This Time, It’s Personal

Key Points in This Issue:

Your customers want to communicate with you.

Your customers want a relationship with you.

There’s a lot of talk in the media these days about how technology in general, and the Internet specifically, is leading us to a place where human interaction will be infrequent and impersonal. Citing the increased use of email as a favorite example, the argument goes that as electronic communication becomes the norm, it will gain a greater and greater share of our interpersonal relationships, ultimately leading to the downfall of civilization and, “the end of life as we know it.”

Speaking as somebody with three small children, I’m not sure that I would not be in favor of the end of life as we know it anyway, however in this case I think the fears are completely groundless.

Although I agree that email is a poor replacement for face-to-face interaction, the conclusion that growth in one necessarily leads to the demise of the other is incorrect, because it assumes that the frequency of interaction between people remains constant.

This is not at all what is happening. Although most of us now receive many more emails per day than phone calls, faxes and letters combined, the absolute number of these more traditional communications has hardly declined at all. Thanks to email, people are not just communicating differently, they are communicating more often. Much more often.

For you as a businessperson, the implications of the change in the method and frequency of communications are enormous, and will be felt in two significant ways.

1. YOUR CUSTOMERS WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU. A lot! The ease of use, zero cost and wide availability of company email addresses and web sites makes it easier than ever for people to make a suggestion, send a compliment, ask a question or voice a complaint. Thanks to email, the complexity of speaking to a company has been reduced to the point where anything that crosses a consumer’s mind may lead to a message.

IMPLICATION: Expect much more customer initiated contact. Staff for it, track it, respond to it, and encourage it. You can’t hide in your office anymore! Your customers want to talk to you, and if you won’t listen, they will find somebody else who will (same with your spouse, but that’s a whole other topic).

2. YOUR CUSTOMERS WANT A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU. This change, while more subtle than the first, will ultimately have a much more profound impact on the way you market your product or service. Not only do email enabled consumers communicate more often, they also expect you to respond to them — quickly, personally and individually. They want a relationship with you, and that implies customized two-way communication.

Now for those of you who work for yourselves or for very small companies, this may not be news at all. You already survive on the basis of referrals, customized service and a first hand knowledge of your customer, and you are likely well versed in this type of one-to-one interaction.

For the rest of us however, particularly those who work in large, consumer-oriented companies, this fact is nothing short of spectacular, and frankly, it’s pretty damn scary.

We are mass marketers who have been trained to look at consumers “on average,” and we spend our time figuring out more efficient ways to target and then bombard people with one-way, offer-laden messages. We are not staffed, nor do we know the first thing about how to interact with our customers in anything that could even loosely be defined as a relationship.

IMPLICATION: If the only time you contact your customers is when you want them to buy, and the only time they contact you is when they have a problem, you are, to use a technical business term, on thin ice. Electronic newsletters, responses to incoming emails, web based discussion boards, live chat events and online surveys are all examples of tools you can use to build relationships, and that your competitors are already considering. By beginning to integrate these approaches into your everyday business practices, you will help your customers to think of you as more than just a product or service vendor. In the process, you will lower your marketing costs and reduce the likelihood of your customers doing business with others.

BOTTOM LINE: The Internet, for all its technical marvels, is most powerful for its ability to facilitate frequent, personal, two-way interactions, and companies that figure out how to take advantage of this will prosper in the new economy.

NEXT ISSUE: Now that we are talking with our customers, what do we say to them and how?

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