Carla McEachern and Ari Buchwald contributed this month's column.

In the new millennium's fast-moving environment, the Web is becoming the primary resource for communication, resource management, research and distribution. The challenge today is in applying sound business techniques to this technology to give the customer what they want, when they want it and how they want it. In other words, using the Web to manage and enhance customer relationships.

Don't lose sight of your basic business techniques while implementing that cool technology. Do you learn from your Web site? Do you collect information on your customers? Can you apply this information to your business? How are you using it to market and sell? A customer wants something from you, so how do you focus on making sure that what you offer matches what they want, not just now but into the future? By focusing on the customer, you are taking care of business.

The Internet can function as a critical communications channel. However, as with any other channel, effective communication means taking care of the basics including relevance, consistency and integration, and simplicity.

Relevance

Relevance has become the mantra of Web communications, yet the volume of irrelevant e-mails in our inboxes continues to rise exponentially. The Internet magnifies the ability to provide irrelevant information and untargeted offers.

Make sure you are not magnifying problems and desensitizing your customers. To ensure relevance, be sure that you are personalizing communications, based on the information your customers have provided through their profiles and tracking of the site behavior. Personalization doesn't just mean addressing them by name in weekly e- mails. Personalization relates to the way you:

  • Define the customer-specific value proposition. Should you emphasize price, convenience, quality, exclusivity or some other factor?
  • Present customer-specific content on the site. How can customers quickly access the information they care most about?
  • Develop and customize product offers. What products and product features appeal most to each customer in a very specific sense? For a travel site, this might mean communicating only about the customer's top five destination choices rather than all types of travel.
  • Tailor the communication style. Based on the customer's profile, do they want text or HTML? Do they respond to conservative or edgy? Should you sell or inform?

Is your site a "favorite" that users bookmark and return to on a consistent basis? Have you asked them why or why not? Relevance is the single biggest driver of customer loyalty. Without it, you'll always have to pay the high cost of replacing customers with new acquisition efforts. Review your communication techniques to ensure your company is not blasting the customer with too much information. The desensitization to those offers by your recipients will result in your efforts falling on deaf ears, and you will get your DUE (deleted, unread, e-mails).

Consistency and Integration

Are traditional channels integrated with your Web site? Can a user access the same information they would find in a catalog or a store? Or, if the content is selective or unique to drive Web traffic in the early stages, can customers still get help on retail or catalog merchandise through Web customer service? Can the catalog order-entry staff see the merchandise pictured to the customers on the Web? Can a customer order from the Web site and return the merchandise to the retail store?

Customers don't really care about the internal organization structure and technology issues of companies they patronize. They expect the company to speak with one voice and to have integrated systems and customer service as a bare minimum of doing business. Evaluate your systems and processes to ensure that you are accumulating, evaluating, collaborating and disseminating customer information to consistently service your customers.

Simplicity

Audit your site for simplicity. Can a user find your address, phone number and be directed to the person most likely to be able to help? Consider the implications of technology. Will a slow computer or connection make someone abandon their shopping basket on your site? Is it easier to just call in rather than click?

Are you alienating your customers with systems and bandwidth? Consider the implications of having to stop and download additional software just to access a site. Unless the experience promises to be amazing, the technology will not substitute for the technique of keeping it simple. Avoid the tendency to substitute "cool" technology for a consistent vision and message or lose relevance in your creative. If your site lights up like a Christmas tree from banners, frames and images, consider "one trick per page" instead. If you link to other sites, remember to keep your viewer rather than tossing them away to another site.

Relevance, integration and simplicity are the keys to success. It is not difficult to measure churn in the digital world, so track your progress. It's easier to keep a customer than to find a customer, so make sure your site allows the customer to keep you.

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