E-Mail is the Key to Customer Loyalty

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Companies that are looking for the keys to success for their e-commerce sites need to look beyond the single transaction. They need to gain a better understanding of what their customers' needs are and remember that information to better serve them on their next visit. They need to provide a self-service environment where interactions are tailored to customers' needs, and they need to interact personally with customers in regular intervals. All of these goals can be achieved using a technology that most companies have already invested in: e-mail.

Closed-loop marketing. Although an e-commerce site may engage visitors, it does not interact with them once they have left the site. When Forrester Research examined what drives traffic to a company's Web site, e-mail was the second biggest driver behind search engines.

E-mail also is the best solution for driving previous customers and qualified prospects back to a Web site. It closes the loop and enables companies to interact continuously with visitors even after they have left. By integrating the strengths of e-mail and the Web, companies can build ongoing relationships that benefit both parties.

To succeed in the online world, electronic relationships require the same attention, if not more, as face-to-face relationships. On the Web, competing on price alone is very difficult, especially when competitors are only a click away. Customers still want good service, and service is one way businesses can distinguish themselves. Good service leads to trust, trust leads to loyalty and loyalty leads to repeat sales. Using e-mail and the Web to automate and manage ongoing interactions with customers will strengthen relationships, increase customer loyalty and lead to increased revenues and reduced costs.

A simple solution. E-mail applications, which leverage e-mail and the Web to automate and manage online interactions, provide a means to these goals. Companies such as Amazon.com and Dell have already made significant investments in creating their own e-mail applications to maintain and manage ongoing interactivity with their customers. Many companies, however, have been unable to do this because of limited resources, the cost and complexity of developing custom, inhouse applications or difficulties in modifying third party software application packages. Thanks to a new breed of enabling technology -- the e-mail application server -- companies can now rapidly develop and deploy their own scalable e-mail applications.

Companies can use e-mail applications to add value to their existing communication channels. For example, a company will use traditional advertising media, such as TV, print or radio to drive traffic to an e-commerce site. As potential customers visit a site, they initiate the interaction. E-mail applications then close the loop on these initial visits by enabling ongoing interactive relationships.

Forrester Research estimates that 50 percent of consumers in North America will be using e-mail by 2001. Using e-mail as a strategic communication channel is very appealing for any Internet strategy. Essentially, companies have an instant link to millions of potential customers around the world.

Delivering high-value solutions. E-mail applications can be used in the following ways to exceed customer expectations in the area of customer service and ensure ongoing customer loyalty:

* Customer care. Support customers by ensuring that requests are dealt with quickly and effectively. Notify customers of all product/service changes, product orders and shipping details. Automatically escalate and attend to any issues. E-mail applications also can be used as a reminder to customers, i.e., it's time for the next oil change.

* Product/service registration application. Enable product registration via an incoming e-mail or via a product registration Web form. The information is collected and automatically entered into a customer database, followed by a personalized confirmation to the customer. The customer's information will be remembered for all future interactions helping a company serve them according to their needs.

* Campaign management. Acquire new customers, or cross- or up-sell existing customers, by personalizing and targeting online campaigns. Immediately adapt messages based on a customer's response. Companies can effectively use customization, interaction and management to create high value, ongoing communications.

* Customer survey. Provide a form to survey targeted users about a product or service. A personalized survey can be constructed and attached in an e-mail message or a URL to link customers to a survey Web form. The customer's response is recorded in a customer database and an e-mail confirmation is sent to thank them. This is the perfect opportunity for companies to learn more about their customers, and encourage them to visit again, for example, offering $10 off their next purchase for completing the survey.

* Newsletter distribution. Register customers for the distribution of newsletters. This is a great opportunity to deliver a self-service environment where a newsletter can be personalized according to the specifications a customer sets out at the time of registration. Give customers the opportunity to select the content they are most interested in.

E-mail applications enable companies to interact with their customers in ways they never thought possible. With e-mail applications, e-mail is no longer the point-to-point communication tool -- it now delivers enough power to become the strategic backbone of any e-business strategy.

Rob Lalonde is vice president of marketing at Delano Technology Corp., Richmond Hill, Ontario, an e-mail infrastructure company. He can be reached at rlalonde@delanotech.com.

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