Heed the Customer Call for Preferred Communication
Sound crazy? Don't laugh. The Web commands so much attention -- and so much escalating investment -- that many direct marketers aren't integrating other forms of essential customer communication effectively into Web-centric programs. The danger is that integration is what makes Web programs work. In the customer's experience, interactivity means getting the right information in the preferred form at the right time. This means providing interaction through whatever means (e-mail, phone, fax) the user has at hand. Exploiting the full range of interactive communications available is now a prerequisite to effective customer service.
Yet not too many agencies or inhouse experts are recommending, designing and implementing programs that integrate communications technologies to sell and to serve customers. Internal marketing people and interactive agencies are advising companies to spend on intricate Web sites first, to create a hub for interactive communications. The problem is, when top management reads the bottom line, there's often a predictable gulp -- especially when the proposal includes a calculation of the real cost of servicing an e-commerce site.
That was the reaction of one major agribusiness association, which operates as both a business-to-business and consumer direct marketer. The association has a small marketing budget, even though it's financially sound and backed by a sizable membership. A respectable interactive direct marketing agency had told the association's management that "a Web site is the way to go" to increase communication, service, and revenue from an expanding membership. All plans screeched to a halt when the president got the six-figure estimate for site creation, service, operation, and maintenance.
The association thought its interactive marketing plans were scrapped. Not so. Instead, they're now expanding revenue bases and increasing service via a unified messaging campaign while a scaleable, introductory Web site is being developed. Constituents get updates on products, services and legislation, and receive other important notices via a combination of e-mail, fax, even pre-programmed phone calls that permit them to respond, request particular follow-up, or order a copy of a report.
Ironically enough, we've seen the Web-rush syndrome before. In the not-so-distant past, it was predicted that television would put radio out of business. The truth is that every time the "next" technology creates a craze, pre-existing technologies show their true value. (The radio marketplace is now stronger than ever -- it wasn't replaced at all, TV just created a new medium.) Just as a Web site isn't a direct marketing panacea, e-mail does not eclipse other forms of communication. I'm an inveterate e-mail user, and I do all of my initial research on companies, products, services, and trends using a variety of online tools; it's simply faster, cheaper, and more manageable. The files fill my laptop hard drive and diskettes, not floor-to-ceiling cabinets full of folders that have to be constantly re-arranged.
The majority of companies are slowly integrating e-mail into a system of approach that emphasizes the technologies their customers are most familiar with -- the fax and the phone. In fact, several of the more enlightened marketers realize that road-warrior customers who prefer online communications already route their incoming faxes to e-mail accounts.
For example, the leading fulfillment house for magazine direct response advertising is thriving because it has updated core technologies to behave interactively. While some reader requests are coming from companies' Web sites, the real reason for the boom is that the fulfillment house has rendered its entire response spectrum interactive. Readers fax reply cards and get return confirmations, while others call an 800-number that can immediately process an information request or connect the caller to an advertiser sales rep.
It's relatively simple, inexpensive and effective to automate rapid responses to customers and prospects using the technology they choose. In the downsized corporation, that's a job best given project by project to a service provider that leases thousands of phone lines. For instance, every day we send 5,000- to 30,000-piece interactive communications in a matter of minutes because we can dedicate thousands of phone lines to the job at one time. We know they connect because we have people checking and changing addresses and area codes when a fax fails, an e-mail bounces back, or a phone call elicits, "the number has been changed to…"
Particularly with ever-popular free service offers, Web marketers need to use multiple forms of communication. When traditional and Web advertising drive free-registration traffic to most sites, a host of infrastructure inadequacies are revealed. While the troubleshooters are working round the clock, thousands of customers are waiting for any response at all -- a gap that hardly endears them to the company. One free service recently kept site registrants waiting for weeks without any communication. All it takes to stay in good graces is a routine return confirmation (via e-mail and/or phone or fax), combined with a customer identification code for tracking their order via a toll-free number. Or, for that matter, even a fax or automated phone message alerting them as to the extent of the delay.
Web-conditioned customers now expect ongoing communication and fast response. For all of us in direct marketing, the Web has shone a spotlight on the nature of effective communication, the impact of response time, and the optimization of databases. In a media-fragmented world where supply far outweighs demand for most products and services, the real leaders will apply the lessons of the Web across the full spectrum of customer communications.
<I>Steven Weinstein is president of MagnaCom Corp., New York, a unified messaging provider. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.<I>