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In the '50s my father traded cars every year. And "trade" was an accurate description then. With a clean trade-in and around $800, he could drive off in a new Oldsmobile every fall.

The dealer would call when he got the car he knew met my father's criteria: a Dynamic 88 (not the more deluxe Super) with four doors, automatic transmission, power steering, blackwalls and a radio (options were truly optional then). In fact, he usually had another customer already lined up to buy my father's trade-in, since he knew it had received meticulous care and almost daily washings.

After a bit of requisite face-to-face haggling, the deal would be done. My father bought at least ten cars from this dealer, including a bubble-gum pink '57.

I suppose this was my earliest exposure to relationship marketing. It's ironic that the new hot trend in marketing is based on traditional business tactics: Know what your customers want, when they want it and the price they are willing to pay. Contact them when you have relevant information. Say hello once in a while but don't be a pest.

It's also ironic that a sophisticated communications tool like the Internet lends itself so well to the low-tech idea of personal contact. On the Internet you have the potential to reach anyone on the planet and build a one-to-one relationship as if you were in the corner store.

But potential is one thing, reality another. To establish a relationship with a customer, you need information about them. And before you can gather information, you need to build trust. Customers want to know that their transactions are secure and that the information they are providing won't be shared unless they give permission.

Most of all, they want something of value in exchange for their information. Make their ordering easier. Make routine tasks automatic. Provide an unexpected freebie once in a while.

I read in a New York Times article recently that Jeff Bezos, the chairman of, occasionally peruses his company's orders, picks a random shopper and gives them one item free. You've got to like a billionaire who hasn't lost that personal touch. Think like a customer, not a marketer. ("I won't spring for air conditioning, whitewalls and that 'electronic eye' gismo, but I might take that pink one off your hands if the price is right.")

We know it's more economical to keep an existing customer than to recruit a new one. But that doesn't mean all customers need equal amounts of attention. Treat your best customers best. Don't make them reintroduce themselves every time they visit. And don't pounce on them with questions the minute they step through the door.

In her book, Patricia Seybold advises "The appropriate time to ask a customer to fill in or update his profile is after you've built a trusted relationship with him, not before."

Once you've established a relationship, don't take your customers for granted. Give them the opportunity to change their minds (and their profiles) at any time. Let existing customers have first crack at a new service or beta version of a new feature, and they'll feel like part of the company.

And always provide a way to end the relationship. Leaving the door open a crack keeps the customer from feeling claustrophobic. I like it when an email newsletter I subscribe to always includes a way to unsubscribe. I don't feel trapped - I'm in this relationship because I want to be.

Finally, Seybold reminds us that although it's easy to automate many of the features that make a Web site "personal," real live people should be available to answer phone calls and e-mail. A perfect example happened while I was doing research for this article. I logged on to our company account with Forrester Research, and the next day the account manager called to introduce himself and let me know how to contact him if I needed to. Now there is a face, or at least a voice, on both sides of the relationship.

The Internet gives us opportunities to use technology to enhance human contact rather than replace it. Use relationship marketing to treat your Web customers like the unique individuals they are and, who knows, you might even sell a pink Oldsmobile or two. AM


Nancy Felice is a senior interactive copywriter with Colle & McVoy Interactive, Minneapolis.


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