GUEST COLUMN: Focus your site on the customer

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If you're a technology marketer building a Web presence, you only have to worry about two things: serving existing customers and winning new ones.

But if your Web design is driven by other motives -- outdoing the competition's graphics, showing off multimedia capabilities or making life easier for analysts and journalists -- then you have to worry about something bigger: failing.

Building a Web site that works is as simple as that, based on the feedback I get from IS executives across the industry and my own experience as a buyer and user of technology.


Above all else, make it easy for people to find out about your products and who sells them. No disrespect intended, but few customers are interested in your CEO's latest speech and hardly anyone cares that the company has achieved ISO 9001 certification.

What they want to know is what you make, what it can do for them and where they can get it. Offer viewers pop-up menus that let them choose the products they want to learn about.

Remember that people who come to the site often don't know specific product names (how 'bout that B3091 ATM Demiswitch!), so give newcomers easy categories from which to pick.

Don't make people scroll past feel-good company information and broad-strategy stuff, then through page after page of clicks to get at information about individual products.

To see what I mean, pretend you're a prospective buyer and compare Novell's product-centric page with IBM Corp.'s softer, corporate image-oriented page.

Make sure that customer service a cornerstone of your site. Providing a robust support area, like those offered by Cisco Systems and Compaq Computer Corp., serves two useful purposes.


First, it makes current customers feel good about buying from you and simplifies their lives and jobs. Toll-free support numbers are universally disliked because they're always jammed and -- once you've gotten through -- working through a problem takes too much time.

Giving customers the tools to solve most of their own problems -- downloadable patches and drivers, lists of frequently asked questions, e-mail access to support personnel -- not only can save you big money, but it gives customers control. Everyone loves control.

Beyond product information and support, make sure your site is responsive.


If you aren't prepared to answer questions and deliver product information, why are you playing around on the Web? Why are you frustrating customers by pretending to be interactive when you aren't?

A recent study showed that few Web site sponsors can deal with even simple questions or requests from users. Most either didn't reply at all or sent back canned responses.

To expand your customer focus, try chat rooms or forums that let customers share information. You can also put up an area with customer testimonials showing how your products are used to solve particular problems or save companies money. (Hey, trade press editors don't run 'em verbatim, but you can, and customers can benefit from them.)

The message is simple: Think like a customer -- not an artist, not a Webmaster, not a PR person -- in designing your Web site and the buyers will keep coming back.

John Gallant is editor in chief of Network World & IntraNet magazine. He can be reached at

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