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    Building Relationships With Personalization

    The process of taking your prospective customers from the point of initial interest to where they become loyal, repeat customers depends heavily on your building a relationship of trust. And this takes time. Each individual gathers information on the Web and changes his or her attitude along the way. There are a number of variables that can affect how fast a relationship can be developed.

    A person's acceptance or rejection of new products affects how fast he or she will form a relationship with a company and buy its products. In addition, the way we marketers communicate with others can affect how quickly we are accepted.

    For example, a person can be interpreted in several different ways if he or she uses words with multiple meanings, and this can slow down the relationship-building process. Companies can have the same communication problem, especially when common, everyday words take on complex, technical meanings.

    Take the word "personalization." What could be easier to understand than personalization? It's all about creating an experience, specifically for one individual. However, in the personalization industry, the word means different things to different companies.

    We are frequently asked how our personalization software is different from other personalization products. Helping someone understand our industry and how we fit in is an educational process that is part of building a relationship. It takes time, but the more we educate and inform, the more likely we are to form good, solid relationships.

    Understanding how customers gather information and make decisions is especially important for online marketers, because Web visitors can click to another Web site faster than TV viewers can find their remotes. Fortunately, marketers can use their own shopping experiences to learn how information is gathered and examine how relationships are formed.

    Think about when you bought your last car. You may have started by gathering information about the model either on the Web or from magazines. Next came a visit to local dealers and maybe a test drive, followed by negotiating the price, and finally making a purchase decision. Through this process, you were not only gathering information, you were also building a relationship with the manufacturer and the local dealer.

    Throughout the process, you were making decisions about trust, reliability, consistency, and other aspects of a relationship. In the end, the dealer with the lowest price doesn't always get the sale, especially if he or she hasn't forged a relationship with the customer.

    In the business-to-business world, relationships are very important (and take even longer to form) for several reasons. As the cost and complexity of a purchase go up, decision-makers place more emphasis on forming a strong relationship with a vendor who will do more than quote prices and take orders. Businesses need vendors who will help them learn how to evaluate and make the right purchase decisions.

    It's interesting that Web retailers and manufacturers think that buying relationships can be created faster online than in the offline world. Should a catalog company expect new customers to buy more quickly through the Web than through a print catalog?

    Probably not, especially if the online catalog has the same text and photos as the print catalog. Sure, there are benefits to buying online, and catalogers have been able to shift customers from relying on the print version to using the online catalog. But traditional catalogers seem to be doing a better job of using the Web's ability to cross-sell and up-sell than companies that don't have experience using direct marketing techniques.

    But what about the relationship itself? Are companies able to build trust any faster online than offline? It's a little early to tell for sure, but it appears that the speed of building these profitable customer relationships is tied to how well a company understands the needs of its online visitors.

    Many online merchants have been surprised at the high ratio of page views compared to the number of orders. It is well-known that shoppers are using the Web to gather information before making important purchases; therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that people are viewing a large number of pages to gather that information.

    You can take advantage of this by providing more informative and educational content than your competitors. Then, recognize visitors each time they return to your site and help them resume research where they left off.

    This not only encourages visitors to spend more time at your site, but it helps them understand that you care enough to create a positive shopping experience when they buy from you. And that's what building a strong customer relationship is about.

    Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.

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