ever shopped online has seen--you can use a configurator to build a sweet pair of kicks, a custom computer, or even a luxury car.
The clear intention should be for a customer to use a configurator as a self-service tool, not as a back-office tool. But for all their ubiquity, current configurators have plenty of short-comings. Recently, a colleague was looking for a laptop on a manufacturer’s website. He told me, "After 10 minutes, I gave up. I couldn’t figure out what product is best for me. I didn’t want to call them. I think I’ll just buy an Apple laptop."
Needless to say, this is not the type of customer experience that a manufacturer wants to create.
Configurators most often are “product pickers” or “service pickers”--they assume customers attempting to configure, price and quote products or services have sufficient expertise and knowledge to understand the implications about why they are making certain selections and to understand the terminology and explanations provided. This is often not the case, particularly if the product descriptions rely on proprietary, insider jargon and nomenclature that mean little or nothing to customers.
The use of brand or product names within a configurator without any explanation leaves customers wondering what they are really considering and why. For example, the computer I’m writing this on uses an Intel Core i3 computer processor. I haven’t a clue what an “Intel Core i3” processor translates to in terms that mean something to me. Yet, it’s not uncommon for a configurator to not tell me what that is or why it’s important--I would need to research that detail elsewhere.
A company’s lingo can sound like a foreign language to people unfamiliar with it. At the end of they day, it can appear that the company providing the product or service doesn’t understand or care about what’s really important to a customer.
Another problem is a configurator all too often assumes the customer has a reasonable familiarity and understanding of the company’s offerings and individual product or service groupings as well as the implications different options have on performance, reliability, and so on. Customers want to know why they should favor one model over another, again, in terms that they can relate to. It is critical that the configurator provide this information, yet many fail to address this need.
If the configurator tool fails to reveal the essential mission that a product is capable of supporting, this is an opportunity to enhance the configurator to better connect with the customer and enhance the customer experience. Customers who need business-grade, robust solutions may purchase low-end products and later be disappointed when the products fail earlier in their life than the customer expected. You can’t select a Chevrolet from the dealer’s showroom floor and hope it will be competitive in a NASCAR race as is. Products and services address different specifications or requirements for a reason--and those reasons need to be clearly spelled out.
Most companies taunt their customers and prospects into calling them if the configurator users have an insufficient background to understand the products, services, features or options. Some prospects will call and some won’t. Customers who don’t understand may just look for other companies that better address their questions or information needs through better online selling tools. Customers are often leery about the qualifications of the person taking their phone calls who says, “Sure, it will do that!”
Attributes of best-in-class, next-generation configurators
Companies seeking to raise the bar need to overcome the shortcomings of traditional configurators to better match their product and service capabilities to actual customer needs. Here are some important attributes of best-in-class, next-generation configurators.
- Customers require more than a product or service picker--they need varying levels of guided selling solutions that teach the customer how to buy appropriate configurations based on the essential mission or application required of the product or service.
- Customers need to know that they are selecting the best product or service for their needs based on attributes they have previously been prompted to provide. It is better to fit the solution to the customer’s actual needs than let them buy something based purely on price that could disappoint them later.
- Companies may be overly concerned about price; they need to share products and services with customers that customers may not even know exist. It is okay to “wow” and upsell a customer. If your primary focus is price and not value, your customers will focus on price as well.
Next-generation configurators must provide entry points both for customers intimately familiar with a company’s products and services as well as novices or infrequent purchasers--a “one-size-fits-all” entry point fits no one particularly well.
- Customers want to know “what is possible” from a myriad of choices; they don’t want to be artificially constrained.
- They want to understand the impact of different feature and option sets in terms of both pricing and lead time. Does the customer really need an off-the-shelf, mass-produced product or can they afford to wait to get exactly what they want? Help the customer understand the implications in terms of time and dollars required to obtain a more personalized solution.
- If your products are sold via retail channels, what configurations are available in the retail channel?
- If products are presented via direct mail catalogs, how does the configurable product or service offered map to a company’s product configurator?
- Customers want product or service customer reviews. It would be ideal if the person providing the review revealed something about “who they are” so a context is built for the opinions expressed.
- Customers want to know what ancillary products and services are recommended for purchase, e.g., “customers who bought this also bought this.”
- Customers want a strong visualization capability to help them “see” the product they are buying; three-dimensional models that can be rotated are best. Here’s an example of a tool that could be developed to take each customer’s order attributes and rapidly create a rendered, three-dimensional model within a web browser of the order configuration:
- Customers need to be able to save possible configurations and do side-by-side comparisons of different configurations for all attributes including price and lead time.
- Customers need to be able to capture customer-specific configurations in “my account” to save time when ordering additional products. Also, the configurator should alert customers when a “saved configuration” is no longer available or when a next-generation capability is available or is about to be available to replace certain products, services, or options in the offering line-up.
When you help customers configure your products and services around their lives, the relationship shifts from purely transactional to building strong brand loyalty. It is fine for the configurator capability to evolve over time--not everything needs to be in place on day one.
I’m often asked which companies provide a configurator 2.0. I know of no company who meets the criteria defined above. Who wants to be first?
For over 30 years, Dave Gardner has helped companies discover that the royal road to the ultimate customer relationship is letting customers order “a la carte.” He assists clients with strategies for “the a la carte customer,” and in dramatic improvements in efficiencies and profits. Dave, a management consultant and speaker residing in Silicon Valley, can be reached at +1 888 488-4976, via his website at http://www.gardnerandassoc.com or on Twitter @Gardner_Dave
[Image: Flickr user clydeorama]