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Barnes&Noble.com gets personal

NEW YORK -- All industries can benefit from the best practices in personalization and privacy, not just large e-commerce sites selling books, according to Jack Aaronson, director of personalization at Barnes&Noble.com. Speaking at The Conference Board's CRM conference here, Aaronson encouraged the audience to walk away with personalization methods to try -- and not to try -- based on his own experiences, peppered with humorous anecdotes.

"Personalization is a combination of art and science that uses customer centric design, integrated technology and common sense," Aaronson said. Holistic personalization is a way to unify the customer's experience and organize the lines of business and processes, he said. The holistic approach starts with the customer, Aaronson said, and unifies channels, giving a single view of customer data to the company.

According to Aaronson, it may take a company months to gain the loyalty and trust of one user, but one bad experience can cause the customer to leave the company for good. He gave a list of do's and don'ts for companies attempting personalization as part of their CRM strategies.

First, he said, don't make users repeat themselves. Ask a question once. For example, when Aaronson visited a site peddling personalized soap, shampoo and fragrances, he entered in some information regarding his skin type, climate, among other data to receive the customized soap. He then decided to purchase shampoo, and he was asked many of the same questions that he had just answered.

Don't ignore the power of word of mouth, he said. Customers are the best marketers, and if they are going to be saying anything about a company, it should be something good, he added.

"The highest level of personalization is the ability of the user to turn it off," Aaronson said. In other words, don't limit a user's control regarding methods of contact. Everything should be opt-in, he said.

Another don't is to assume that "people who bought Madonna also bought lawn mowers," Aaronson said. "Make relevant recommendations based on real criteria."

Aaronson does not like pop-up windows when he is trying to leave a site. The first reason is because most people leave a site due to privacy and security concerns. When a window appears asking for why the user is leaving, what the user's age is, where the user lives and how much money the user makes, Aaronson said, "I'm leaving because I didn't want to tell you my address!"

The second reason why pop-up windows don't retain customers is because the exit point is too late to retain a customer, Aaronson said. He compared it to the exit interview when quitting a job -- if the boss cared about why the employee was leaving, the boss would have noticed that the employee was thinking of leaving in the first place, he said.

"People come to your site for the experience, not just the product," Aaronson said. He displayed a slide describing the ideal customer experience as S.E.X. -- a smart, engaging experience. "Everyone wants it, but not everyone knows how to give it," he said.

"Your uniqueness is what is attractive," Aaronson said to attendees. "Don't imitate competitors." For example, when Lycos and Infoseek tried to look and feel more like Yahoo, they began losing users, he said. "Yahoo is a better Yahoo."

He advised attendees not to change the user's experience consistently, which some companies regularly do in their telephone help menus. "People like regularity and find comfort in it," he said. Changing the menu options "for your convenience" only makes sense to the person who decided users should press seven to hang up, Aaronson said.

Aaronson cautioned against raising the user's expectations too high and then being unable to deliver by asking for a lot of information and then not sending personalized information to the user. For example, Aaronson visited a pet-supply Web site, which asked for his pet's name and what type of pet he owns. Aaronson has a pet bird named Magic, which he disclosed to this store. He then received an e-mail advertising specials on dog food and dog collars. Aaronson proceeded to display a doctored photo of Magic wearing a spiked dog collar to the audience.

Instead, companies should exceed customer expectations. Aaronson described his experience at Rivoli Pizza, a restaurant near his home, which exceeded his expectations when the restaurant remembered his phone-in orders of linguine with red clam sauce. He had no expectations for customer service at Rivoli and only gave enough information for the transaction. No promises were made to him about customer service, he said. Yet the person answering the phone was friendly, recognized him and cross-sold him garlic nuts, all of which engender loyalty.

"Be aware of perceived personalization," Aaronson warned. When he first began working at Barnes&Noble.com, a customer ordered a book on lesbianism for his sister as a gift. The next time the customer logged into the site, the scrolling menu displayed "Gay and Lesbian" as his choice of literature. According to Aaronson, the customer was outraged, even though Barnes&Noble.com's "personalization" was really a random algorithm that just happened to display that category in the drop-down menu.

To make personalization work, it has to be "sold" to every department, especially IT, Aaronson said. The IT department will have new systems, products and pages that can go wrong and needs to know that the rest of the organization is on their side, he said.

Personalization is not one technology, he said. It is a series of interdependent technologies.

Privacy policies are key, according to Aaronson. "If you don't have a privacy policy, you're an idiot... If you have one and don't abide by it, you're an idiot... if you abide by it, but a bug in the system leaks personal information, you look like an idiot," he said.

Business practices should be designed with a privacy policy, Aaronson said. Additionally, if a company wants to avoid the pitfalls faced by inadequate privacy policies, it should hire a privacy czar "to ensure the company is one step ahead of the rest of the industry," he said. The company should also hold any application service providers (ASPs) they use to the same standards to which they hold themselves internally, and look to technology for privacy software, which isn't far off, he said.

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