THE KEY TO STRENGTHENING RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS AND KEEPING THEM
Barbara Hook and Tony Dunn
Managing customer relationships has never been more important than it is today. In today’s ag business market, customers are demanding. They are educated, informed and sophisticated, and that makes loyalty hard to come by. Farm consolidation is shrinking the available customer base at an alarming rate while the number of product options has increased. So how do you keep your customers given the reality of today’s market and still stay within your budget?
Because the agricultural customer base is shrinking, customer retention should play a large part in your strategy. Retention efforts are actually less expensive to implement than acquisition efforts, and usually yield better results. Companies need to raise their level of service to meet - and exceed - their customer’s needs. Without a dynamic customer relationship strategy, companies risk losing customers to their competitors. The foundation of retention efforts is built on communication.
Customers today expect information to be accurate, up-to-date and accessible in real-time. The Internet has played a large role in creating those expectations, and your database is the key to meeting them. Your database is a great resource and you should maximize its potential. Capturing and using customer information will drive your marketing strategy, and giving information to customers will help you keep them.
Combining your traditional database marketing efforts with the power of the Internet makes achieving a cost-effective customer relationship strategy possible. There is technology available that will allow you to implement your strategy quickly. This doesn’t mean designing a new multi-million dollar system. You can work with your existing platform and apply effective, cost-efficient tools to get results.
CAPTURING THE INFORMATION
The conventional methods of information gathering - generally through the mail or by phone - are effective, but can be costly and time-consuming. The Internet provides some exciting alternatives. Remember, though, that studies on Internet use in agriculture show that not all of your customers are online. Combining both traditional relationship management methods and Internet methods will enable you to reach more customers than ever.
E-commerce can give you a wealth of information on your customers. With direct sales over the Internet you are provided with specific customer purchase data that, for many, was previously unavailable. It is crucial to track that information.
Web response forms can initiate customer service requests and document customer feedback. Additionally, any information provided to customers over the web reduces the workload for customer service representatives.
Utilizing online polls and surveys can often gather the information you need at a fraction of the cost of traditional mailings. The results come back rapidly enough to have a meaningful impact on decisions for your current marketing season.
Customers, particularly those online, are very sensitive to privacy issues. In order to create on-going relationships you must assure your customers that any information they give you will be kept confidential. Getting the customer’s permission to market to them is also very important. Always give them the opportunity to decline additional information or solicitations. This will create the kind of respect needed to generate a continuous, two-way information loop to help you target your customers more effectively.
USING THE INFORMATION
Once you have information on your customers, use it to your advantage. Using the right technology will enable all levels of your organization to access the real-time data they need to help manage customer relationships. This can be accomplished while staying within your budget.
Start by deciding what information will help you do your job more effectively. Some possibilities include:
• updated sales figures
• tracking program costs
• current market share data
Giving marketing managers access to the data they need will impact marketing strategy. It will give sales reps the competitive edge they need in the field. This requires real-time access. Developing customized, on-demand reports for your marketing managers and sales reps will enable them to access the information they need when they need it. This can be done via email or a secure Intranet.
If the same type of information is consistently needed, automated reports can be scheduled. Every time you automate a business function, you save time and money while delivering the information faster. Ultimately, this type of access to information will enhance your ability to positively impact customer relationships.
GIVING THE INFORMATION
The same online resources that empower your employees can be used to create relevant, personalized communications to your customers:
• automated e-mails with product updates or purchase confirmation
• personalized newsletters
• individual rebate status information
• customized Web site homepages
Traditional one-to-one relationship building techniques have proven themselves consistently. The application of these techniques can be expanded since using the Internet is both faster and cheaper. You now have the opportunity to have your customers reach you 24/7. Work to make that contact as relevant to your customers as possible. This type of automation, in the end, provides the customer with more personal service.
Automated functions will enhance traditional customer service, but they should not replace all of your "real people" functions. Sending an irate customer to a Web site for problem resolution will probably only aggravate them more. But combining traditional techniques with automation will allow you to offer exceptional customer service.
You can give your customer service reps access to historical customer data and a phone call log of previous communications in one central location. Make sure your customer service people know who your best customers are. Give those customers a separate phone number so they do not have to wait on hold. Find ways to integrate the information in your system and then act on it. This instills a sense of confidence in your customers and empowers your employees.
CURRENT & ACCURATE INFORMATION
Getting access to data is only valuable when the information is current and accurate. Last year’s sales figures will not give your marketing managers or sales reps much of a competitive edge.
It used to be that data would come from separate systems, and that you had to wait for it to be integrated before you could access it. Even then, usually only people using the same vendor-specific software could access the data.
Setting up an Intranet is one way to get to the most current information. Web browsers can access data from different systems and dynamically integrate it for you, and it is possible to do this with most existing systems. When report content is dynamically generated from the company source data, you can receive the most current information available. Making this information available over the web allows you to retrieve it from any location with an Internet connection. Of course, the appropriate security measures must be taken to ensure that sensitive information is properly safeguarded.
As for accurate information, direct marketer Gary Halbert stresses, "There is nothing more expensive in business (or life) than bad information." Knowing who your customers are and attending to details, like the correct spelling of names, delivers the message that your customers are important to you. Set out to achieve this.
Proactive data standardization and integration is crucial when working with real-time data because that information is available 24/7. There is technology available that allows you to interactively standardize and match addresses as they are being entered into your database. This method is actually easier and faster than traditional merge/purge processing.
The most accurate information will come from the customers themselves, so create ways for them to communicate with you. You can have a customer service section on your Web site where customers can submit name and address changes. Every direct mail piece you send should give people the opportunity to easily update their information. These are just a couple of examples of creating opportunities for communication, which will further establish your relationship with the customer.
MAKING IT WORK
Because a one-size-fits-all solution will rarely do the job, a thorough needs assessment in the beginning will save you from costly systems modifications later. Communication within your extended organization, including your IT vendor, is just as important as communication with your customer. Getting input from all users will result in the best systems.
One of the greatest benefits of automating functions is that it actually alleviates the demands on your IT department/vendor. Once automated functions are set up, you will no longer have to wait, or pay more, for the information you need to do your job. Because setting up these systems is cost-effective, you will actually be able to spend more of your budget on retaining your profitable customers. And in today’s market, retaining customer is what you need to positively impact your bottom line.AM
Barbara Hook is the president and Tony Dunn is the managing partner of Lynxx Solutions, Inc., in Newtown, Penn.