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Customer Relatiosnhip Management (CRM) 3
by Juan C. D├╝rsteler [message n║ 166]

Following with the series of articles regarding customer relationship management (CRM) and the aspects where information visualistaion can contribute added value, this week we review its impact on the online evaluation, comparison and selection of products along with the visualisation of online transactions.

Online evaluation, comparison and selection

Once we have solved the problem of visualising the product in its whole range we, as buyers, are in front of another difficulty. How can we compare price and performance of different products we are interested in?. Typically we should go to the web pages of each one of them, get the data and maybe write it down or print the pages to make the comparison. This could be specially tedious when the formats of the pages are very different or when the products appear grouped instead of being addressed individually. 

One of the answers to this problem is the shopping bot. PricingCentral classifies a lot of them into different categories, along with short descriptions of their capacities. Basically a shopping bot is a piece of software that, provided with precise specification of the articles we wish to buy, searches Internet for on-line shops, finds the prices of said article and returns a list of the results found.

PricingCentral.gif (93808 bytes) ShopzillaCamera.gif (128385 bytes)
Pricing Central. A shopping bot central with hundreds of links to specialised bots.
Source: Screenshot as it can be seen in Internet, by the author.
Click on the image to enlarge it
Shopzilla. In the image , ranges of prices for different models of digital cameras of the "Pentax" brand.
Source: Screenshot as it can be seen in Internet, by the author.
Click on the image to enlarge it

Shopping bots typically specialise in finding the best price for the same product, but they can be used to compare products or to find products with certain features, depending on the degree of versatility or "intelligence" of the same.

Other systems act as purchase finders, where we can enter a product, even if it's not very precisely specified and get a list of the products that fit the specified features, along with their price range in the different shops. For example introducing "Pentax" in Shopzilla we get a listing of the digital cameras of that manufacturer with photos and a price range of the said cameras.

The problem, as with other topics already reviewed in this series, is that the results are presented in textual form, and only in the best cases as a comparison table. This presentation, which in fact is a lot compared with having to do it manually, is inefficient as a way of making decisions, specially when the list has a lot of entries. For this reason visualisation is increasingly being used as a way of solving those decision tasks.

IBM has developed an application called VOPC that uses parallel coordinates á la CityO'Scope (we recommend re-reading article number 54 and downloading the demo of CityO'Scope in order to understand the power if this type of visualisation and how appropriate this coordinate system is when selecting the elements of a set that fit with certain restrictions). 

In parallel coordinates each variable is represented on a linear axis parallel to any other one. Each product is represented by a jagged line that joins each one of their values on every axis. Each axis has two sliding bars that allow you to restrict the possible values of each variable between two ends of what we consider acceptable values for that product in that axis, disregarding all the products whose values lie outside that range. This way it's very easy to find the products that fit all our range of requirements. 

Among other properties VOPC is capable of presenting categories of products in hierarchical form coded through the use of colours associated to the different categories and sub-categories.

In the end, new visualisation systems allow us to facilitate an intrinsically difficult activity, as it is the selection of the most interesting choice among an extensive catalogue which options have a great number of features. 

Visualisation of online transactions

We have already seen in issues number 65, 66 and 67 different aspects of online transactions that are indispensable to know in order to obtain relevant information about our customers that could help finding

  • the utilisation of the pages of our website

    • what concepts are the ones our customers search for

    • which ones among them do exist in the website, but are difficult to find

    • which ones are searched for but aren't present┬áin the website

    • which pages get most attention and which ones are ignored.

  • the effectiveness of the marketing actions

    • customer reactions to online promotions

    • optimum placement of advertisements and publicity.

  • the patterns that show the behaviour of our customers

    • web navigation paths

    • patterns related to the acquisitions of products

    • payment patterns

Although much of the information described above can be deduced from the intelligent retrieval of the information stored in logfiles and other historic archives, when the volume of data is large, other techniques are required in order to facilitate its comprehension and, above all, the quick detection of behaviour patterns, that can change in matter of hours and that we need to identify in order to take the appropriate decision.

Information visualisation is beginning to provide solutions to those needs also. In the articles above mentioned we already saw tools like Ebizinsights (developed by Advizor Solutions, formerly Visual Insights), VISVIP by John Cugini or Anemone by Ben Fry for traffic analysis, Analog or Nedstat for the treatment of logfiles, among others.

biohazard.gif (328686 bytes) FBI.gif (259576 bytes)
nVIZn. Two examples of interactive graphics created with this tool. In the one to the left animation is used to show how a hypothetic biohazard could spread in the USA. In th one to the right you can see a text mining application that identifies the most relevant ones for certain investigation.
Source: Screenshot as it can be seen in Internet, by the author.
Click on the image to enlarge it

SPSS, a company devoted to statistical software, using the strategy described in the book "The Grammar of Graphics" (see issue number 74 Graphical Grammar)  has developed software development kit in Java language called nVIZn  (pronounced envision) that allows the user to create in a relatively simple way interactive visual applications for data analysis customised to the needs of the clients. 

Regarding this, the applications written in Java are increasingly popular allowing the programmers to build graphics that cover a broad range of possibilities, from multipanel arrays of simple graphics up to sophisticated hierarchical graphs, passing through treemaps and complex combinations of elementary graphics.

CRM applications of visualisation are, as we have seen, increasingly present in the toolkits used in e-commerce. It appears, nevertheless, that we are far from reaching levels of use such that we can consider them as widely implanted. The introduction of the same, as it happens with most of the issues related to visualisation, is taking place slowly. 

The power of this type of tools is undenyable. Maybe the problem resides in a certain dispersion of approaches, some fields where applications are very scarce (logfile visualisation, for example) and the fact that we are not used to apply more than very elementary graphics as a regular media for expression and analysis (visual illiteracy is still high).

Links of this issue:

http://www.pricingcentral.com/   Pricing Central
http://www.shopzilla.com/   Shopzilla
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=54&lang=2   Num. 54 CityO'Scope
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=65&lang=2   Num. 65 Where do my visitors go?
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=66&lang=2   Num. 66 Web Traffic
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=67&lang=2   Num. 67 Web Monitoring
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=74&lang=2   Num. 74 Graphical Grammar
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