One of the major questions that organizations are struggling with today is "What is the optimal number of times I should contact customers each year?" In the absence of an answer based on sound analytics, many organizations are arbitrarily establishing business rules that limit the number of contacts for a given customer within a month or quarter. While not ideal, defining hard limits is one way to gain control, especially for very large organizations with many business lines that have access to the same set of customer names.

How do you answer this question, and what can you do to ensure that you continue to have a relationship with customers without overcommunicating? Conduct a contact- frequency analysis, experience firsthand what customers actually receive and ask customers!

If you have promotion, e-mail and service history on your customer database, the first step is to conduct a contact-frequency analysis that reveals number and type of contacts received by each customer during each week, month and quarter of the past 12 months. In order to effectively manage contact frequency, the reports that feed this analysis should be set up as standard monthly reports that run against a rolling 12 months of history. Evaluate both inbound and outbound contacts of every type. Where you don't have history of outbound contact, you may be able to recreate it for reporting purposes as long as you have the targeting requirements or list-selection criteria that were used.

This report will give you a clear picture of the number and type of contacts you have with customers across all of the business units and product lines. Next, layer in the response history to identify specifically when customers are buying. You'll likely find patterns that will help you to specifically determine the number of purchase events compared to the number of promotion/service events.

One of the best ways to get a handle on what customers are receiving is to conduct a "day in the life" study for at least six months. This will give you firsthand knowledge of the customer experience. If your contacts tend to be seasonal in nature, be sure the important seasons are represented. Sign up as a customer through each of your channels, business and product lines. If you have many different customer segments, be sure that you represent each one with different "customer" names and profiles. Traditional direct marketers and catalog marketers understand this process as "seeding." While seeding was originally developed to determine when the mail house and/or the post office got a campaign into the hands of customers, it can also be useful in auditing how many and what kinds of communications your customers receive from all the different parts of your organization. If you truly want the analysis to be blind and most representative, contract with a consulting firm to ensure adequate representation of all contacts.

One of the best ways to see the impacts of this type of study is to reserve a conference room for the study. Paste pictures of each type of customer on reserved sections of the wall; then place copies of what has been received next to the pictures as they come in.

Most organizations we've worked with have literally been amazed at the sheer volume of both targeted and untargeted snail and e-mail their customers receive from them. Not surprisingly, there are certain types of customers that get 10 times what others do ­ these are often the "best" customers. Others get almost no contacts. Surprisingly, these customers are often the "almost profitable" group ­ the very customers the organization should try to optimize.

Examine the contacts for each group in detail and evaluate them in terms of relevancy and content balance. Be wary if all of your communications with customers are product-push oriented. The ideal mix will incorporate informational, service and retention-oriented contacts with those that are strictly sales-oriented. Also, check to see if you ever say "thank you."

There is no substitute for talking to customers ­ ask the customers! Ideally, your research should consist of both qualitative and quantitative components. First, conduct focus groups with customers from each of your major segments. Talk to them about their recall and their preferences related to: content, volume of contacts, frequency of contacts, channels and media, and format.

Next, use the results of the focus groups to draft a written (e-mail or snail mail) survey that evaluates the same information across a broader sample of customers.

Primary research, combined with the database contact frequency analysis data and "day in the life" results can provide you with a well-rounded picture of what you are doing and how you can optimize it.

Remember that best customers seldom need prodding to maintain their current levels of spending, but marginally profitable or under- performing customers (based on lifetime value analysis) should be receiving more attention.

Finally, be sure to set up controlled tests for your new optimized contact strategy and track the results over at least six months (a year is better) to determine what really works best.

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