Making products easier to buy

In consulting, we have worked with many companies that have complex product offerings.  Between us we’ve seen high tech products like computers, servers, telecom switches, cars, construction equipment, health insurance plans, and phone service plans.  What all these products have in common is that customers have difficulty making buying decisions which means companies need to make the products simpler to sell.  I’ll discuss a few techniques for doing this below at a high level and then in future posts, I’ll delve deeper into each of the approaches.

A discussion about attributes.  To make it easier to buy, complex products need sorting, categorizing, and the ability to select features.  We do this through attributes.  All products have attributes whether it is a hard drive on a computer, insurance plan deductable, or a type of bucket on construction equipment.  All of these are attributes of the product.  In the recent past, attributes were buried in verbose descriptions of the products, which then required human experts to guide buyers through product features and help them in the buying process. But today we have computers that can help us do the laborious tasks of sorting and categorizing.  Attributes help us do this by associating products with similar attributes in categories.  As discussed in the value selling blog post, you can break a product down by sellable and descriptive attributes.  This might be a hard drive as explained before or calories in a candy bar for example.  Different products will have similar sets of attributes that are placed in categories.

How do you sell them?  Once your products are fully described, it’s time to organize them for sales.  This can be done with navigable categories for straightforward products, faceted browse for more complex products, and a configurator for very complex products.  You should mix and match these techniques to fit the particular buying style of the customer.  Some customers just want to pick from a list and others like to tinker with features.

Categories.  This is the simplest selling technique you can use.  All you’re doing here is placing similar products in categories that you create.  Many companies like to categorize products by their technical attributes.  For example, computers that use a similar processor, or trucks that have a similar towing capacity, or insurance plans that have a certain deductible.  You can segment your products by these attributes and put them in categories that make sense to sell them.  When you have a limited number of products and they don’t change frequently, this is a fairly easy way to help customers sort through your products.

Faceted browsing.  As your products scale the ladder of complexity, faceted browse is the next helpful technique for selling your products.  Think of these as dynamic categories.  Rather than placing your products in categories yourself, you have your list of products described by attributes. You then establish some high level search parameters so a customer can search via the attributes to create their own categories based on what is important to them.  For example, suppose you sold computers and one of your faceted browse categories was processor.  You would have the list of processors and the customer could select them.  Faceted browse would respond by displaying all the computers with that corresponding processor.  You can get more interesting with faceted browse where you have ranges of values such as price ranges or product dimensions as long as the underlying attributes support it.

Configurator.  For the most complex products, a configurator is necessary.  Configurators allow you to specify rules between attributes for things like compatibility matrices or simply Boolean rules that dictate how attributes interact.  High tech makes heavy use of configurators allowing customers to select between processors, hard drives, optical drives, and other features ensuring the final list of selections is compatible.  Evan Amazon is delving into basic configuration with things like shirt sizes or different book formats. For Amazon, they have a list of SKUs and associated attributes.  The list of products is reduced when you make selections.  This is similar to faceted browse as it is list reduction, but presented in a different interface other than faceted browse.  More complicated products utilize rules that dictate compatibility and will display options, then reduce the options for future selections based on those rules.

What is the best technique for you?  It really depends on your product portfolio and your audience.  To those of us in the industry these concepts are second nature, but it always amazes me to see sites with complex product offerings who haven’t thought through how their customer wants to buy.  One company that comes to mind has a catalog of their products, some simple, some complex that is completely separate from their configurator.  When a customer sees a product they’d like to buy, they have to remember the features and apply them in the configurator themselves.  The customer buying experience only serves to frustrate potential customers and drive them away.

Limit facet categories.  If you don’t have products to cover all your facets, then limit your categories or opt for straight categories.  It’s a bad idea to provide a facet searching capability and then present the customer empty search results.  Make sure that your facets are driven by what you have in your catalog.  And if a certain facet category is unavailable based on previous facet selections, make sure you grey it out or remove it altogether.  If your system doesn’t prune your facets automatically based on your catalog items, you’ll have to spend time pruning facet categories yourself.

Combine your catalog and configurator.  Starting point configurations make it easier for a customer to use a configurator.  These are pre-selected configurations that customers start with when they configure a system.  The starting point configurations can be placed in catalogs or searched through faceted browse, but then configured when a customer selects them.  It just makes it easier for a customer to start with a pre-configured system rather than building everything from scratch.  It also helps with customer satisfaction because the pre-configured system is already valid and can be purchased without any changes.  As with the example explained above, the company mentioned neglected this altogether giving the customer free reign on building anything they wanted.  If you have a broad range of uses for your product, it is best to define industry specialty starting points that the customer can buy or extend.

Good, better, best.  Starting point configurations can be built in many ways.  A good way to build them is to create good, better, and best options.  Some customers automatically navigate to the value systems and some customers like to start with the high end systems.  By creating different options for starting points, you can satisfy a range of customers and help them get to their preferred configuration quicker.  When you arrange them on the screen, psychologically customers in western countries navigate to the item on the left as the ‘value’ option and the one on the right as the ‘power user’ option.

Help me decide.  Still another way of helping the customer is to provide a help me decide feature that guides the customer to their optimal products based on their preferences.  When done correctly, this can benefit the customer, but when done incorrectly it just looks like a sales technique pushing certain products.  The key with this is defining the attributes on the products that correspond to the lifestyle choices.  Too many times, companies are unwilling to extend a products attributes and try to fit the attributes they have into the lifestyle categories and it doesn’t work very well.

Natural language search.  Still another technique that is used in conjunction with faceted browse is the natural language search.  With the natural language search, customers enter words into a search field and search across all products.  The results are simply a list which can then be further refined by faceted browse.  This is a good way for a customer to find the products they want quickly.  The natural language search box should be prominently displayed on the landing page so the customer can enter the text and see results immediately.

These are just a few ways you can tweak your product selling techniques.  As mentioned before, this is simply a high level description of the tools.  In future posts, I will explore details of how we’ve approached designing and using these tools in different customer contexts.

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