Traditionally we have known what is best for our customers. We knew how best to set out the brochures and which words we needed to use to sell the product. But over the years businesses have been learning that customers have a lot to say in the matter and have taken their opinion into consideration.

However, one of the most recent business areas, the internet, is still largely being developed from an internal viewpoint. Yet the internet has to be the best medium we have to reach our customers and get their opinion on what we should do next.

One of my clients is developing an intranet using a voting system to decide which features will be added to the site next. Visitors are asked to look at some mocked up extras and select the one they think is most useful to them. This means the company can manage expectations, get real feedback from real users and then deliver what is wanted within the constraints of its budget. The same concept can be extended to the internet., which prides itself on its "obsession" with customers, sought their help when it wanted to change the design of its homepage. With more and more services being added to the company's portfolio the previous design, which used tabs to take the user to different parts of the site, was getting crowded.

The new design, which features a smaller number of tabs that rotate with each visit, was tested with customers first: a select few were asked to participate in the pilot and provide feedback.

Increasing numbers of companies are adding features to their site which allow visitors to customise key areas.

The king of these – Yahoo! – lets visitors decide not only what will appear on their homepage, but the style that it will appear in as well.

Even if you don't have the budget to invest in allowing visitors to personalise the homepage, you can still focus on their needs. B2B portal asks visitors to identify the industry they are in. With this information the site leads them to a list of the types of insurance cover they need, and what these covers provide. The site then connects them to local intermediaries who can deliver these insurances. By then the visitor should be better informed about what they need, which will make the sale easier.

If you're planning a website, simple brochureware will not do. Today's web user has been brought up on the focused, customer-centric world view of, Yahoo!, Excite and others. Getting as close as you can to these ideals is essential if you want to hold on to the visitor once you've managed to get them to your site.

  • Ross Hall is founder of the consultancy Garol. The firm's insurance-focused website can be found at .