Build Online Relationships Over Time

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A great deal has been written lately about the uncomfortably large number of dot-coms closing and also about the diminished efforts that bricks-and-mortar companies are putting toward establishing their brands online.


Why have so many online retailers failed? And what can you do to ensure that you are not among the next wave reporting bad news to your investors, your co-workers and your customers?


Stop thinking that your customers' experience with your brand lives exclusively online. It doesn't. And unless you extend your brand through all points of customer contact, you will face an uphill battle in the acquisition and retention of your most valuable asset.


Also, stop thinking that a customer will instantly bond with your brand as a result of one visit or one purchase. A customer relationship takes time to develop, and many online retailers either ignore the essential "dating" process or jump too quickly to gain commitment and loyalty. Either approach will leave you unengaged for a long time.


To help develop better brand/customer relationships and to extend those relationships beyond one-time visits to your site, you must address the extension of your brand beyond your site.


As an exclusively online retailer, you have many opportunities to establish your brand with your customers.


Most obvious, of course, is the site itself. Say that you have invested considerable time, energy and effort to ensure that every aspect of your site and every page clearly carries your brand promise -- not your logo, but the essence of your brand.


From the home page to the order page, review your site to ensure it is aligned with your brand. This is a critical (and, believe it or not, still overlooked) step in ensuring a solid relationship with your customers.


The customer experience with your brand does not stop after she has purchased an item and logged off, and neither should your focus on establishing a brand/consumer relationship. This is where the relationship begins.


Once the sale is made, you must ship the purchase to the customer. The way in which your product/service arrives either supports your brand, and thus the relationship, or works against it.


What does your packaging look like? Does it support the brand promise? If you are an environmentally friendly outfitter offering hiking gear and donating a portion of each sale to an environmental cause, does your packaging come in an environmentally friendly manner, or are the socks the customer ordered wrapped in non-biodegradable plastics, stuffed in a box large enough to hold a dozen socks and filled with live-forever bubble wrap or peanuts? Is your invoice printed on recycled paper?


The fulfillment package also should be considered an opportunity to extend the brand. Have you recognized the customer for her purchase? Have you thanked her in a way that has meaning (something other than a "thank you for your order" note lasered on the bottom of an invoice)?


Have you thought about extending the relationship by suggesting other products that might complement her purchase or that she otherwise might not have seen while on your site? Have you prompted a return visit to your site with a compelling message, an offer or perhaps an incentive? Have you considered throwing in a little surprise extra to ensure delight and to extend yourself even further?


Each of these things can further create a positive brand experience with your customers, and not just first-time customers. If you are lucky enough to have repeat customers, you may likely know enough about those customers or their buying behavior to really make your fulfillment packaging effective at building a bond.


What about your follow-up communications? Are they supporting the brand and the experience or working against it? Are there follow-up communications after the initial sales or are you sitting back and hoping that your customers will be pleased enough with their purchases to return? How long do you sit and hope before you realize that something might be wrong?


Continuing to focus on a customer after the sale is just as important as focusing on a prospect before the sale. Remember to build into your plan a brand-building, relationship-driving communication with customers to ensure that their expectations of your brand have been met.


Do not limit your thinking to online communications either. Maybe your customers do not live "online" as many early (and now dead) dot-coms prophesied in the days of exuberance.


If your customers do not respond to an e-mail invitation to return, talk to them via other channels. Mail them an offer -- this format allows you to continue to extend the brand in a physical way, captures their attention where they live (offline) and provides you with a medium with plenty of room to further establish the relationship (not to mention to present a product offering or an incentive to again visit the site.)


Also, call them. This gives you an opportunity to gather valuable information as to why they have not visited the site and whether they are happy with their purchases, etc. Do not limit your future communications to customers to the medium in which they made original contact.


Regardless of the way you continue to build your customer relationships, be sure that you screen your communications to ensure that they are relevant to the customers. You have seen the impact of online companies that sit back and passively wait for customers to proactively come back to purchase more. It is not generally a pretty picture.


You have also seen the other side of that premise, the one where an ambitious online retailer realizes the need to communicate with its customers and does so enthusiastically, frequently and in a variety of integrated media. And with absolutely no understanding of who its customers are, why they shop with that retailer in the first place and how those customers like to be contacted. This approach is just as ineffective and almost more damaging to long-term prospects than no communication at all.


So how do you balance the two? How do you know when and how much to communicate with your customers? The answer lies in two words: understanding and relevance.


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