Serving the 'Powerhouse' Customer

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Market research firms Jupiter Communications and Forrester Research indicate that customer satisfaction on the Web has declined this year. This statement challenges online retailers to revisit the way they manage their e-stores. It also indicates the emergence of a new kind of customer called "the powerhouse."

Before the Internet, customer service departments provided similar service to all customer types. Customers were generally treated the same regardless of shopping behaviors, patterns and other defining traits. These customers were known as "commoners."

As years went by, offline data segmentation and profitability analysis became widely used. Segmentation and profiling immediately turned commoners into "targets." Suddenly, companies were able to identify the potential profitability of a customer and market to him in that manner.

This brought many changes in the way call centers and marketing programs were run. Call centers adjusted call waiting times and services levels based on a target's score. Marketers began sending preapproved applications and loyalty notices to the hottest targets. Results created operational cost saving, increased marketing response and levels of service that customers became accustomed to.

When companies moved into the online world, they regressed to the days of the commoners (before profiling and segmenting was the norm). Neither the customer nor the company seemed to care that Web sites housed generic pages and companies sent bland, nonpersonalized e-mails. Online shopping was new and exciting regardless of the presentation of the merchandise or the tone of the communication. Online commoners were wowed by convenience and speed, and less concerned with how they were treated -- until now.

Why has the level of customer satisfaction from online retailers declined? Most likely, service is not declining; customers are just getting smarter and more demanding. They have become powerhouses.

The powerhouse is a savvy consumer. Powerhouses know where they fit in on the profitability scale. They also know that many online retailers do not use or have access to the amount and types of profiling data used in the offline world for targeting and tracking. They want more. Powerhouses want to be treated uniquely through their entire online or offline shopping experience.

Powerhouses are challenging online retailers to catch up to the offline world of targeting and segmentation. What can you do to ensure you are meeting customers' expectations?

First, review your online organizational structure. Are you still fighting to keep customer service and marketing as separate entities? It doesn't work online. Online, the lines between customer service and marketing are blurred. Customers who submit unsolicited e-mails on your site expect you to know what those e-mails were about and use that information the next time you contact them online.

Secondly, develop a bridge between the online and offline worlds. If your company is in both spaces, understand that customers want you to acknowledge that they are aware of that, too. My friend recently stopped shopping at a local store because online she reached a "gold" status, and established herself as one of the company's most treasured customers. However, when in the store, she was not treated with the same level of importance. Yet, frequent offline shoppers received the attention she thought she deserved.

Third, embrace technology. If the powerhouses are visiting your online store, that means they are on the Web, being introduced to new technology. As their time on the Web grows, so will their knowledge, and their expectations. Don't risk losing customers because you haven't taken advantage of the opportunities to "wow" them with great service-based technology.

Finally, don't wait. Six months from now, powerhouses will evolve again. This time emerging as a super-user whose loyalty will shift to companies that have succeeded in integrating offline and online technologies.

Shopping on the Internet is not the novelty it once was. Customers know that and now so do you.

• Jeanniey Mullen is managing director of Grey E.Mail Global, New York. Reach her at

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