Web Commerce as if Customers Mattered

The Web changes everything - except the people your company works for: your customers.

Buyers are sellers. Products are services. Markets have been turned inside out. But one thing about doing business in the new economy hasn't changed: The most fundamental goal of every company is to serve its customers. Companies may be working faster, smarter, and in more unusual ways than ever before — but they must also work with customers better than companies did in the old economy, or there won't be any economy at all.

Customers.com, by Patricia B. Seybold (with Ronni T. Marshak), stands all the excitement about Internet commerce on its head — by focusing on the most important URL of all: www.yourcustomers.com. As a 20-year veteran of the computer industry, as founder and CEO of the Patricia Seybold Group (a consultancy based in Boston), and as the coauthor of a series of five books on professional computing, Seybold knows as much as anyone about what it takes to develop a customer-centric organization, one that is capable of flourishing in multiple media: Web, email, pager, voice mail.

In Customers.com, she uses 16 case studies — of such companies as Boeing, Dell, Hertz, Cisco Systems, Wells Fargo, Amazon.com, and American Airlines — to illustrate eight core principles of e-commerce. By adhering to these principles, she argues, you can make it easy for customers to do business with you. And Seybold makes it easy for you to learn from her — by including a practical handbook that explains how you can launch your own "customers.com" initiative.

Packed with real-world war stories that explain how to learn more about customers, how to build customer loyalty, and how to save money, Customers.com is likely to develop its own strong customer base. Here's some of what we at Fast Company took away from our 384-page experience of being Seybold's customer.

Self-service is the ultimate service.

More than anything else, customers value control over their time: They want to place an order, to check on a shipment, or to get help — whenever they feel like it, and through any of several media: phone, Web, fax, email, even direct human contact. Giving customers many ways to get the information they want will save you money in the short term and build loyalty in the long term. Every week, for example, more than 20,000 Dell customers check the status of their order on that company's Web site, saving Dell $8 every time a customer substitutes a mouse click for a phone call.

The experience is the message.

Your brand is nothing less than the complete experience of doing business with you. It includes the experience of using your products — but it extends beyond that point. Enhancing the customer's experience means eliminating snags and finding ways to reduce customer anxiety. For example, Amazon.com lets repeat customers buy books with just one click of the mouse. And within a few minutes of ordering, customers receive an email notification confirming their order. The process is easy, and it reduces customer anxiety — Did my order go through? — even before a customer has time to start worrying.

Help customers help each other.

There are people who know the answer to your customers' questions better than you do: other customers. A smart company will figure out how to let its customers talk to others with whom they have something in common. In that way, it will build an organic, self-propagating community.

For example, Microsoft uses its Web site to organize meeting places around customers' jobs: CIO, CTO, developer. Cisco Systems has found that people using its customer-support Web site excel at helping one another — and often provide answers faster than the Cisco support staff can. In 1997, these helpers answered about 4,500 questions per week. Partly for that reason, Cisco offers training and certification to such customers. Whether out of a desire to show off how much they know or out of an altruistic urge, they have become an officially recognized part of the company's technical-support operation.

Cheat Sheet

Here, borrowed from Customers.com, is some conversational fodder to take to your next cocktail party

Telling quote: "Nothing turns off a customer more than having to remind the supplier about past communications. And to the customer, your organization is one entity."

Best factoid: Last year, one Cisco customer did $100 million in business with that company — without ever talking to a human being.

Biggest format innovation: Every chapter cleanly breaks out hard-core, geeky details about "evolving the technical infrastructure" — so techies can find what they need, and so business types can skip the jargon and get on to the next nugget of strategic wisdom. Now, that's segmenting the customer.

Title inflation: Seybold suggests appointing a chief customer officer — to oversee the use of information about your customers and to integrate all of the information that you have about each customer into a comprehensive customer profile. Customers think of you as one company, so you should treat each customer as a single entity as well.

Parting shot: "So what are you waiting for? I've just given you a blueprint for success!" Put down that cocktail and get back to work.

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