I went shopping several weeks ago at an Internet retailer (an e-tailer). I ended up buying a few books for a child I know. Recently, during another shopping visit to the same site, I was treated to several book suggestions similar in theme.

Obviously, the e-tailer was capturing my purchase information and drawing conclusions about what I might like using a personalization engine. I appreciated the gesture, but I was looking for a gift for another person ­ a music CD by a group not familiar to me. That's when it dawned on me.

The personalization engine wasn't really working. The suggestions weren't terribly offensive, but I couldn't turn them off. I was beginning to wonder if I was destined to be the victim of an endless personalized ad campaign for Harry Potter and the band named Tool.

One of my favorite customer relationship management (CRM) definitions is: Identify your customers, find out what they want and give it to them at the right time for the right price. Today, it seems as though many organizations are willing to make assumptions relative to their customers' needs. Rudimentary personalization may be better than none at all, but why not just get it right in first place? Unless and until organizations allow customers to help construct and maintain their own information, most personalization efforts will likely amount to guesswork. Educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless.

Some might counter that most customers don't want to make the effort to construct and maintain their own information, but I disagree. What I hear repeatedly is that customers still want close relationships with their merchants. They still like to be greeted by name in their favorite coffee shops, they still like to be asked if they need any help finding something and they still like to be thanked for their business. They're just jaded from years of waiting in line for lousy service, unopened suggestion boxes and having their contact information sold over and over again.

Without doubt, some customers won't want any personalization, and it's hard to blame them. However, most will ­ and the better it is, the more they'll want. Customers understand that giving information is often the first step in a relationship. How it is used will determine whether or not the relationship continues.

Therefore, the next step for the e-tailer must be to earn the customer's trust. What if, during my very first visit to the site, the online retailer told me that they had a number of free personalization services to assist me and asked if I wanted to learn more or opt out? What if they continued by telling me that if I opted out, the only personalization I'd get would be a "Welcome Back!" message? What if, regardless of whether I opt in or out, every bit of information that they obtain from my business would be totally confidential ­ unless I indicated otherwise? That would be pleasantly refreshing for those of us who are fed up with having our personal information sold ­ and all the junk mail, telephone solicitations and spam that goes with it.

What if the e-tailer let me build and keep my own profile? If I could include my favorite music/artists, they could tell me when new releases went on sale or when concerts were coming to my city. Perhaps they could even sell me the tickets. If I could include movies as an interest, they could tell me the films being released in theaters, at rental stores or on tape/DVD each week and offer me discounted tickets, rentals or purchases.

If I could build profiles for my family and friends, and include birthdays and anniversaries, they could remind me in advance to purchase gifts and make gift suggestions. They could even keep track of the gifts I purchased by person.

Wowser ­ where do I sign up?

The e-tailing business scenario can often be improved by customization ­ customer profiles that include regular, direct customer input. Customization is based on technology that gives customers the ability to select and deselect items, products, information or whatever ­ basically to exert some "control" over their Web visits. The technology remembers their requests, monitors and may even override the personalization suggestions using the parameters entered by the customer. Then, when customers log on to the Web site, they are given the sense that the company is truly treating them personally.

There is a synergy between personalization and customization. It is a continuous process in which the two applications provide valuable information to each other. Customization feeds personalization feeds customization, etc. The information gathered via customization hones the personalization suggestions, which permits further customization opportunities.

Personalization is a valuable and useful technique to help you improve customer visits to your Web site. However, inappropriately or singularly applied, it can also drive customers away. The ability to customize visitors' experiences at your Web site in conjunction with personalization features will greatly improve your overall customer service, generate more loyalty and thus increase revenues.

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