Understand Your Customers and Communication

Having a well-positioned, well-defined brand is a great start toward building a lasting and profitable customer relationship, but it is only part of the challenge.

Ensuring that your brand has value and is relevant to your customers is also critical to any sustainable business.

You ensure relevance by having an understanding of who your customers are, and of how and why they shop on your site, or purchase your product and service.

Understanding who your customers are, why they interact with your brand, what their expectations are and what they want and need from you is a cornerstone requirement in building lasting relationships online or offline.

Everyone understands that. What we don’t all understand is how to go about gathering that information, or how to use it responsibly and effectively.

Have you ever logged onto a site to buy a specific product, and before getting the chance to view the page you needed to see to find out how to make the purchase, you were hit with a list of questions?

Did the site want to know your name, e-mail address, physical address, marital status, gender, age, income level, pet ownership status, presence of children in the household, the last three books you read and what you had for lunch before letting you in?

Did you try to skip some questions you thought were irrelevant only to be bounced back to the beginning when you attempted to click through?

When faced with such a difficult entry fee, I abandon my search and move on. If I have to qualify myself to give a site my business, then I, and other consumers like me, are likely to move on.

I do encourage you to gather information. It is critical to building a relevant and meaningful relationship with a customer. The more you know about your customers, the better you will be able to communicate with them, provide products and services that meet their needs and engage them in a lasting and loyal relationship with your brand. I propose, however, that you gather your information slowly and over the course of several interactions.

On the first visit, you need only gather the information relevant to fulfilling the order — name, address (physical or e-mail), payment method, shipping option, etc. — and customers’ permission to communicate with them again in the future.

At this point, you already will have learned a good deal about your customers and will be able to determine many things. You will know who they are and how to contact them (perhaps several ways to contact them — online and offline). You will know how they spent time on your site (clicking through several similar items to choose one, or perhaps going straight to an item and purchasing it quickly).

On future visits, you can begin to collect other pertinent data, but again, collect it slowly. You may send a follow up e-mail after the purchase has been shipped notifying them of the approximate delivery date.

At that time, you can include a link with a special offer for recognized customers, and when they click through to take advantage of the offer, you might ask them another question or two.

Keep the number of questions asked in any interaction to a minimum (preferably three or less) and relevant to that interaction. Do not ask them for the number of children in the household if they are visiting your site to buy a book on low-fat cooking.

If general demographic data is critical to your ability to bring future relevant offers to your consumers, consider investing in a data overlay. Many compiled lists carry a great deal of customer identification data gathered from reliable sources and you can append this data to your file for a fee.

Depending on the size of your customer base, the intended use of the data and the probable return on the effective use of the data, this can be a nonintrusive and reliable way to get to know your customers better.

Other critical data points can be gathered on your site without asking the customers specifically for information. Track the behavior of your customers.

How do they get to the site? What do they do while on the site?

Monitor and keep a history of purchases.

What kind of merchandise do they buy? What time of day do they visit and buy?

These can be critical points to ensure you bring the right next offer or product to your customers.

Once you have gathered data, you are responsible for using that information in a relevant and respectful way. The industry expects that of you, but, more importantly, your customers expect that of you.

Customers are savvy and know how you may use the information that you gather.

If you ask a person whether she has children in the household and she says no, she expects that you will not fill her e-mail with offers for child-related services or products.

If you ask a person his age and he tells you honestly, he will expect that the communications sent to him focus on products or offers relevant to his age category. If he gives you information and you ignore it or otherwise misuse it, your relationship is likely to be over.

Be sure to have a plan for using any requested information before requesting it from a customer. Do not build a base of identifiable traits or characteristics or “needs” if you are not going to act upon that information in short order.

You could go on for months defining how to build a customer relationship for online retailers, but you will not go on for months unless you do. If nothing else, remember these important points:

• Every point of contact is an opportunity to build your brand.

• Increasingly relevant communications to consumers, in a variety of mediums, increase your ability to build sustainable, profitable customer relationships.

• Without loyal customers, you cannot last long online.

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