Six Rules to Make Sure Customers Come Back

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Organizations that have failed to invest in customer relationship management practices are finding that their customer relationships are vulnerable to marketing-savvy competitors.


About nine months ago, I went online to buy a digital camcorder. Using a search engine, I quickly found a site called Productopia.com, which provided reviews of many consumer and business products. I then checked several online retailers, which seemed to charge very high prices, before finding mySimon.com -- a site that compares the costs of products to help you find the best deal. In the end, I bought the device from a company called eByWeb because it had a reasonably good price and did not seem to be a fly-by-night company.


In the months since the purchase, I have not heard back from Productopia, mySimon, eByWeb or any of the other retailers with which I interacted. I gave my e-mail address to eByWeb and another retailer with which I shopped. Am I likely to go back to any of these sites? Maybe. But maybe not. They all invested heavily to create solid Web sites and to get placement on search engines and links that would lead me to their sites. But none of these companies tried to build a relationship with me.


How are effective organizations focusing their attention on bringing customers back to their online stores? They do not start with technology or direct marketing campaigns. Instead, they have found out what customers want and use that information to market proactively to them. The specifics of what customers want vary among companies, but six themes have emerged:


Listen to customers.


Catalogers have always had an advantage over bricks-and-mortar retailers. Because catalog customers have their orders shipped to them, the catalogers know exactly what each customer has purchased from them. Access to this information allows them to better understand and meet their customers' needs.


The Internet has taken the advantages of a cataloger and increased them exponentially. Now a retailer can know not only what a customer has purchased, but also what he has looked at, how long he has looked at it, what he removed from his shopping cart, what he looked for and could not find and what he came back to buy later.


Another advantage of the online retailer is the ability to efficiently and cost-effectively ask customers questions. Traditional dialogue with customers meant sending surveys, having the results keyed in and merging those results into a database. The Internet allows customers to enter their own data (which is more accurate and less expensive), and the data can be automatically dropped into a customer database.


When asking customers questions, respect their time. Customers do not want to be asked the same question twice, irrelevant questions or fill out long questionnaires.


An enterprise also can listen to its customers by remembering:


o What they have purchased.


o What they have returned.


o How much they spent.


o How often they purchase.


o Which channels they prefer to shop, buy and return through.


o What campaigns they have or have not responded to.


Treat your customer like a person.


According to Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, more than 3 billion e-mails were sent in 1999, and that figure will grow to more than 200 billion by 2004. This cost-effective medium has created more junk in customers' lives than ever before. Appropriate utilization of e-mail is vital to bringing customers back to your Web site, but it is more important than ever that companies break through the clutter that fills inboxes.


Yet it seems that many e-marketers never learned the basics of direct marketing. Web sites are closer to catalogs or brochures than they are to personal shopping experiences. E-mails are impersonal and often irrelevant. The result is that customers feel they are being treated as numbers rather than as people.


A leading business-to-business software company historically had sent impersonal press releases to its customers and prospects. Recently, it switched to using campaign management software to personalize these releases. They called the customer by name and "signed" the e-mail from the sales or account management person who had the most contact with the customer. The first campaign generated more sales leads than any other e-mail from the previous 12 months.


Respect customers' privacy.


With all the attention that privacy is getting these days, it should go without saying that you should respect the privacy of your customers. Yet many companies do not understand the cost of breaking trust with their customers.


Prove you know how to use customer information. The only way to win the trust of your customers is to earn it. E-tailers and other online companies earn their customers' trust by showing them that they know how to use their customers' information in a way that makes the relationships more valuable for the customers.


When eToys is out of stock of an item you want to purchase, it asks whether you would like to be notified when the item is in stock. If you agree, you are asked for your e-mail address and are automatically notified when the item is available for purchase. This strategy brings customers back to its store only when the store has what they want. Customers, in turn, see the value of sharing information with eToys and are more willing to do so in the future.


Be relevant.


The quickest way to be blacklisted by your customers is to consistently try to capture their attention with irrelevant offers. Customers who are not getting value out of what you say to them will quickly tune you out.


Travelocity constantly monitors its customer database. When new routes are added, it communicates with only those customers for whom this information is relevant.


Make customers' experience convenient and consistent.


When a customer cannot return an item at a retail store because he bought it through a Web site, he quickly becomes annoyed. Likewise, when a customer receives a coupon that can only be used through one channel, he feels manipulated. Customers expect to be treated with consistency through all your channels.


Brooks Brothers recently sent a direct mail offer to some of its customers. Knowing that customers wanted to use whatever channel was most convenient, it offered the discount through its store, e-store (via a doorway page) or catalog (via an offer number). Offers from competitors that require the usage of a single channel are not likely to generate nearly the response that the Brooks Brothers offer did.


Creating a functionally excellent Web store is only the beginning of the path to building long-term customer relationships. Businesses that will win the battle for customer loyalty will be those that know how to treat their customers with respect while proactively reaching out to them to draw them back for repeat purchases.


• Geoffrey Ables is executive vice president at Quaero Answers, Charlotte, NC. Reach him at marketing@quaero.com.
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