July 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Customers raise their voices

(Page 2 of 3)

The public relations staff member responsible for monitoring forums, blogs and social networks not affiliated with Abebooks scans content on a weekly basis, using tools like Google and blog search engine Technorati to hunt for mentions of Abebooks. As with feedback in the in-house forums, the staffer compiles such mentions and sends them to the same teams for action.

Wertz looks to current employees with proven track records when it comes to appointing Web 2.0 monitors. “A person must be able to structure complex problems and make determinations based on all the information,” he says. “They also must be curious by nature. You can’t just tell someone, ‘Here is a list of blogs you should check.’ A blog that’s important today may not be important tomorrow. So you need an individual with ­curiosity, and who really understands the web and can stay on top of web developments.”

Recently, one of Abebooks’ Web 2.0 monitors came across a post written by a frequent customer on her personal blog about a bad experience she had had at Abebooks.com. She had purchased some books, but the order was cancelled by the independent bookseller that sells via Abebooks and she did not receive a refund. “We saw her blog post and customer service contacted her and initiated a refund,” Wertz says. “And she was a happy customer again because we approached her and took care of things.”

While the books e-retailer is keen on routine monitoring, it is cautious about overreacting. “If only one person says something about a web site problem, for example, it might be a problem with that person’s computer or software,” Wertz cautions. “But if we see two or three booksellers jumping on that topic, that means something is going on. So it gets escalated and our technical team gets on it immediately. Then we post a note in our forums saying the tech team is on it, or that it has been taken care of.”

A companywide effort

Like Abebooks, Roxio, the consumer division of Sonic Solutions that sells CD- and DVD-burning software and other media technology, makes monitoring of user-­generated web content a routine responsibility, though it assigns the task to staff members throughout the company. It scans its own forums, the Roxio Community Discussion Groups, and casts a wider net.

“We operate discussion groups on our site to ensure we have a method of receiving information from customers in the most unfiltered way. As a company philosophy, we do not intend to impede the liberal discussion in and around our category. We want people to be discussing things in the most honest and straightforward way,” says Yann Connan, vice president of e-business at Roxio. “We also routinely monitor other technology message boards, blogs and enthusiast sites to see how consumers are discussing our product category, and to find out if they are discussing our products.”

At Roxio, staff members throughout the company are responsible for routinely monitoring user-generated content on the web. This includes employees in the retailer’s product management, customer service, engineering and management groups.

While customer feedback from user-generated content is by its nature anecdotal, when pieced together it sheds light on a bigger picture, Connan says. “This kind of feedback helps us formulate hypotheses around products, product categories and the web site, for example,” he explains.

What’s more, Web 2.0-based feedback can be an important guide when e-retailers prepare for formally soliciting input from customers. Not only can retailers bring together information gleaned from both sources to address customer wishes, user-generated content can help executives hone e-mail surveying. “Anecdotal information can lead us in the right direction,” Connan says, “and then help us create the more structured e-mail surveys where we can push for more information.”

A leg up

E-mail surveys have a leg up on other types of surveys-telephone or otherwise-for a variety of reasons. For one thing, e-mail enables e-retailers to gain virtually instant feedback. A merchant can gain a solid understanding of a subject in a very short time, which just isn’t possible any other way, says Magee of Drs. Foster and Smith.

Abebooks typically gets 80% of e-mail survey responses within two hours of transmission. “You can’t get that with other surveying tools,” Wertz says. “Even things like pop-up window surveys are not that fast because they depend on the amount of traffic coming to your site and then getting a significant number of shoppers choosing to take them.”

Plus, a pop-up window survey, unlike an e-mail survey, intrudes on customers’ shopping experiences, Wertz says. And an e-retailer cannot target pop-up surveys, he adds, whereas a merchant can home in on specific customer types and histories via e-mail surveys by selecting customers from its data storehouses that meet certain criteria.

“We survey customers who have opted in to our e-newsletters,” says Wertz, who adds that that list can be further refined by comparing it with data on e-newsletter recipients who have made purchases, whether general or specific to a product. “So we really are asking customers who know us and our products, not a random sample or a list from a company that signs up people interested in gaining rewards for taking surveys.”

Making sense of it all

With customer feedback coming in via e-mail surveys, Web 2.0 venues and call center interactions, e-retailers are finding themselves with a lot more customer feedback than they ever had before. It is challenging to wrap their hands around all the information and make sense of it. To take successful action, e-retailers must find optimal ways to sift through it all.

When Roxio has pulled customer feedback together, it applies various methodologies to parse information and learn what it can. One primary technique is the Kano Method, a 20-year-old information-sorting tool that attempts to gain insights into customers’ perceptions of what is and is not important for a specific product to be successful. For instance, results of a survey that asks questions about numerous features of an existing or planned product are interpreted by marketing and management staff members in a way that determines only the features likely to make a customer make a purchase.

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