Does Customer Behavior Define Preferences or Usability?

Debra Ellis President, Wilson & Ellis Consulting

Posted on October 17th 2013

Does Customer Behavior Define Preferences or Usability?

Poor usability affects customer behavior

Understanding customer behavior gives you insight to the processes people follow when making a buying decision. Ideally, the information you gain from data diving guides good marketing and management decisions. But, what if the data integrity is compromised by usability, processes, and policy? Does the information gained help or hurt the company?

Target’s now famous analysis that unwittingly outed a pregnant teen to her father has undoubtedly contributed to the company’s growth. Statisticians used product purchase history to assign a “pregnancy prediction” score. Marketers then used the score to target customers with advertisements and coupons.

Amazon uses the website review system to capture information about products consumers have purchased from competitors. That information is combined with customer behavior to create targeted email marketing to attract more sales:

Amazon targets customers by purchases

The introductory line reads, “ has new recommendations for you based on items you purchased or told us that you owned.”

Behemoth companies like Target and Amazon have the resources to invest in deep data diving to find better ways to market. Smaller companies seeking growth and better margins are following the big boys’ lead. “Big data” has become the buzzword of the moment and marketing trend to watch.

Prior to searching for new ways to target marketing messages, Target and Amazon focused on the shopping experience. Usability and preference studies were conducted to find out how people interacted with different channels. Systems, processes, and policies were reviewed and revised as needed to provide better experiences. The companies built a customer care foundation first. This serves as a launch pad for improvements. Without it, growth is almost impossible.

The rush to participate in the big boys’ game hurts companies that don’t have a solid customer care foundation. No amount of analysis and marketing can make websites more usable, employees care more, or customers happy with bad service. The best return on investment comes from improving the customer experience. Data can help with the process but it doesn’t replace the need.

Most people want to be recognized as the best but only a few are willing to do the heavy lifting required to make it to the top. Customer behavior analysis is an escalator to growth and profitability for companies with a solid service and experience foundation. Without the right infrastructure, it is a money pit. Before considering a big data dive, invest resources in optimizing your website, training your team members, and improving your service. The process is hard work. The returns are excellent. And, you may find that the data you would have used to make business decisions is flawed.

A recent review of a company’s customer behavior suggested that customers preferred telephone ordering over online. The marketing manager explained that they had an older customer base that liked talking to customer service representatives. The explanation was reasonable until I visited the website. Navigation was virtually impossible. The search box only worked when the exact item number was entered. Several of the top selling items didn’t list prices or have an option to buy. A banner reading, “Call 1-800-XXX-XXXX to place an order” was posted instead of “Add to Cart.” Do customers prefer to order via telephone or do they have no other choice?

Data integrity is always an issue. Even in controlled tests, information can be corrupted by external sources. Customer behavior analysis is a good tool for gaining insight into opportunities and challenges. Just be careful about letting the numbers drive decisions. They may be wrong. Before jumping into the big data pool, test the water by starting small, testing well, and continuously watching for external factors that affect the results.


Debra Ellis

President, Wilson & Ellis Consulting

Debra Ellis is a business consultant, author, and speaker. She specializes in showing companies how to improve customer acquisition and retention using integrated marketing and service strategies. Her latest marketing guide, 31 Ways to Supercharge Your Email Marketing, is a practical resource for marketers seeking better results with minimal investment. Her engineering background provides statistical insight to finding actionable data that can be used to grow companies and reduce costs.

She is recognized as an expert in marketing from direct mail to social media, customer behavior, and strategic planning. Her expertise is often tapped by media sources including: The New York Times, CNN/’s Small Business Makeovers, Target Marketing, Multichannel Merchant, and MarketingProfs.

Her marketing guides include 31 Ways to Supercharge Your Email Marketing, Social Media 4 Direct Marketers, and Marketing to the Customer Lifecycle.

Debra loves the art and science of multichannel marketing. She is a student and teacher of the methods that transform shoppers into buyers and buyers into lifelong customers. In 1995, she founded Wilson & Ellis Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in creating strategies that make channels and departments work together to optimize the customer experience. Since then, she has worked with over a hundred distinguished clients such as Costco, Edmund Scientifics, Jacuzzi, Ross-Simons Jewelry, and The Body Shop.

Prior to founding her firm, Debra was instrumental in the record growth of Ballard Designs, Inc. while serving as Chief Operating Officer. Today, she uses her experience and expertise to show executives how to successfully navigate marketing channels and integrate activities to profitably grow their business. Her practical approach maximizes the return on investment.

She can be reached via email at [email protected]. She blogs at

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