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It's the Online Age: Do You Know Where Your Customer Is?

It's the Online Age: Do You Know Where Your Customer Is?

The customer is getting a lot of press these days -- customer service, customer intimacy and customer relationship management -- to name a few. In fact, if a company isn't using the word customer in its message it's downright behind the times. However, there's a major difference between customer service and customer intimacy, and until business realises that difference many organisations will fail to move from traditional methods to the new Internet economy. As an example, I cite a personal experience with traditional and Internet business models. All my family likes to read. As a result, we buy a significant number of books. We are also an eclectic bunch. While both my husband and I like thrillers, he likes mysteries (I don't); I like biographies (he doesn't). We like Patricia Cornwell, James Elroy, Stephen King (sometimes less than more, but always buy his latest nonetheless), John Stanford, James Lee Burke, Jonathan Kellerman, Tom Wolfe, Sue Grafton. We buy books on gardening, travel and cooking. We also like compendiums such a Halliwell's movie guide -- mostly to settle heated household debates on things like what year a movie was made -- and Virgin's History of rock and roll. What we don't buy, now that our boys our adults, are children's books.

There's a small, but good bookstore near us and we usually drop in every three to four weeks or so. It's not unusual for us to spend upwards of $200 each time we're there. I'd say that makes us pretty good customers. In the customer service area, the sales staff are moderately polite and moderately helpful: I give them a solid "C".

However, here's the rub: they don't know us. By that I don't mean that they don't know our names (which they don't). I mean they haven't "captured" any information about us or about what we buy. An extremely accurate profile of the Kennedy household (and spending habits) could be compiled with a computer and appropriate software. The bookstore manager has never communicated with me or my husband regarding the arrival of a just released book by one of our favourite authors, offered us an incentive to buy more books or mailed us about an event that might bring us into the store.

Some time before Christmas a book was recommended to me on religion, A History of God: The 4000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong. I didn't find it at the bookstore, nor at a couple others. I figured this was a good time to try amazon.com. If you've ever ordered a book through amazon, then you know it's an easy process. I had an acknowledgement of my order (along with a nice thank you for your business), a receipt and ETA of delivery within eight hours. It may have been faster, but I ordered the book late at night before going to bed.

When there was a slight delay in delivery, amazon kept me posted (with apologies). All in all, it was a painless, if slightly expensive (thanks to shipping costs and the weak Aussie dollar), experience. Subsequent to the book's delivery, I've received pleasant e-mails periodically from amazon with information about other books I might be interested in. I'm not barraged by messages and they always offer me the opportunity to decline further communication. But, here's the rub: they don't know me. I've only ordered the one book and it's about religion so I keep getting messages offering me other books by Armstrong or on similar themes. Amazon doesn't know my eclectic tastes. The point to all this? Well, there's actually more than one. My semi-friendly neighbourhood bookstore could be cashing in on information about me, and not just themselves. For example, I'm sure travel agencies would love to have the information on our travel book buys. That's customer relationship management On the other hand, Amazon has a one-dimensional profile of me and is trying to get me to buy books I'm really not interested in based on a single purchase. Also, buying books through amazon costs me a bit more and when I want a book, I want it now -- the idea of waiting for three weeks for James Lee Burke's latest doesn't appeal to me in the least. However, I believe that at some point amazon, or a similar online bookseller, will be able to deliver books to my door more cheaply and faster. When they do, the money I spend at my local bookstore will all but vanish because they haven't cared about me as a customer. That's poor customer service. And the new company will reap the benefits of customer relationship management.

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