How to integrate Content, Product Data and Knowledge to Meet Your Customer’s Needs
Organizations are continuing the never-ending journey of managing and applying information to solve problems and serve their customers. The ability to do this well is becoming the core differentiator in the digital experience. That experience is based entirely on information that the customer receives. The more effectively an organization can streamline the experience, the greater the competitive advantage. Price may be a key consideration for some products in particular industries; however, ease of doing business and ease of finding the answer can make having the lowest price less critical. This is why usability and findability are so crucial to the online experience.
Usability and Findability
But what is usability? What do we mean by findability? The answers may seem obvious at first glance, but what is usable to one person might be incomprehensibly complex to another. People differ in how they think about the problem they are trying to solve (which is influenced by their background and level of expertise), and they may use very different terminology to describe their needs. Their mental models – which reflect a number of factors, including learning and thinking styles – are different. Everyone has a different frame of reference and point of view. Even when their needs are the same, the way in which users find the things that meet those needs can be very different. This is why users representing different demographics and user types should be selected when usability testing is conducted. An approach that tests well on one group may test poorly on another.
The user experience is about much more than navigation. Search results need to make sense by also representing the mental model of users. That includes facet labels that use terminology that they understand, attributes for filtering based on the features that are important to them, and product details that are useful in making their selection. Details that are captured and surfaced for actions such as comparisons need to be appropriate to the user, the product class, and the problems being solved. This may appear to be straightforward for some classes of retail and consumer goods; however, it is never trivial since the decision factors that are important to one person may be meaningless to another. In B2B contexts when products are technically complex, surfacing the right information becomes extremely challenging.
Search, Navigation and Weak Signals
But there’s even more to designing the ideal experience, because navigation and search are only two of the signals that users can present that provide clues about their intent. Search and navigation are weak signals. Search terms can be very ambiguous. Search terms are typically short. They are only an approximation of a user’s intent or need. Faceted search is often incorporated to help disambiguate the user’s short query. A search for “shirts” on Target.com will return several facet categories to refine the ambiguous query. Search becomes a conversation. When the user says “I need a shirt,” the system responds with “what kind of a shirt do you want? T-shirt, polo shirt, button-down shirt…” etc.
The well-designed ecommerce platform should interpret the query and present appropriate results. If the user is authenticated, the results from the weak signal (a short search query) can be informed by purchase history. If I buy dress shirts of a particular brand and style, the system can exclude Harry Potter, Metallica, and Superman T-shirts (the choices presented to me when I searched a site recently) and give priority to my brand of dress shirt. While the majority of searchers using that keyword may be buyers of logoed T-shirts, the additional signal of my past purchase would override that result.
For most retail ecommerce sites, various approaches for providing suggestions use prior purchase histories and shopping basket analysis (“people who bought this, also bought the following”) as well as explicitly stated preferences. These approaches are far from perfect but can provide some uplift. The more sophisticated approach will be based on a detailed understanding on customer needs and driving dynamic content based on those needs.
Salesperson as Recommendation Engine
Let’s consider that concept from another perspective. If I walk into my favorite men’s store, the salesperson does not need to ask what kind of shirt I want. He knows my style from working with me in the past, and typically shows me interesting new styles and matching ties, etc. It is unlikely that he will bring something that I don’t like. I appreciate his knowledge; it saves me time and effort. The goal of an online user experience should be to capture the same understanding of customer needs that a knowledgeable salesperson would have, and offer the products that a good salesperson would have offered. The salesperson is a recommendation engine that uses past purchases and user preferences to make those recommendations.
In technical sectors, the salesperson might be a solution engineer whose knowledge and expertise becomes highly valued and even indispensable to the customer. They not only make product recommendations but help to guide customers and solve their problems. The best salespeople work with the customer’s interests at heart to achieve the best outcome, even when it does not further their sale.
This is the value-add that many organizations strive to provide, especially when some of their products in isolation are considered commodities. A generic sensor component can be procured from many suppliers. However, when a specific component is part of a solution design, it is no longer a commodity. Many industrial suppliers have built their reputations on becoming an extension of their customer’s engineering team and by providing reference and specification materials in the form of industry standard catalogues.
Ecommerce Site as Virtual Salesperson - Automating Expertise
For business-to-business sites that provide solutions to meet the needs of customers using skilled experts, the need for knowledge-driven automation approaches is crystal clear. There is no way to scale with manual processes – especially when the salesperson requires years of expertise to be fully productive. Knowledge-driven presales and support will not be possible at scale without embracing a holistic approach to product data, content, customer data and knowledge to incorporate all these into the online experience.
The need for knowledge-centric ecommerce will increase, especially for industrial suppliers, as human expertise becomes scarcer as senior level people with years of accumulated knowledge retire. In some situations, configuration tools and applications can fill some of the gap. Configure Price Quote (CPQ) tools contain embedded knowledge of how systems are created using components. These applications are at the intersection of knowledge, content and product information.
Call centers that support sales using highly skilled experts can save a tremendous amount of time by providing product selection and configuration tools. Salespeople at one industrial supplier spend 70% of their time helping customers find and select products. The company expects to cut that time in half by deploying new technologies that will allow customers to select typical configurations, freeing the sales staff to prospect, help customers with complex needs, and engage in other higher value activities.
Chatbots are also being developed to assist in offloading simple interactions; however, those interactions will be increasingly become complex knowledge focused interactions – from product configuration to complex troubleshooting and advisory work. The ability of a chatbot to function is dependent on a foundation of knowledge and a comprehensive knowledge architecture. That architecture will encompass structured and unstructured data providing common organizing principles across systems and applications. This means that an enterprise architecture will be needed to provide high levels of sophisticated functionality.
Knowledge = Applied Content
Well-structured and organized content is the explicit embodiment of knowledge; in fact, one could say that knowledge is applied content. The challenge lies in extracting knowledge from the expert who has the answer, structuring it in such a way that it can be accessed, and identifying the signals from the user that allows the information to be surfaced when it is needed.
Clearly, knowledge as reflected in content is critical to the success of a site. It’s not just support content or reference content – it’s the content that helps the user throughout their journey from awareness and initial investigation through selection, purchase, acquisition, usage, and ongoing support. This also means that upstream knowledge processes and sources (typically within engineering groups) have to be managed and well curated – captured and structured – to prevent the acts of heroics needed downstream once products are launched and customers have questions and problems to solve.
Being intentional about product data, associated content and knowledge assets is increasingly part of ecommerce programs. Many organizations are still struggling to get their product data in shape, but with new marketing tools and technologies, they have started to better manage content and rich media in support of the customer. A knowledge-centric approach goes beyond marketing content and product related rich media and extends the experience to provide more complex approaches and solutions to customer challenges.
Knowledge Supports the Journey
At every point in the journey, customers need information and content tied together by the organization’s knowledge. This knowledge is in the form of product details including features, pricing, specifications, instructions on how to solve problems, bundles of products that comprise a solution, maintenance details, reviews, warranties, photos and diagrams, engineering drawings and so on. Assembling this information dynamically, depending on changing customer needs and context, is required in order to provide an advanced, personalized website. An intentional approach to knowledge and a well-designed architecture are the ingredients that tie all of the pieces together.
For an in-depth discussion of how product data, content, customer information and knowledge comes together, with Matt Clark, VP of eCommerce & Digital Marketing at Premier Farnell, check out our webinar: "4 Digital Experience Tools That Drive Real Results."