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Big Blue strives for new look, feel

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IBM Corp. this month revamped its corporate Web site, updating its look and feel, and beefing up live customer service.

But the most interesting part of the update for e-business watchers may be the company's rigorous site-redesign process, now in its 10th cycle, which relies on massive customer input from across the globe.

Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM differs from many large corporations in that it keeps the bulk of its Web site strategists and development experts in-house--in a stand-alone unit operating in the bowels of New York's Web design mecca, Silicon Alley. That group is specifically focused on user-experience issues.

The company also taps agency R/GA Interactive, New York, for branding and design expertise.

"That this is version 10 of IBM.com let's you know this is a carefully rolled-out process for the company," said Chris Colborn, senior director-interaction for R/GA Interactive. "With IBM, they have to be somewhat rigorous. They have a number of constituents within IBM.com that have real desperate needs. They've learned to be very organized and very user-focused in how they go about this."

For its part, R/GA Interactive created a whole series of look-and-feel design explorations and took them out to focus groups worldwide. Among the goals of the redesign: Reach a younger audience, "modern-up" the site design, stress innovation and enhance the company's overall positioning in the marketplace, Colborn said.

"The redesign is based fundamentally in customer research," said Dave Bradley, VP-marketing and strategy for IBM.com, including customer focus groups, review of competitive sites and a thorough examination of user interaction on the existing site. "One of the key objectives of this redesign was to take our overall look and feel a step forward, and move away from what some would say was a Big Blue look."IBM's biggest challenge with its corporate site is that it covers so much ground.

"We've got to be as good as Dell in transactional selling of PCs, compete with Microsoft in the software business and with other strong competitors in the service business," Bradley said. "None of our competitors need to cover all those areas of the technology industry."

IBM is also obviously global in scope--the site currently reaches 72 countries in 16 languages.

The IBM challenge

So the challenge for the IBM.com design team became presenting a cohesive, sitewide design and providing many easy-to-find links--based on technology, customer segment or geography--to let visitors find what they're looking for as quickly as possible, Bradley said.

"The redesign was done to create multiple pathways," he said. "We tried to diligently micro-tune merchandising on all the different landing pages and then also understand how they all come back together."

Perhaps the most intriguing new development was the sitewide addition of live customer service, in the form of live text chat and so-called "call-back" buttons, which when clicked trigger a phone call from an IBM customer service rep.

The call-back buttons are currently housed on 500 pages. The live service is staffed by a small portion of IBM's 6,000-strong telesales force.

"We're at a point in time where the Web provides terrific access and speed of response. But especially when selling complex products and considered purchases, there's often a need for human contact," Bradley said. "We feel we have a great advantage here. We already had a significant investment in a telesales and telemarketing operation aligned with each line of business and customer segment."

In addition to customer support, the call-back button also enables a lot of cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, he added.

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