Opinion: Customization becoming essential to the customer experience

By Darryl Kuhn, Skinit

Every day we meet with prospective customers who are eager to learn how they can add a co-creation, customization, or personalization feature (collectively "Customization" with a capital C) to their existing product offering. Conversations, guided by our prospective clients, often start off with an overview of their current product offerings and quickly move to a discussion about which products cater to the "customization" demographic and then finally how and where they want to add this new "feature" to the limited set of SKUs where it makes sense. Customers know exactly what they want — or so they think.

One of my favorite parts of this job is what comes next. Armed to the teeth with data, we demonstrate that while content is demographic specific, Customization adds value to all consumers; and far from being a feature, Customization is a product strategy. It impacts how customers perceive their relationship with both a brand and its products. For those that "get it," it's revelatory. Customization is not a feature; like product quality or ease of use, Customization is a fundamental dimension of the customer experience.

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In 2011 prominent behavioral economist Dan Ariely along with colleagues Norton and Mochon published groundbreaking research demonstrating just how much impact Customization can have on the perceived value of a product. In what they call the "IKEA effect," participants were asked to engage in a variety of construction tasks including building IKEA products, folding origami, and building Legos. The research concludes that in at least one experiment participants valued their creation twice as much as the same product created by another participant.

How is it that additional labor on the part of the consumer creates value? Done right, it is not labor at all. Instead it is engagement; and this is the key to success. Customization fulfills our innate desire to be creative and productive and those positive emotional qualities are attached to the product in the Customization process. Personalization — true one-to-one product delivery — extends the value even further by imbuing the product with personally relevant content in addition to the value attached from the creation process.

The prospect of implementing Customization can be daunting. There are numerous technical, legal, supply chain, and other various implementation considerations; and that's after you've convinced the business to head down this path. However, for those organizations progressive enough to take the "first mover" advantage, it can translate into game-changing growth. The good news is that there are several methods to engage the customer in Customization and some can be quite a light touch. These methods include:

  • Crowdsourcing: A distributed problem-solving and production process that involves outsourcing tasks to a network of people, also known as the crowd
  • Co-creation: Enlisting individual consumers to become content creators, crowd sourcing without the crowd
  • Mass Customization: The repurposing or decoration of standardized product with one or several features selected by the end-consumer
  • Personalization: Producing products, which are one-of-a-kind and made by specific request of the consumer. Highly personalized products are characterized as being relevant to only the end consumer.

Each of these Customization methods represents a progressively more complex and higher value added engagement. You can use this progressive scale to ease into Customization. In fact you can gain tremendous value without ever disrupting your existing supply chain. Ghirardelli's 2010 "New Intense Dark" campaign serves as a good example of this. Ghirardelli collected 14,000 flavor entries but rather than build a personalized chocolate supply chain capable of producing all these distinct combinations they simply introduced the most popular combination. After more than 232,000 votes, the winner, Hazelnut Heaven, was produced in 2011. This didn't require a new supply chain or automated manufacturing. They just added a new SKU to their standard line up; it's a simple way to get started.

Retailers are able to charge a premium for personalized products. Not only that but they end up with a more satisfied customer who is more engaged with their product as well as the retailer's brand. Imagine what a revenue bump from a more engaged customer can mean to your business.

In the words of Forrester analyst JP Gownder, "mass customization is (finally) the future of products."

Darryl Kuhn is chief technology officer of Skinit.

(Photo by Benjamin Esham.)

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Jeff Frank
    This is the best article I have seen about the effects of customization on the end user.

    My company, Simplicity Sofas, uses a process we call "extreme modular customization." On our website we state that our customers can select from over 100,000 different end products, any of which can be custom-built in 30 days or less.

    In reality we can produce nearly 500,000 end products but that number is simply too much for most customers to comprehend. What is nearly as difficult to comprehend is that we do this using only 28 different frame components.

    The mass customization is achieved by offering a large number of options including: fabrics, cushion constructions and shapes, trims, slipcovers , pillows and several others, none of which require us to maintain a large parts inventory.

    While it is important to offer a large number of choices it is equally important to keep the ordering process simple so that the customer does not feel they need to look through 100,000 or more variations. We offer only 6 basic styles, each of which can be ordered in 6 different sizes. The fabric selection is the most time consuming part of the process. After that there are more than a dozen other options that can be selected with a single mouse click. Once a fabric has been selected the rest of the ordering process takes less than five minutes.

    The result is that between 2007 and January 2012, when the furniture industry was one of the hardest-hit segments of the American Economy and national furniture industry employment decreased by 40% (from 600,000 to 350,000), Simplicity Sofas grew from $0 sales to nearly $1 million annually. These sales were accomplished one customer at a time with each piece individually customized.
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