Most businesses long ago accepted that to compete in the modern world, they were obliged to provide a website with the details of their products and services. However, the static pages of earlier times are no longer adequate. Internet sales and marketing have now advanced to the level of targeted marketing ("TransPromo on the Screen") and self-service choices. Just access Amazon, eBay or Southwest online, and you can see how sophisticated a web presence can be. They target the visitor by remembering personal information, preferences and the last items you looked at and/or ordered.

The key to providing this web individualization is identifying the customer when he returns. One could ask the customer to self-identify by logging in or more transparently to create a cookie on the PC the first time the customer makes a substantial visit. Neither is ideal. Users forget their username and password, and cookies have developed a negative image through misuse, so virus scans now flag them. Once you know the customer involved in the web session, it is possible to do any number of things, such as highlight new offerings that relate to previous items reviewed or purchased, reminders of items selected but not purchased on previous visits ("The Shopping Cart"), show the status of orders in progress or provide access to account information and permit credit card payments of balances.

In general, all of these offerings require access to a customer profile and historic data, as well as internal systems. Ordering of products demands a structured representation of your product and service catalog. With the maturity of the Internet, there are CRM add-ons and independent products that simplify construction of your site, but they tend to have some degree of custom development.

Even when you employ a COTS product to construct a customer-focused website, there needs to be considerable design work. First, storyboard or even prototype the screens and behaviors to prevent later rework, and identify the information needed. It can be a challenge to determine where the information may be found and what mechanisms are available to extract it. One area that can surprise you at this point is the difficulty in obtaining the index values required to access the record you want - it may require a sequence of inquiries.

The requirement to build a customer-aware solution with information from multiple systems dictates the establishment of a common and unique customer identifier in all systems. Before this, each IT system oftentimes used a different scheme. Obvious values won't work; customer name is not unique, and tax ID use is restricted by law and customer attitudes. What does work is to generate a customer identifier (usually from the CRM) and insert it into all other information sources.

After resolving those issues, you are ready to begin building your interactive and personal website. Any interaction that makes business sense can be provided through the Internet - sales, customer service, bill presentment and payment. Just remember to make the connection secure so that personal information can't be viewed by network snoopers. As a case in point, the following example of web customization shows the complexity of this conversion.

Several years ago, a small boutique investment firm felt pressure from its clients to provide the same web information access that its larger competitors did. The goal was to provide clients with secure, 24/7 access to their portfolios, appropriate research and their investment team. They developed a staged plan that included an internal transition away from paper-based processes. The starting point was an "advertising" only website, with firm and staff information, acting more as a placeholder and to test the secure connection and database-driven web content packages they had selected.

Next, they analyzed the investment account system and the customer database to produce a separate database that identified the information each client or employee should see. Investment advisors and clients might have access to multiple accounts; within an investment account, each individual involved might have rights to see a different assortment of reports.

The final step was to convert all report printing (including portfolio pricing) to produce PDFs that are automatically added to the content store with accurate indexing. A mechanism for advisors to post "alerts" to their clients, including links to investment information, was provided, along with a hook that added a record of each web visit (and the documents viewed) to the customer relationship system.

What resulted was a full, self-service website, where one could check on one's investments, read economic reports and exchange messages with one's investment advisor any time of day.

As you see, getting to customized interaction requires significant work behind the scenes.

BERNARD CHESTER [] is a principal of IMERGE Consulting, where he is an authority on designing Internet interfaces and custom tools for systems.

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