Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is a vital modern marketing tool. But how are you going to
manage customer relationships in the digital world?

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Customer relationship management in the digital world

Make money with Ads by Google

by Rod Brooks

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is a vital modern marketing tool. But how are you going to manage customer relationships in the digital world?

Business today relies on customer relationships. Products or services can often be rapidly copied or superseded, and there very often is a competitor somewhere prepared to offer a similar product for a lower price.

Don Peppers and Martha Rogers concluded in their book, "The One-to-One Future":

"No matter how creative and innovative your firm is the only software genuinely worth having is the customer relationship, based on mutual advantage and trust. Individual, differentiable customer relationships will be the ultimate software of businesses in the 1:1 future. All your products are ephemeral. Only your customers are real."

Competitive threats accelerated
The Internet not only accelerates many of the competitive threats to your products, but also can make many of your dealings with your customers or potential customers appear impersonal and lacking in human contact. So how can we use the benefits of the Internet whilst at the same time creating and maintaining personal relationships?

There are many ways to develop relationships on-line. Email is probably the most widely used. Email your customers regular newsletters, advance notices, special offers, personalised news or links and articles that you think might be of interest to them. There are also software programs that allow you to personalise email (eg www.digital-impact.com, www.guesttrack.com).(Ed.: at Marketing Magic we use WorldMerge from ColoradoSoft).

Have you got an email response policy?
However, where many companies fall down is in not having an email response policy. Many of today's Internet users expect very prompt responses to email. Too many companies lose their chance to create a relationship by being slow or not responding to email messages. In a survey of 325 British web sites only 62% responded to a simple email query (see results at www.buchanan.co.uk).

This means that 38% did not respond at all! One leading Australian car insurance company took seven days to respond to a request for a car insurance quote. It would have been better if this company would not accept email quote requests but simply gave a telephone number. If you are not prepared to treat email seriously then it is better not to provide an email address.

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Automated email responses
If you do provide an email address then determine who is to answer them (including back ups for when the nominated person is away), in what time frame they are to be answered, and if appropriate, how responses are to be authorised. Companies can consider having autoresponders to acknowledge all queries, standard responses to frequently asked questions, and even work flow processes that notify senior managers if a response has not been sent within the agreed time frame. A good, FREE autoresponder is provided by My Reply (Ed.: we have used this service on our site until it fell over one day.. a drawback to 'free' services)

Larger companies should consider email response software agents which can greatly automate email responses (examples can be found at www.brightware.com, Calypso and Talisma.

Chat rooms - not just for the 'anoraks'!
Relationships can also be built and maintained by the use of chat rooms. An expert hosted chat forum can be quite a good way to drive traffic to your site provided it is properly marketed. Virtual events and conferences could prove useful for some companies. And for some regionally based organisations even old-fashioned real time get-togethers can help build personal rapport.

Discussion groups can not only create and maintain relationships between you and your customers, but also help customers get in touch with each other. These can be unmoderated in which case they have more credibility, or moderated if you prefer more control. Discussion groups can be self hosted or you can utilise the increasingly powerful services provided by the free communities at Dejanews or clubs at Yahoo. These latter services can be links from your home page and allow messages to be sent to members, new members can be personally invited and a number of relevant forums created.

To create an on-line community can be an extremely powerful marketing tool. Arthur Armstrong and John Hagel in their book "Net Gain" divide these communities into four categories (which can overlap):

  • Fantasy - where people take on different personalities or create new environments such as combining players from different sports teams to form "fantasy teams" which compete against other "fantasy teams".
  • Relationship - where people who have shared life experiences (such as diseases) come together, mainly to support each other.
  • Interest - where people with a common interest in a topic gather to learn and share about the topic.
  • Transaction - where people buy and sell products and services.

If you are not going to create an on-line community (ie it may be too expensive or not appropriate) then you may want to consider existing communities which you can sponsor or place advertisements or advertorial on to draw customers to your site.

Get 'em to talk - and complain
To deepen a relationship with a customer you need to find out more about their wants and needs. Therefore, make it easy for your customers to contact you. Make your email address prominent and easy to find, together with your toll free number. You can consider the use of forms to gather the required information, and customer surveys either on your site or emailed to your customers.

Also make it easy for customers to complain. When someone complains they are presenting you with an opportunity to collaborate in solving a problem. You can then build loyalty and referrals. Just make sure you have a good process for handling complaints with some agreed service levels so you can monitor your performance. Consider a prize or some reward for the best feedback or improvement suggestion.

Personalisation - a way to get returning web visitors
Relationships can also be built simply by getting people to repeatedly return to your web site. Gaining share of their desktop is a good way to gain top of mind awareness and hence sales. To get people to keep coming to your site you must provide them with a reason. This is often relevant, frequently changing information, especially if it can be personalised.

Personalisation can vary from having good navigation allowing people to easily find what they want, password protected private areas, cookies to allow the site to remember the user on repeat visits, personalised start pages (similar to many portals), databases producing personalised content on the fly, different entry pages for separate categories of users, or personalisation software (eg www.firefly.com, www.broadvision.com, www.guesttrack.com) for larger companies.

Customers now in control of relationships
In the digital world there are now customers who have a better relationship with on-line companies with whom they have no human contact rather than bricks and mortar companies with whom they have a great deal of human contact. This is because they feel more in control of the relationship with the on-line company where they can get the information they want, when they want, rather than relying on some under-trained, under-resourced human sales person in an offline store. With new technology (such as making a phone call direct from a web site), even people who want human contact with an on-line organisation will shortly be able to achieve that as well.

So whilst there is a danger that human relationships can be neglected on the Internet, this does not have to be the case. In fact, if you are clever you can even provide as good, and for some people, better customer service on-line. So the challenge for all of us is to use the Internet to enhance our customer relationships!

Rod Brooks is a Senior Consultant with Australian Business Advisers Email: rodbrooks@bigpond.com Find out more about ABA at http://www.abaconsulting.com.au


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