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From the Highway to My Way
Tracing the Evolution of the Web Self-Service Experience

"Dynamic and engaging." "Effective and friendly." Paige Mantel, vice president of product marketing at Interwoven, is describing the best of today’s e-commerce Web experiences. But she could be describing herself. Paige is charming and knowledgeable, and has a clear historical perspective on the growth and current domination of Web-based customer service through her history with one of the early leaders in Web content management, Interwoven.

"As I look at people who have used Web content management tools since their inception, their goals and objectives have clearly changed with the times. For one thing, their websites have changed from static brochures or billboards to hugely dynamic, strategic parts of their businesses," Paige says.

I wanted to set the stage with the historical perspective, so I asked Paige to remember back and give me some of her insights as to what has allowed—or driven, even—the Web experience that most corporations now employ from that of a "billboard along the information highway," as we used to quaintly put it, to that of a "dynamic and engaging customer experience," as Paige likes to refer to it now.

"There are lots of ways to look at it," she begins. "From a consumer perspective, early pioneers and visionaries like Amazon and Travelocity set and changed expectations. They created very dynamic experiences where one could get great value by using the Web, and helped consumers get what they wanted. Now consumers have a high set of expectations, and this has had a ripple effect throughout every industry—B to B, B to C, retail, financial services, telecoms... all of it. And all of our expectations are continuing to be raised though the experiences different companies are providing us. Google, for instance, has created a new ‘usability,’ or ease-of-use, standard. Now any website has to be on that level, with a highly engaging experience before I’ll interact with the business."

Paige continues: "Keep in mind... before these pioneers started up, there was no consumer demand for their services. The demand to buy a book online at discount was not there until Amazon created it! So the early visionaries created the consumer demand, and have raised the bar increasingly ever since... and still are doing so," Paige says. She describes what I call a "perfect storm" that led to today’s environment: first, the widespread adoption of broadband made it possible to use websites for commerce; then the Web content management tools came into place and made it possible to take all that product information, catalog content, etc., and put it on the Web in such a cost-effective channel. And the early adopters such as Amazon, Travelocity and even Google raised the consumer expectation level so high that... well... it hasn’t topped off yet. "I didn’t know I wanted to buy books online until Amazon told me I did!" remarks Paige. And that goes for most of us. I didn’t think I wanted to buy singles from ITunes... until I did. And now I can’t tell you the last time I stepped foot into a record store, much to my buddy Nathaniel’s chagrin. He runs a great record and CD store, but I sure don’t need it anymore.

This leads us, Paige insists, to the second driver for Web self-service. And this one (as we’ll hear again later) is very difficult to extract from the first: consumer expectation. And it is changes in business strategies. Online channels have become increasingly more strategic and central to business marketing. Companies are spending more on on-line advertising—as much as 30% more in 2007 over 2006—because everyone "is looking for a new way to reach more customers, and they see online as the most effective way to engage prospects and potential customers," says Paige.

I am sure there is research to confirm this... but I don’t need it, and neither do you. I can tell you from personal experience that if I want to buy a refrigerator, the first thing I do is "google" refrigerators. And I then scour the review sites, the consumer-research sites, the "social network" opinion sites... until I find the perfect refrigerator. What I don’t do—and you don’t either—is go to the appliance store. At least not until we’re pretty sure which refrigerator we want. So the customer-contact component of buying anything more significant than a pack of gum is initiated—and remains focused on—the ability of a website to tell me what I want to buy.

That’s a staggeringly disruptive statement. I live in a small community that has had more than its share of controversy surrounding the presence or absence of "big-box" stores. Their impact on the continuing viability of "mom-and-pop" stores, opponents insist, is disastrous, and the appearance of a big-box store is a sure death knell for the local retailers. I am here to say: the Loews and Home Depots and even the Wal-Marts of the world have not had anywhere NEAR the stifling effect on small business that the World Wide Web has had. Web self-service is a two-edged sword, and it has cut deeply into the local hard-goods business. And auto sales. And insurance. And financial services. You can’t blame Wal-Mart for that.

Better Tools for Better Service
Finally, Paige reminds me, there is a third market-force that has driven the Web to assume such a powerful stature in the marketplace. "There are better tools available to capture and create the experience online—better search engines, optimization tools, Web content management tools to analyze customer behavior to create a better experience," she says. "All of these tools are now not only at IT’s disposal, but—more importantly—at marketing’s disposal, to actually create this engaging, functioning business model."

Paige reminds me that the demand drive for Web self-service is evident even in the creation of Interwoven itself. The CTO of Match.com—the well-known online dating service (of all things)—built a set of technologies that he needed to run that business. Those Web content management tools later were productized and thus was created Interwoven. So it is very difficult to separate the various stimuli—customer demand, business strategy and technology availability—from one another. They are linked.

At this point I underscore another possible controversial element present in the linkage between "marketing" and "service." It strikes me, I say, that the collection and capture of the kind of personal information necessary to provide an impeccable customer experience borders on privacy invasion, and it’s possible that the same efforts to "create the best customer experience" also can be construed as "dirty marketing tricks."

"To be fair," Paige answers, "the way I like to describe it is ‘customer engagement.’ Which is a little different than ‘customer experience’ or pure ‘customer information gathering.’" She goes on to make the distinguishing argument: It’s the combination of customer information, put to use to drive the most relevant and compelling engagement. While it may be construed that ‘gathering information’ about the customer is a one-way marketing exploitation, and perhaps even a violation of trust, it is in fact the opposite: the more I can learn about a customer, the better I can serve him or her.

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