Web Wise

The right Web site can walk customers through even the most complex selling process

If only we'd seen this whole E-commerce thing coming. We would have done things so differently. We would have sold something simple (teacups/pork). We would have offered minimal options (bone china/boneless loin). We would have targeted customers who had few requirements (no chips/no gristle). And, as a result, we would have sat back and watched traffic clock in and out of our site with express-lane speed.

Alas, our business isn't simple. Here at Jim's Fantasy Factory Floor Automation Boutique we sell seriously complex products at nothing-to-sneeze-at prices to companies whose operations are riding on our performance. Those folks are not going to simply look us up on a search engine, click a few items into their shopping cart, and proceed to the checkout button. They need us to spend time with them. They need to know that we understand their exact circumstances before we start telling them what to buy. And they need to trust in our technical abilities and interpersonal skills, because our equipment is only half the battle and one-third of their cost. (We provide consulting, installation, and training as well.)

Having recently graduated from the initial "pleased-to-meetcha-here's-our-stuff" iteration of our site, we've been spending a lot of time brainstorming about how to do things better. And because we're a beneficent bunch (not to mention reliable, competitively priced, and did I mention our new 10-year service contract?), we've decided to let other companies learn from our example. If you are a high-end, high-customization, high-service-level business, then something like what we've done could work for you.

Tell Me More, Tell Me More
At first glance our home page looks pretty much like everyone else's. We have all the usual buttons: About Our Services, Contact Us, What's New, Win an Armadillo. But we've added a special button: Walk Me Through It. Once prospects click on it, the sales process is off and running.

Walk Me Through It leads to a questionnaire. People hate questionnaires, right? We worried about that, too. So we realized we would have to sell the thing -- to convince people that filling it out was a good use of their time. Here's what we came up with:

"In order to provide you with the best information about our products and services, we need a little background data. If you answer the following questions, we'll be able to give you a very clear idea of how our factory-automation systems can save you time and money while producing more grommets and dribs than your fondest dreams deemed possible."

You see the psychology there? Prospects now know they're going to get something back for their time. They also know we're not going to stick them with some off-the-rack solution. Next we set about designing the survey. We weren't too worried about the length, figuring that as long as we continued to return value for answers, we could go on pretty much all day. It's always best to start with a softball question.

How many grommets and dribs do you make a day?

  • fewer than 5,000
  • 5,000 to 10,000
  • 10,001 to 100,000
  • 100,001 to 250,000
  • more than 250,000

Notice that we didn't ask anyone to fill out a form or check a box; we just asked visitors to click on a link. That's easy for them to do and technically trivial for us to implement. It also allows us to commence the customer-segmentation process. Here's how it works. Businesses that manufacture fewer than 5,000 units a day have about as much reason to buy our products as Upper Volta has to launch a space station. So the fewer-than-5,000 link leads visitors to a page that congratulates them on their chutzpah and suggests they try the Web site for Bobby's Grommet Toolhouse and Teacakes. Prospects who click on the 5,000-to-10,000 link arrive at a page that asks:

How soon do you plan on making an investment in your physical plant that will help you compete with significant players in the grommet-and-drib arena?

  • in 1 to 3 months
  • in 4 to 12 months
  • in more than 12 months

The more-than-12-monthers are nudged toward Bobby's. The 4-to-12-monthers are sent to a page that asks questions about their business plans and financing options -- queries that are meant to elicit just how serious they really are. The 1-to-3-monthers are deposited on the Current Equipment Page, which grills them on what gear they already have.

In your factory, you currently use:

  • A grommet and a drib
  • A grommet, a drib, and a blodget
  • More than one drib
  • More than one drib and a blodget
  • More than one drib, a blodget, and a flanger
  • More than one drib, a blodget, a flanger, and a clompfenster
  • Multiple grommets, dribs, blodgets, flangers, and clompfensters

Each link leads to a page of questions tailored to that response. If, for example, prospects have more than one drib but only one blodget, we have to know how much pin-closter training their workers have had. If they have a flanger but no clompfenster, we need to assess their consumption of plitmer gel. (Obviously, if you're not in our industry, you'll want to compose questions pertinent to your own business. Simply parroting ours may cause some confusion.)

This process continues through several layers, with each response linking to a new page of questions. Ultimately, we are able to form an extremely good picture of our Web visitors' companies. And this is where we ice the cake. At the terminus of each of these paths are pages bearing summaries of respondents' circumstances. That lets visitors know that we've been listening to them and that we remember what they've told us. It also gives them an opportunity to correct any mistakes that may have cropped up along the journey.

We're Here. We're Waiting
At the bottom of each summary page is the kicker -- and an invitation.

Obviously, you are doing well in your field with the limited equipment you have. Based on everything you've told us, we are confident we can improve your output and lower your costs.

As you probably know, your situation is unique. In order for us to design the best of all possible solutions for your company, our highly skilled technicians will need just a little more background information. Please select a date and time from the Conference Call Calendar below. We will make Clem Glustermann from engineering, Horace Ploint from our energy-conservation team, Winifred Dripple from logistics, and Waldo Wigman from materials planning available for a 25-minute review of your needs and our capabilities.

It's one thing for a vendor to threaten you with an imminent call from some faceless account manager. It's quite another to offer you the opportunity to arrange, at your convenience, a conversation with a team of human beings with names, no less! What happens next? Clem, Horace, Winifred, and Waldo pore over the Web site output, familiarizing themselves with your circumstances. Having dazzled on the conference call, they then offer to make a personal visit and dazzle further with customized PowerPoint presentations showing the exact amount of consulting and training you will need.

And what about those people who said they produced more than 250,000 grommets and dribs a day? We send them straight to the End of the Internet (www.mythologic.net/end) because they're lying. It's impossible to produce that many grommets without using more clompfensters than you can buy at Amazon.

At Jim's Fantasy Factory Floor Automation Boutique, the whole thing is cheap. It's easy. And we're hiring blodget installers as fast as we can.

Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing, in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a speaker, consultant, and author of the books World Wide Web Marketing, Customer Service on the Internet, and Email Marketing ( John Wiley & Sons).

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