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e-CRM exec assesses e-tailers' successes, missteps

The most wonderful time of the year is likely also the busiest for online CRM vendor Art Technology Group (ATG). Not only does the company have a new CEO, former Digital Equipment Corp. exec Robert Burke, but this week it will also ship ATG 6 with new modules supporting publishing, search, integration and analytics. Plus, the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm has been helping many of its 600 customers -- including Best Buy, Restoration Hardware and Merrill Lynch -- prepare for the holiday e-tail crunch. ATG's vice president of marketing and product management, John Dragoon, recently gave SearchCRM.com a few pointers on how companies can work wonders on the Web.

What's the most innovative customer-facing initiative you've seen this holiday season?
Nieman Marcus has a franchise built on personalized service. It's a paradigm that requires individuals to execute that. What they have done is take a lot of care in the implementation of their Web site in reflecting their value proposition -- personalized service. On the site you'll see everything from heavy categorization relative to pricing strata to trying to replicate this personalized service. They'll even offer you on the site the ability to work with a virtual Nieman Marcus employee to render some of that personalized service online. It sounds like many online successes are driven by business decisions. What's so innovative from a technology standpoint?
It's the ability to do this on a real-time basis. What you want to do is provide dynamic content that's specific and relevant to the individual. That's done not only through profiling. You may have registered yourself on a Web site as being interested in hunting and fishing or whatever it might be. But once you start behaving on a Web site, you further refine who you are to that merchant and then they can display content that's relevant to you. And not only content, but also offers and promotions that you might be able to take advantage of. So what's the biggest online mistake you've seen this year?
(hesitates and laughs) That's a good question. In general, the mistake that we tend to see is content that doesn't match up -- arbitrage opportunities that organizations create that they don't mean to create. They'll have a different price or promotion for a catalog good than an online good. You lose a lot of credibility as a retailer when you create those arbitrage opportunities when it's unintended. The other mistake is really not planning for the kind of peak performance that is unique to this holiday season. And much of this goes back to the importance of integrating the different sales channels?
You can't have an inconsistent brand experience on different channels. It confuses customers and dilutes the brands. Leaders view their catalog stores and online initiatives as interdependent branding strategies that need to be consistent. So how does software help?
The truth is that [it] is as much business practice and implementation as technology. It would be a reach for me to suggest that it's entirely technology driven. You can have great technology -- but bad implementation -- and not ensure that consistency. What it does do is provide a set of tools for end users and developers to ensure that consistency. Because businesses vary so much, how much of ATG software's benefits come out of the box and how much customization is required?
The out of the box [element] depends on the industry; it could be anywhere from 50% to 90%. Some of our competitors used to provide 80% to 90% out of the box, but you could never get that last 10% because of the way the solution was architected. What we do is make sure you can get that last 10%. [thanks to] an early bet on J2EE and our open architecture. Your software has a personalization component, but personalization can backfire too.
Yes, it can. Good personalization shows the customer that the site wants to service them better and provide a good experience. Bad personalization is offensive and intrusive. There can be both. I don't know that there's anything unique in our technology that would prevent bad consequences in and of itself. What the platform does provide is the ability to test things rapidly and make changes that are difficult to make on the fly, either in stores or in catalogs. We think we approach it a little differently than most through this combination of personalization and behavior. But I would never suggest that it couldn't deliver unintended consequences. It seems that Web services could transform online CRM. What are you hearing from your customers on that front?
Web services comes up in every conversation I have with clients, but almost none are using it. It's one of these conversations that generates a lot of light but little heat right now. A lot of people are planning on it, but I still feel like it's three to four to five years out in terms of early adoption … of Web services.

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