Listening Builds Stronger Relationships

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While the Internet has altered the ways we conduct our businesses, one thing that has not changed is that the customer is still king. If it were not for the customer, none of us would have a job.


Companies have learned over the years that you have to listen to your customers, work to understand their underlying needs and target your business and marketing practices to meet those needs.


To do this, companies have had to find ways to build long-term, value-based relationships. That has not changed. What has changed is that companies are no longer as in control of these relationships as they once were. The Web has created a new interaction medium that gives control to the customer -- and that's a good thing.


What is driving this move to greater customer control? It is the ability to conduct a real-time, two-way dialogue -- sometimes initiated through traditional marketing touch points -- with responses and ongoing dialogue managed through a combination of real-time touch points, specifically e-mail and the Web.


It is not only the real-time nature of communication that enables this phenomenon but also the ability to take the information from a direct dialogue or from other sources and personalize interactions as though you were face to face with the customer. This is the real power of the medium.


The basic marketing principles that applied in the past, and still apply for traditional direct media, also apply for marketing on the Web. You still need to create more targeted, focused segments of customers by observing their behavior and response to various offers and information.


Aim for the audience of one. Test and measure to build your knowledge base of information over time. Then leverage that information to deliver more relevant messages and offers. The result is greater value for your customers. In return, you will experience more loyalty from them.


In the traditional world, individual targeting does not reach its potential because you rarely get to confirm your customers' preferences. Most customer information comes from observation and response, not from dialogue where you have the opportunity to probe, learn and interact. Web and e-mail interactions allow you to learn and apply that knowledge in real time.


Another key difference between traditional and online marketing is that with print advertisements, direct mail and telemarketing, companies push their messages to potential customers, often at inopportune times. This is often referred to as "interrupt marketing." And it is often not delivered in the prospect's preferred medium.


In the one medium with the opportunity for real-time interaction -- telemarketing -- too often customers are interrupted when it is inconvenient, often resulting in a lost opportunity and negative feelings. In addition, there is no time to establish a relationship. Remember, it takes time to build relationships. You must build trust and loyalty before building a lasting relationship -- online or offline.


Adding online marketing to the mix.


What does this mean for marketers who are trying to understand how to integrate e-marketing into their marketing mix? First, the Internet is only the second true interactive marketing medium to be put in our laps, following the telephone. It adds the value of not being an interrupt-driven medium. Customers can participate, respond and interact when the time is right for them.


Success in marketing is about delivering the right message or offer at the right time and in the right way. The Internet does not eliminate the need for traditional communication media; it just enhances them. It can help you uncover what customers prefer -- directly from them. They can change their minds, but with real-time interactivity and automation, those changes can be accommodated immediately.


Through online, real-time interaction, we now have the ability to find out what people want and how they want to receive it. Let the customer take control -- listen and learn. Use that knowledge to build a relationship with your customers and let them drive the relationship.


Today, interactive, real-time databases allow you to tailor interactions with your customers, assuring that they receive information and offers of interest to them. Letting customers manage and control their interest profiles and then practicing true permission-based marketing build the trust and value required for strong long-term relationships.


Be realistic.


Effective e-marketing takes investment. Solutions are introduced daily to tap the power of e-marketing, from personalization technologies and campaign automation to predictive modeling and data mining with sophisticated segmentation tools. It is not perfect yet, but the train is moving quickly.


Leading dot-com companies are adopting these techniques as they work to quickly build their businesses and customer bases. Traditional companies are taking their businesses online and are adopting technologies to build and strengthen individual, personalized relationships with existing customers. The benefits are outstanding. Marketing drives revenue and e-marketing can do it faster, and at lower costs.


Companies are adopting personalization and one-to-one marketing techniques. We are in the early stages of tapping this world of real-time relationships. For those who understand the concept of true two-way relationships, the rewards will be tremendous.


• Monica Nester is senior vice president of marketing at Annuncio Software, Mountain View, CA, which provides e-marketing and Web personalization solutions. Reach her at mnester@annuncio.com.
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