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Monitoring Customers' Experiences is Key to Success

The art of selling has changed with the increased technology available today. Businesses no longer simply advertise their products or services and then await customers. They use a much more intricate system to determine what consumers want and how to market to them.

This has opened up a new field of employment. An information technologist -- also known as an experience modeler or experience officer -- monitors how customers shop and how they use products. This information is used to mold marketing campaigns to today's consumers.

"You can't really design products, services and experiences for consumers without understanding what they appreciate, like and dislike," says Ted Boyd. He is the chair of the Internet Advertising Bureau of Canada and the president of a media company.

Ed Cartwright is the director of communications for a marketing association. He agrees. It's important for companies to monitor customers' experiences and use that information in future marketing campaigns, he says.

"It gives [companies] a better understanding of their consumers' needs and requirements," says Cartwright. Then companies can ensure that they are promoting their products to the correct audience.

Cartwright points out that this also helps companies "be very targeted in their future marketing campaigns. It makes good business sense for them to have that intelligence at their end. It allows them to broaden their own marketing campaigns with existing customers."

Gathering that intelligence is where the information technologist comes in.

Boyd says the job of monitoring customer experience is actually a new field.

"As silly as it may seem," Boyd says, "the notion of paying attention to your customer before you do something is actually quite revolutionary. I think in the old days, traditionally, creating a widget was often thought of before the market was in existence.

"Today, one looks at the market, determines a need and then creates a product," he says. "I think we have had a fundamental inversion of the process. And I think that is a good thing, because there is a lot less inefficiency in the system as a result."

Boyd's company specializes in the development, production and delivery of audio and video content over the Internet. The company's information officer is also the company's website manager.

"She is responsible for all forms of contact from our customers' point of view and the listeners' point of view. So the buck stops there," Boyd says. "If there is an issue with the site, she has complete accountability and authority for engineering it to be as consumer-friendly, as customer-friendly, as it can be."

Boyd notes that the experience officer or technologist role can take different forms at different companies. This person can bring parts of an organization together while acting as an advocate for the customer.

Research roles will also become increasingly important, Boyd predicts. "Market research is just a part of doing business, and is increasingly an important part of any long-term successful strategy."

Research can be done through feedback groups, says Boyd. Informal focus groups and in-store ballots that talk about customer experience can be quite helpful to researchers.

"Probably we have more robust feedback mechanisms than we have ever had," Boyd says. "The issue is, do people pay attention to them?"

Monitoring customers online is another area within this profession.

Kara Heinrichs is the chief customer experience officer for a multimedia company that designs, develops and hosts websites for large companies. Heinrichs says her company uses "information architects" and "interface designers [and] art directors" to meet the needs of online shoppers.

Information architects are responsible for defining the overall content of a website and how it will be navigated, according to Heinrichs. "They also define all of the interactive features and how those will work."

These professionals work with the interface designers or art directors, who figure out exactly what the site will look like to customers.

"These are the people who are actually creating the customer experience," Heinrichs says. "They need to be knowledgeable about what's going on in the customer experience, human-computer interaction, and usability fields. They need to be sensitive to the needs and limitations of people. They need to be good designers and problem solvers. And they need to work well together in interdisciplinary teams."

Like Boyd, Heinrichs says these types of positions are increasingly important. Heinrichs has worked at the same company for five years. When she started at the company, it had no information architects on staff. "Now we require one or two on every new project we do, and this is considered key to our success," she says. "It's definitely an emerging and growing field."

Heinrichs works for an interactive design agency specializing in e-commerce. In the online world, she says, monitoring experiences isn't easy. "You can't just follow someone around an online store and see what they look at and pick up."

Usability testing is one technique companies can use, Heinrichs says. The technique lets a company watch people try to do typical tasks on a website. Then the company can see where people have problems or questions.

"The site is almost never as easy to use as you, the designer, thought it was," Heinrichs says. "And real people get stuck in places you never even would have considered. So it's a great tool. The limitation is that basically you're telling people what you want them to do. And they're pretty motivated -- because you're watching them -- to try to succeed."

Data analysis is another technique that information technicians use. "We'll take web log files or other data, look at where users went on a website, and try to understand relationships," says Heinrichs.

That analysis might include looking at:

  • On average, how many days are there between someone's first visit and their first purchase?
  • How many days between each visit?
  • Is someone more or less likely to buy something if they use the search feature or the gift finder?
  • Do people make it successfully through the checkout process? If not, where do they drop out?

Looking at such scenarios gives information technicians a picture of real people using a website, Heinrichs says. "Some of what you see points directly at problems you need to fix."

Heinrichs notes that these professionals need to be cautious about privacy concerns.

"You've got to make sure that you're not tracking individuals or using any personal data, just overall trends," says Heinrichs. "Some of the questions you might want to answer, you can't, because of that. In the end, you can see what people are doing, but not why. For that, you have to cycle back around to usability testing."

Boyd says these new information technologist positions were born out of a need to bridge the gap between sales and marketing. "The experience parameter touches both, and is completely customer-centric," he says.

Educated consumers are part of the reason why companies have changed the way they do business, says Boyd.

"The one thing the Internet has done is removed the hierarchy of information," explains Boyd. "As a result, anyone has access to formerly restricted information in many cases, and is better able to make an educated decision. A better-educated consumer forces a company to treat them more seriously. The consumer has awoken...ignore that at your own peril."

This field can be a lucrative one. According to a report on U.S. News, entry-level jobs pay in the mid-$30,000s. Someone with a graduate degree could earn up to $150,000 a year.

The report also notes that the field is one that will continue to demand more professionals in the future. "If experience modeling grows in importance, as many think it will," the report states, "new companies will clamor for candidates."

As for appropriate training, Heinrichs says, "Until recently, even if you wanted training, you couldn't get it. There just weren't many classes or degrees that dealt with it."

She says a degree is becoming more important. "It's getting tougher to get in the door (in this area at least) without a college degree, and preferably one focused on human-computer interaction, interactive design, cognitive psychology, information design or education technology. There are probably other majors that make sense, too. These are just the ones I see most often in strong candidates."

It will likely take graduate work to go far in this area. "Most of the information architects we have on staff even have master's degrees," Heinrichs says. "That's not a requirement. It's just worked out that way."

You'll also want to take a few business courses, Heinrichs adds. "There's a large business component as well. Site design needs to work for the user, but it also needs to be profitable for the company. So any courses that help you understand marketing, merchandising and other business issues are huge helps."


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