September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

The hidden buying motivator: Trust

What makes shoppers buy online? MIT Sloan professor Glen Urban believes that trust will boost sales and he has developed a system called “WebTrust” that some Internet sites are trying out—with positive results.

What makes shoppers buy online? When they`re asked, they say convenience, price, ease-of-use and efficiency. Not very often do they say trust.

But MIT Sloan professor Glen Urban believes that trust will boost sales and he has developed a system called "WebTrust" that some Internet sites are trying out—with positive results.

Listen to the customer

The WebTrust system is based on Urban`s notion that too many web sites are extensions of the companies` catalog business where they push products rather than listen to what customers want and recommend products that fit the customers` needs. To make this model work, customers need to trust the companies. Elements of trust that need to be incorporated into web offerings include competency, objectivity, and comprehensiveness, he says.

General Motors Corp., for one, is using the model at AutoChoiceAdvisor.com. There, customers answer questions about what they like in cars, how much they want to spend and which features are important. The site then recommends the car best suited to their needs-even if the car is not a GM model. While GM risks losing a customer this way, it gains valuable information from the site in looking at what customers are asking for and then looking for holes in its product lines where it is not meeting consumer needs, an MIT spokesman says.

Reducing calls

Intel is using the system at its site where customers request software downloads. Here, customers answer a series of questions before Intel recommends software products. The system has increased software sales as well as reduced the cost of direct customer service, executives say. Intel found that improved navigation increased download success by a factor of 5 percentage points and saved the company $10 million per year in reduced telephone support calls and mailing costs, according to MIT Sloan information.

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