How Good Are Your Digital Relationships?

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Managing customer relationships in the digital age takes more than an e-mail blast program. One of the truths of loyalty marketing is that customer loyalty is a cumulative process. It's everything you do to touch a customer that counts, not merely the events that people readily distinguish as marketing, selling or servicing.


That's why customer relationship management is the hot button in business-to-business sales circles these days and it's the ultimate brand differentiation. The understanding is that the real marketing job often gets done when there isn't even a transaction on the table; it's the way you improve a customer's business effectiveness and quality of life that counts.


In the digital age, we're all going to have to do this electronically. And it's not easy. Not only is time-response pressure mounting, the emerging rules of digital relationship management are very different from what we've practiced as interactive customer marketing. A new ethos needs to inform the marketing culture (which includes everyone who touches a customer), while the ability to immediately, personally and measurably respond to customers must be programmed into the company's basic everyday technology. Here are a few of the rules:


• DRM is not a systematic avalanche of e-mail. The heightening sophistication of marketing as a field does not translate into brilliant customer-centric thinking when it comes to DRM. Many BTB direct marketers (who have relatively few customers spending relatively large amounts with their companies) make the automatic assumption that the technology of e-mail itself will create and sustain timely, relevant, actionable dialogue with customers. Then they pipeline a stream of offers. Instead of building relationship, they end up repelling customers.


• Context and consistency win customers. Customers respond to systematic content that supports a context you have established for the relationship, not to isolated promotional events. Partners - what every BTB marketing and sales organization wants to be to customers - don't simply flash the latest transactional offer. This goes for broadcast fax and interactive voice response marketing, too. When the largest travel directory publisher wanted to deepen its relationships by improving service to travel agents, the company began by alerting agents to the nature and schedule of broadcast fax opportunity advisories they would be getting. Then they stuck to the schedule, so the advisories would become part of agents' routine.


• Technology is on the customers' terms. If you want a digital relationship to forward the action with key customers, you need to make it natural for them. How do they treat e-mail? Do they respond more to voice-mail or to faxes? Will they go to a password-protected site? Will they visit the site often enough to catch important updates at the appropriate time? How are they open to getting updates they'll act on?


• Build DRM technology into your organization's existing systems. In other words, make interactive relationship management natural for your people and they'll be able to make it natural for customers. All too often, companies create new technology for interactive marketing that's separate from the systems and routines of people's daily work lives. Success depends on simple, repeatable habit-forming actions that rely on the same communications technology people use for everything else.


A few pioneers are doing it right in especially high-stakes sectors. Investment bank Robertson Stephens, for example, has instituted a system whereby investment analysts send their largest institutional customers instant voice, fax and e-mail alerts on recommendation changes affecting the desirability of stocks, bonds and other investments. Customers specify the form in which they want to receive alerts, each of which offers an instant reply or toll-free number bounce-back for getting more information or placing an order.


Automation inside Robertson Stephens is what makes the system work. All analysts have to do is record a message on their voice-mail system and send it to a designated extension; if their customers expect e-mails or faxes, they supplement the recording with a text message. They can do this at any time, from anywhere (many record such messages in the evening from home). The voice-mails and text messages are automatically transferred as file attachments to an internal site, whereupon the designated approval officer is notified via e-mail that there is a message to review.


If there's nothing to be changed, the message is sent out in the specified form to every customer simultaneously. Responses go directly to the appropriate account rep or to the analyst. Robertson Stephens can track customers' response histories, and, importantly, the system automatically screens analysts' messages to prevent customers from receiving multiple voice-mails because they're on several of the analyst's lists.


Most important of all, the analysts didn't have to learn an intricate client-management software program. The IT department didn't have to create a separate system or site or hire people to follow up on e-mails, voice-mails and faxes that didn't go through and amend directories. In the end, the key to successful DRM is delivering value at every process and touch point by streamlining the way we communicate without forcing us to change how we work.
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