I started my career at Columbia House, the first mail-order music service. Its introductory offer remains infamous: “12 Records for a penny.” The company was a direct marketing pioneer, among the first to understand its customers as discerning individuals and not a faceless mass of consumers. Columbia House was a “Club” whose “Members” received a monthly catalog with music recommendations based on their preferences, and got CDs delivered right to their (snail) mailbox. Before the Internet, marketing rarely got more personal, hence the company’s brand campaign tagline: “Entertaining America… One Person At A Time.”

The passion of the company’s music-loving staff played a major role in retaining Members month after month (me at age 21: “You mean I get to listen to music all day, recommend the best stuff, AND you’ll pay me for it? I’m in!”). It was truly a labor of love. The model was so successful that, at its peak, Columbia House commanded 15% of CD sales in the US.

Fast forward… Modern segmentation and analytics tools allow us to view customers from as far away or up close as we please, without ever getting our hands dirty. And while it is impossible to truly serve “one person at a time” and achieve meaningful scale, in a hyper-connected global economy — where most every product is easily commoditized and distributed – getting personal can be a differentiating advantage that creates long-term value for your company.

Here are a few things that online retailers can start doing right away to distinguish their brands and move from merely enabling “transactions” to actively cultivating valuable customer relationships with long-term benefits:

1. Make Customer Service Your Business
Call it “The Zappos Ethic.” Whoever answers the 800 number or responds to support@ emails is on the front line of your “share of wallet” battle. It is mission-critical that they understand not only your product or service, but the philosophy and driving passion behind the brand. Train them thoroughly, ply them with free product, lunch and cocktails, and trust them to offer a refund or add free shipping to an order. Make them feel as special as you want your customers to feel.

2. Respond Personally
Your support team doesn’t always have the answers, and certain issues (“My coupon code doesn’t work!”; “The link is broken!”; “It was $10 cheaper yesterday… why!?”) may bubble up to you. Instead of responding to the support person, consider the benefit of making the call or responding to the customer’s email yourself. You will learn a lot about your visitor’s pain points, and they will be surprised and grateful that a “real” person is taking care of them.

3. Acknowledge Negative Reviews (Sometimes)
Admit that you cannot please everyone all the time. OK, good. But sometimes a simple clarification or acknowledgement of a legitimate issue can make all the difference. Invest in rapid response — you may not turn the reviewer into a future customer but future customers will appreciate that you are listening.

4. Invite Conversation via Social Media
It’s a total cliché, and so worth repeating. Social media is NOT a billboard along the highway or a TV infomercial. It IS the best, most direct tool you have for understanding what your customer segments care about most, and an opportunity to super-serve them with important information, value-adds or personal attention. Transforming the marketing monologue (“buy this now!”) into an authentic conversation (“try this and tell us what you think?”) can move the needle beyond e-commerce and inform your company’s entire strategy. Be prepared to accept the accolades showered upon you by adoring senior executives.

5. Build a Hangout for Loyal Fans
The logical extension of #4. Whether it’s a dedicated Facebook page, a private LinkedIn group or a Google+ hangout staffed by a smart intern, get your “super-fans” together in one place so you can pick their brains, incentivize word-of-mouth, or simply get them talking amongst each other. The buzz will grow and draw in others. Plus, you will instantly start learning about what’s important to your best customers.

Getting personal takes time and energy, but it’s the kind of “music” that keeps customers coming back, as well as talking (and sharing, posting, tweeting) about how special they are treated. So… how are you inspiring the Members of your Club?

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