High Stakes: Web Site Customer Experiences | Article

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Three to five years ago, it was not unusual for a retail enterprise to launch a Web site then wait to see what happened. Today, Web sites are definitely a strategic component of most retailers’ business plans and a key source of revenue. But not all of them are successful, and some even erode their own brand.

Keynote Systems, Inc., the Internet Performance AuthorityÆ, provides services that improve online business performance and communications technologies. For its competitive intelligence studies, the firm ranks the best retail Web sites as those that achieve the following objectives:

  • Driving customer conversion
  • Impacting the company’s brand positively
  • Realizing a high level of customer satisfaction
  • Being technically reliable and responsive

As a retailer’s competitors are only a mouse click away, it’s essential to understand the customer experience on a site and what will improve that for the greatest impact. Most e-business executives, however, don’t have meaningful metrics for measuring the technical and marketing performance of their online business. “They have too many metrics or not the right metrics or the right key performance indicators,” comments Carol Carpenter, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Keynote.

Many companies often don’t manage to prioritize their Web development in strategic alignment with overall business goals. In addition, retailers make frequent site changes. “Their content is extremely dynamic, their inventory is always changing, and they frequently launch marketing promotions without testing to see if the site is ready to handle the potential increase in traffic,” states Carpenter. An example of this scenario is the January 2004 Delta Airlines announcement of a fare restructuring. The same day it was announced, the site went down, unable to handle the increased load. And every holiday season, there are always top retailers who have site availability issues.

As Keynote points out, e-business executives often don’t know how they fare against competitors or how to gain a competitive edge online. Even more important, retailers usually know what consumers are doing on their sites, but they don’t know why. Carpenter says new clients’ biggest question for Keynote at the outset is: How can we know how well we’re really serving the interests and needs of the real customers who are coming to our site?

This was the concern of Victoria’s Secret Direct, the catalog and Web site division of the highly successful clothing retailer offering lingerie, swimsuits, women’s apparel, fragrances, and bath collections. It turned to Keynote in 2005 in order to gain better understanding of customer behavior on the Victoria’s Secret Web site. Keynote’s services began with an initial review of the customers’ shopping patterns and then moved to testing specific transactions on an ongoing basis.

Donna Johnson, Vice President Internet, Victoria’s Secret Direct, recalls one of those specific transactions. “We were trying to create a new wardrobing functionality and had a few different versions of that. Keynote helped us do usability tests on all the versions. The information enabled us to understand which version would be the most acceptable to our customers. They provided valuable information that enabled us to make the right changes on our site.”

How Does the Service Work?

Why can’t e-business executives accomplish this testing effectively on their own? Simply put, collecting and analyzing performance management data is not their core business. Keynote has developed proprietary software for these purposes and offers it to customers on a subscription or engagement basis.

“Our clients don’t have to implement or maintain the software or try to integrate it with their other systems. So they can get on with the business of serving their customers. They just use our tools, provided as a service, and glean the value they need to support their core business,” Carpenter explains.

Keynote measures sites’ service levels from more than 1,600 measurement computers and mobile devices in over 114 locations in over 66 metropolitan areas worldwide–a cost-prohibitive activity for retailers who would have to cut their own deals with co-location sites and backbone providers and install measurement computers. The firm also has a panel of over 160,000 consumers who participate in interactive Web site tests that assess user experience. By outsourcing to Keynote, they reap expertise and the benefits of costs spread among the aggregate of Keynote clients.

Keynote analyzes the data gathered by these computers and via its other services and then advises clients as to recommendations for site improvement. A food and beverage client, for example, was concerned about its site reliability leading up to the Christmas holiday shopping season. Keynote evaluated the site from a technical and customer experience perspective and launched a site essentials study. They found the site’s design and information architecture was not helpful; there were too many steps necessary to actually find a product and too many steps to actually buy a product. Keynotes consultants then helped the client streamline those online processes.

Keynote–whose retail clients include such “best of the best” companies as Circuit City, Gap, Home Depot, L.L. Bean, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Office Depot, Williams Sonoma (along with thousands of other clients in other vertical industries, including Chase, FedEx, Hilton, Honda, Microsoft, Travelocity, and Yahoo)–conducts a sophisticated statistical driver analysis to determine which aspects of site experience have the most impact on a retailer’s success. The services give customers real-world end-user data and information about why their sites perform the way they do and which areas of improvement they should focus on in order to have the biggest impact on their desired business outcomes.

Services are divided into two solution sets. One addresses Customer Experience Management (CEM), measuring both attitude and behavior; the other addresses Service Level Management (SLM), for deep technical diagnosis of response time and reliability of a site. Pricing for SLM services varies depending on the service; measurement and monitoring is on a monthly subscription fee, driven by the number of measurements. Pricing on the CEM side is determined either on a per-research-project basis, where clients pay for all of the services/options they use for that project, or on a one-year technology license basis where clients pay for unlimited use of the WebEffective technology for a year

Data provided includes unbiased benchmarking, competitive intelligence and analysis, operational service level metrics, and customer experience research. Consulting is wrapped around the data in some cases. Clients can access their data at any time through the Keynote portal and also get quick responses for new issues or a need for testing that arises.

Both the CEM and SLM programs conduct competitive intelligence. With SLM services, Keynote can, for example, every 15 minutes (or at the client’s designated frequency) open a browser and execute a multi-page transaction on a retailer’s site and/or a competitor’s site (like putting items in a shopping cart). From its measurement computers located in 66+ metropolitan areas around the world, the retailer could learn that, perhaps, pages are downloading too slowly from Japan–but also learn how its performance compares at that moment with its competitors. Keynote could also provide the retailer with detailed information about what underlying technical design, implementation, or application issues may be causing slowness and how to resolve these problems.

With the CEM services, Keynote obtains customer feedback that is far more effective than focus groups or surveys. Keynote intercepts a large sample of customers arriving at a site (or directs them to a site via an email invitation) and asks questions before they interact with the site such as “What are your expectations?” or “What do you think the brand of the site means?” Keynote then asks the customers to perform tasks on the site. During customer interaction, Keynote records the customer’s behavior and also asks questions about the experience such as “What would enhance the page you are looking at?” or “How does your ability to find this item affect your brand perception? Afterwards, they ask customers questions such as “How will this experience affect your offline purchases?” or “How will this experience affect what you ask your doctor for?”

Carpenter says, “We get input from them on what they aren’t doing or on what they think they are doing and then watch what they actually do. They may think they are on task, but we see them going back and forth, backspacing to another page. We can then ask why they hit the back button five times. We get the ‘why’ of customer behavior, not just the ‘what;’ and this is crucial to our client’s understanding of their customer needs.”

Keynote provides specific solutions that run the gamut from e-business readiness to content integrity. Is a site ready to launch? Can it handle the load? How good is access from a mobile device? Does the implementation of a site’s flash, streaming, and interactive media applications add technical snafus? How does the site help or hurt the company’s brand? How good is the content (is it compliant, are the links appropriate, is the copywriting and branding what the client thought it was and within its corporate guidelines)?

Keynote’s competitive intelligence services include helping clients understand customer acquisition and retention at a better ROI. They monitor hundreds of online panelists as they are instructed to perform tasks such as: Go research a stock and buy 10 shares. In this case, Keynote helps the client understand how potential customers find their site in the first place and how they determine which stock trading site to use. Do they use a search engine to get started, for example? Do they go straight to a portal like Yahoo Finance? Carpenter says, “We tease out brand affinities.”

And there’s more. They also pre-test clients’ marketing campaigns. How is the 10-percent-off versus free-shipping campaign actually performing? “We can intercept people from the client’s own customers or bring panelists to bear and send half to one online campaign page and half to the other campaign page and see which one has better pull,” explains Carpenter. This ensures clients don’t spend a lot of Web development dollars on something that’s not going to bring them a lot of revenue or that their customers might not even like.

Some clients also rely on Keynote as an unbiased, independent third-party source for validation of other outsourcing service providers’ performance on behalf of their outsourcing clients for Web site services.

“The Keynote solution is a very valuable method for companies to evaluate their customers’ behavior on their site,” summarizes Johnson of Victoria’s Secret Direct. The service options and data gathered are widespread. She advises potential new Keynote clients to formally understand and define their objectives of a test or study and narrow that down to very specific answers they want, versus just general information. “Keynote is very good at analyzing and reporting-out in a concise manner what the results of the tests are, relative to defined test objectives,” she adds.

For Keynote clients, its outsourced services are a one-stop shop for making sure their Web sites are healthy and will bring the desired customer ROI.

Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:

  • As a retailer’s competitors are only a mouse click away, it’s essential to understand the customer experience on a site and what will improve that for the greatest impact. But collecting and analyzing performance management data is not a retailer’s core business, and investing in the equipment necessary is cost-prohibitive without outsourcing.
  • Outsourcing software as services on a subscription basis allows buyers to use the tools without having to implement, maintain, or integrate the software with their other systems.
  • An unbiased, independent third-party is an excellent source for validation of an outsourcing provider’s performance on behalf of its clients for Web site services.


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