A matter of trust

With rampant viruses, spyware and worms on the loose, customers must truly trust a technology vendor before downloading its software to their PCs.

To strengthen that confidence and improve customer interactions at one of its websites, Intel teamed up with the MIT Sloan Center for eBusiness and Sloan School of Management professor Glen L. Urban, who specializes in trust-based marketing on the Internet. Together, they worked to develop a series of "trusted adviser" techniques -- including an online persona -- to help customers use Intel's download website.

"Every time I push a download button, I get concerned about what's going to happen to my computer," notes Urban. "There's quite an element of trust involved."

Intel's main goal was to increase the number of customers able to find and confidently download the software they need, without requiring e-mail or phone assistance, which costs the chip giant an estimated US$27 per incident.

The three-year research project ended last December and yielded techniques that raised trust levels and increased successful downloads of software such as drivers, utilities and patches for Intel's digital cameras, processors and networking products. Those techniques are now live at the download site, and Intel says it will apply some of what it has learned to its intranet, human resources and Intel University employee training sites.

The first lesson Intel learned -- displaying certifications from respected privacy and security organizations on the site -- did little to increase the percentage of customers who completed downloads. The reason? "We found Intel's brand itself is very trusted. So the question wasn't source credibility," Urban says.

The project team then evaluated other site elements such as navigation scheme and visitor assistance. As part of the process, the group implemented context-sensitive tips to advise the user in every step of the navigation. Using website metrics and anonymous online user surveys, Intel found this tactic increased download success from about 63 percent to about 67 percent, and improved customer satisfaction by 4.5 percentage points, says Bryan Rhoads, a Web strategist with Intel's customer support team involved with the MIT research project.

"If you increase the success probability of your users, both parties win," says Rhoads. "They're much more empowered, much more efficient and in control of their own support experience. For Intel, the benefit is they're less likely to e-mail us or call us, which is more expensive for us. That translates into quite a cost savings, considering that the download site serves about 3 million downloads per month."

Intel also saw dramatic improvement from the creation of a humanized adviser in the section of the download site devoted to digital camera software. An Intel customer support engineer involved in the project volunteered to have her name -- Rosa -- and her photo and voice used to embody this adviser, who guides users step by step through the process of finding the right software to download. Combined with the first technique, the Rosa persona raised download success by a whopping 20 percentage points, to about 83 percent in the camera software section.

The techniques developed by Intel during this project seem fairly unique in the realm of websites, says Eric Peterson, an analyst with JupiterResearch. The challenge for others interested in replicating them would be to justify their benefits against the cost of developing them, Peterson adds.

"Trust is always tremendously important in the online world," he says. "I can certainly see how a talking virtual guidance system like Rosa would help newer, less experienced Internet users."

Bottom line for companies wanting to raise trust among website visitors? Keep the customer in mind.

"Many sites are created by IT engineers who aren't really thinking about customer behavior," says Urban. "Instead, the site is the way they would like it: information-intensive and packed with stuff. Most customers, especially the more inexperienced users, are looking for ease of navigation, smoothness, friendly formats and advice personas."

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