Reclaim the Marketing Mantle to Meet Customers' Needs

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Changes are occurring in the new economy faster than anyone might have imagined, leaving some retailers in the lurch. Multiple channels of contact with customers have appeared, each with seemingly unique protocols for sustaining relevant interactions and communications.

Customers are coming through the door of the store, the handset of the phone, the browser of the Web page and through e-mail exchanges. It's a 24/7 shopping mall, and individuals are queued and searching for the retailer that will deliver what they want, when they want it, to the location they want it -- all with great personal service.

How marketers and merchandisers deal with customers has not changed. The bread and butter of what the best marketing and merchandising have been about for centuries is still the same -- deeply understanding the customer and catering to his needs. What is different is that as each new channel of commerce has opened, it has developed its own set of tools, and what works in one area has not met the needs of the others.

So now, as customers demand a consistent experience through the myriad points of contact, established multichannel retailers appear to have the opportunity to gain the upper hand.

The current shakeout in the marketplace shows clearly that customers, while ready to spend money in new ways, are directing their dollars to companies they know. Branded companies that have delivered solid service in the past, that are likely to continue to do so in the future and that have shown that they deal with their customers as people rather than as account numbers are the ones now in front.

The challenge facing retailers is how to connect those multiple databases to create a seamless environment within which to communicate and deal with their customers.

So far, the challenge has been met with limited success. Efforts have focused on creating complex technology infrastructures to combine three or four different areas, each with its own set of information and its own language. It has not been easy to bridge all the gaps. Often, what has resulted is a thingamajig that looks like it came from a Dr. Seuss book. And with each new toggle and switch, a degree of separation has been added between marketer and customer, reducing the marketer's effectiveness in delivering consistently profitable strategies.

The good news is that technology has caught up to the demand, and marketers and merchandisers have the opportunity once again to take control of their area of responsibility.

Today's best solution digs deep across every data channel to extract essential information about customer history. Terabytes of information are digested down to essential elements that identify the best customers and offer retailers deep understanding of what channel a shopper came through, when he shopped, what he sought, whether he shopped for himself or someone else and what means of communication he preferred.

The most effective solution also arms marketers and merchandisers with tools that strip away layers of separation, and it supports them in executing laser-targeted campaigns to acquire and retain the most profitable customers. This may be accomplished by recommending action based on what has worked before, or by allowing them to design and test new campaigns on the fly. Mission: impossible has become mission: accomplishable.

Key to this whole scenario is that the individual customer is at the center, inside a seamless environment for the multichannel retailer. It gives the retailer the data support needed to communicate and evaluate its offerings effectively. And it gives retailers the control to act quickly to drive strategies that are consistently most profitable for the customer and the company.

As a senior-level marketer and merchandiser with several national retailers, the results were clear when I integrated all available information sources and marketing avenues. By combining proven solutions to identify and segment customers by implied and stated preferences with a collaborative filtering recommendation engine, I was able to conduct marketing efforts that were tailored and targeted. They outstripped all expectations and delivered the ultimate customer service, resulting in swift, provable return on investment.

In one sense, this all comes down to a concept of commerce that goes back to the small-town shopping experience. As in the days before mass marketing, retailers have a chance to get to know their customers, almost face to face, and to foster positive interactions of people, product and promotions. Technology allows this to happen, facilitating the connections and creating opportunities to reach millions in relevant, one-to-one ways.

But it only works when the customer is the center of attention and the retailer leverages smart systems, in the background, to create that seamless environment within which customers' needs can be met.


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