Maybe they do, maybe they don't

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Ever since the CRM phenomenon took hold in the late 1990s, there has been a consistent trend in the direct marketing business press, at conferences, and in advertising from some service providers that support the business; a constantly repeated mantra that the Holy Grail of marketing -- the end state that we should all be seeking -- is to establish a continuous, two-way, relationship-based dialogue with all of our customers. The presupposition seems to be that customers want to have that dialogue.

Maybe they do, maybe they don't.

The fact is, some number of your customers would rather not hear from you at all, thank you very much, unless there is a real business reason for the contact. Depending on what kind of business you're in, that number could be just a few of your customers, most of them, or some percentage in between. Here are some hypothetical situations that illustrate the point:

Doctors don't usually write letters, send e-mails, or publish disease-specific newsletters to be sent to their patients, for a variety of reasons that include regulatory concerns. But suppose they did? If you had a serious, chronic health problem and the doctor that was treating it started sending you a series of informational and educational communications regarding the best ways to manage the illness (in a way that guaranteed your privacy) would you want to receive those communications? Chances are, you would. That's why people overtly seek out Web sites like WebMD, or sign up for disease-state-specific Web sites maintained by the pharmaceutical companies that provide the medicines they are using to treat those diseases.

Think about the last time you visited a doctor to get something to treat that really bad cold or bout with the flu. If your doctor had taken the time to call you personally a couple of days later to ask how you were feeling, wouldn't you have welcomed the call? Sure, you would have, and so would most of the doctor's other patients. Score one for the idea of relationship marketing.

If you're a homeowner, it's likely that you sometimes go to one or more of the "big box" hardware stores like The Home Depot or Lowe's to pick up a few items you need to keep the place in good repair. If you live in a real fixer-upper, you probably go there a lot and buy more than the average person. Chances are, you'd be very interested in price discounts, but little else in the way of communications from your hardware store, unless they were offering information about a specific project you're working on -- say, building a deck.

In this instance, you might or might not be interested in ongoing communications depending on how much you buy and what you're working on at home, but the interest might be centered around prices, products and services, rather than building a relationship. Put this one in the 50/50 column.

At the other end of the spectrum are all the commodity-based businesses that consumers interact with that engender near zero interest in having a relationship -- gas stations, convenience stores and utilities come to mind. Most likely, your main concerns are about availability, convenience and price, and not much more.

The fact is, not every business model lends itself to true relationship marketing, and for the ones that do have the right mix of products and services, not every customer has an interest in having a relationship -- they'd rather just do business with the company when they want to, and otherwise be left alone.

The trick is figuring out which customers fit that description, and the key to that is relevance. If your products and services are something they need and want, your customers and prospects probably would like to know about them. But even then, it's less often about relationship-building than it is about plain, old-fashioned selling.

In our zeal to market the way the conventional wisdom tells us to, we shouldn't lose sight of one basic idea -- the real point of direct marketing to ring the cash register and learning how to do that more often should be the high-order priority.

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