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Web-sites and Customer Relationships

If you feel that people are getting more and more demanding, you're right. If you feel that people have higher and higher expectations of your Web site, you're right again.

Canadians have embraced the Internet - about 60% of Canadian households, regularly use the Internet from various access points such as home, work, school, public libraries and other locations. Ontarians surpass the national average for regular use of the Internet and lead the country in online shopping.

Given this level of adoption, simply having a Web site is no longer newsworthy. It is expected. Now customers want more than basic access from their on-line suppliers. Companies respond variously to customers' requirements, evolving through four stages as they go from presenting basic information to becoming relationship driven in everything they do. These stages of development are Information, Interaction, Transaction and Customization.

Stage One: Information

Organizations with Web-sites that are in this stage of development, initially provide their history, locations, annual reports and possibly a job opportunities page. The Web site presents everything you wanted to know about the organization and how to contact it. The Web-site is essentially the organization's brochure.

Well-designed Stage One Web sites strive to go further. They seek to take greater advantage of one of the biggest changes to occur in customer-business relationships, that of self-service. Well-crafted Stage One Web-sites enable customers to answer their own questions, in their own time and to their hearts' content.

It is better to have a Stage One Web-site than none at all but the World Wide Web is a two-way street, so companies inevitably evolve from providing information to interacting with customers via their Web site.

Stage Two: Interaction

Web sites in this second stage facilitate customer inquiries and help organizations gather much needed information from customers. Initially, organizations use the Web site to drive purposeful e-mail. They tell customers that if it is critical they should call. If it is just important, they should send e-mail.

Some organizations seeking faster interaction with customers are moving to Web chat, a more timely service than e-mail. Call centre agents answer typed customer queries immediately. In the future, when everyone has sound cards and broadband connections, voice-over-IP (Internet Protocol) will become the norm.

Stage Three: Transaction

Stage Three sites, Transaction, go a step further. Organizations with Stage Three sites are serious about integrating Web-based activity into the core functions of the organization. These sites focus on making it easy for customers to do business with the organization by facilitating customer transactions. They typically enable customers to view their account status and history. They may also provide e-billing and online payment. Banks started this trend by letting customers check account balances at ATM machines and then online. Other organizations have followed the banks' lead. Research shows that successful Stage Three sites are perceived by customers as being secure, trustworthy, private, convenient and fast.

Stage Four: Customization

Organizations with Stage Four Web sites, Customization, use the Web to develop relationships with customers and increase the effectiveness of these relationships. They understand that customers have different needs and design their Web sites accordingly. The World Wide Web has the ability to remember customers as individuals. Customer recognition, recollection and relevance are demonstrated through customization and personalization.