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I recently read an article about how a large software company went on a road show to personally connect with small groups of key customers across the country. In addition to the tour and a customized agenda for each visit, a blog was created, complete with photos and videos. And to wrap it up, thank you notes were handwritten by the company executives who traveled on the tour.

That's some extreme relationship marketing, but the foundation or philosophy they followed -
connecting with customers - isn't.

Relationship marketing (RM) is a one-to-one medium, with personalized messaging being delivered to exceedingly targeted audiences. While there are many strategies that can be supported solely by RM activities, integrating this discipline into a coordinated marketing effort is one of the most effective methods to ensure your brand messages reach and resonate with your target market. The goal is often to create a two-way dialogue, so whether it is delivered through direct mail, e-mail or telemarketing, RM can complement or support other communications.

Regardless of where or how RM is deployed in your marketing mix, the key to success lies in the execution. It must be integrated with all other components of a campaign to support and reinforce the brand. That means utilizing the same creative - visuals, key messages and brand personality - so everything works together to support your marketing strategies.
Here are several ways RM can support your marketing efforts and fit into the mix:

Lead generation is a constant, well-oiled machine in some organizations, but in others it's a haphazard endeavor where random inquiries are considered qualified leads. Too often, inquiries come in to organizations and are immediately passed on to
the sales force for follow-up. Sales doesn't perceive these as legitimate leads and therefore, not worthy of their time, so they don't contact them. The result? Potential customers are often lost to the competition.

It's a vicious circle. How do you avoid these common pitfalls? RM is an excellent way to evaluate, further qualify and segment these potential leads while they move through the process from inquiry to being sales-ready. After an inquiry is received, follow up by sending timely and relevant content. Encourage prospects or customers to respond by giving them a compelling reason. This gives you an additional opportunity to gather more information about their specific needs and in turn feed them more brand messaging. As you move the prospect through these stages of dialogue, they will begin to see the value and benefit of the relationship and be more receptive to the sales representative's call when the time to buy is right.

New product launches are one of the most challenging for marketers because they require the target audience to go through every stage of the purchase decision sequence: from awareness and interest, to understanding, trial and, ultimately, brand preference. The challenge is even greater for many new agricultural products because they require a greater emphasis on educating not only end users, but also internal audiences and the sales force, those in the distribution channel, and influencers.

When executed in conjunction with awareness-building tactics such as print, radio and TV, RM campaigns can be a great way to tell a compelling story that ties each of these audiences together. An integrated campaign with a strong RM component can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes a prospect to go from learning about your product to actually trying it.

It is well understood in the business world that it costs more to acquire a new customer than to keep a current one. Why then do so many companies invest a significant portion of their marketing dollars in finding new customers? Sales growth comes not only from obtaining new business, but also from the existing client base. If retention rates dip, your "new" customers are only replacements for the old, leaving sales figures flat or worse.

To retain customers you need to know who they are. Sounds obvious, but many companies do not have an easily accessed and up-to-date database. Make sure you are capturing actionable data on your customers. Analyze and prioritize that information to identify those you never want to lose. Develop an ongoing dialogue with these purchasers and continue reinforcing preference for your brand. If marketers would all take a serious look at their sales and pay particular attention to the lost sales from top customers, you would see retention strategies reaching new heights.

Reinforcing preference is the last phase of the purchase decision sequence and you've worked hard to get customers there. Don't let them slip away. It's doubtful many marketers have the budget dollars necessary to drive across the country in a bus to personally deliver their brand message, but developing a one-to-one relationship with your customers doesn't necessarily require a robust CRM system or designing a sophisticated loyalty program. Keep it simple, be sincere, but most of all, begin somewhere.

Becky Nelson is Group Leader, Relationship Marketing at Bader Rutter & Associates, Brookfield, WI. She can be reached at 262/784-7200 or

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