Kill Physical Fulfillment, Go Electronic

The Internet offers a solution to one of the biggest headaches of the business marketer — inquiry fulfillment. Until now, inquiry fulfillment has been a back-room operation that every marketer must have but dreads.

Fulfillment costs can range from $1 to $20 per inquiry, plus the cost of the materials included in the fulfillment kit and postage or freight. On top of the variable costs, there are storage costs, inventory administration costs and kit management costs. Costs aren't the only issue. Management must constantly struggle between whether to pack standard kits or custom kits.

Standard kits can fulfill several inquiry programs. Custom kits are program specific. Standard kits are less expensive per kit because they can be packed in advance, but packing too many in advance can result in the need to unpack them when the company updates collateral materials.

As for custom programs, they can result in hundreds of kit variations and the need to educate sales and sales support about each variation. People who handle inquiries need to know what each kit contains so they can speak intelligently about them.

The solution: The entire fulfillment process can be moved to the Internet. Inquiries can be fulfilled using personalized e-mail (don't forget to ask for the e-mail addresses in all inquiry efforts). For inquiries in which there is no e-mail address, a postcard can be sent giving the inquirer a URL (Universal Resource Locator), or Internet address, to visit. The e-mail can carry attachments (limited to one if being sent to an America Online account) and the e-mail can direct the inquirer to the fulfillment URL address.

The e-mail and the postcard should restate the offer that drove the response initially and make an additional offer to drive the person to the fulfillment URL. This is simply giving people another incentive to take action you want them to take.

You have more control and more potential for interaction with a person online than you do with a person who receives a fulfillment kit. The fulfillment URL is the same information that would have been in the fulfillment kit, but it has the potential of being much more interesting and involving. Also, as technology improves, you will be able to include animation and sound with your Web pages. You will be able to pull people to you for a selling opportunity.

The advantages of online fulfillment include:

* Zero variable cost. Electronic fulfillment is not volume dependent. It doesn't matter if one or 10,000 people go to the fulfillment URL. The cost is the same.

* Flexibility to develop program-specific URLs that link to common product/service information.

* Program-specific pages can carry additional offers allowing you to further qualify leads online.

* Inquirers can be given access codes that allow you to pre-complete an online form with information previously provided. When inquirers complete the interview, they can become leads (depending on your ability to develop qualification interviews).

* Qualified leads can move directly into your online lead-management system for distribution to the field and phone center.

* Fulfillment costs are fixed by the development costs of the URL content and program specific URL pages with links to the lead management database.

* Variable costs are the costs of labor or service to send the fulfillment e-mail or the cost of generation and mailing the postcard.

* Sales staff and sales support staff can go online anytime to review and understand what the prospect or customer sees.

* Continuing contact can be maintained using e-mail, further reducing marketing investment in customer acquisition.

The challenge: Training the market to use online fulfillment rather than expect a kit of stuff. This training can be accomplished if people seeking online information are rewarded for their efforts, informed of the benefits of online access and given every opportunity to contact you by phone, mail, e-mail or visit. The contact options allow prospects to move to the medium that they are most comfortable with as they move closer to becoming a customer.

My suggestion: Absolutely fulfill online and try to close online. You may be surprised to find that some percentage of the inquiries will be willing to make the purchase. The worst that can happen is that you will continue to do what you're already doing.

Tracy Emerick is principal of Taurus Direct Marketing, Hampton, NH, a direct marketing agency and consultancy, and president of Receptive Marketing Inc., which provides Internet site development.

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