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Building relationships with e-customers

CHICAGO -- In kicking off his event chair address, Patrick Bultema, president of the Bultema Company, quoted Fortune magazine as saying, "Any company not moving to the Internet is on the verge of extinction." This set the tone for his address, where he explained how companies can build relationships with their online customer set.

"There is no such thing as e-customers," Bultema said. "E-customers are the same as regular people." He requested that audience members check their nearest neighbors for USB ports, which would signify that they were electronic, as opposed to strictly human.

"E-customers are just in a different space of interaction," Bultema said. "Customers are customers."

That said, the components of a successful e-customer service model were to identify e-customers, attract them, sell to them, personalize interactions with e-customers and provide them with ongoing service, Bultema said.

There is a move to creating an ongoing virtual dialogue with customers, he said. Customers, in the electronic space, are now also deciding when and how they will interact with companies, he said.

The vision of this virtual conversation is about people, process and technology, Bultema said, and the customer has a right to be known. Knowing the customer involves a personal interaction, where the service person knows your name and can pronounce it convincingly, he said. "The Internet never mispronounces your name," Bultema noted.

This knowledge and communication provides for a personal connection, which is the difference between an interaction and a conversation, he said.

Automating the customer is a bad idea, according to Bultema. "Again, I don't know where the probe is," he joked. There has to be that personal connection, and customers that try to cut through all the best "schemes" to reach a live human are often referred to as the "customers from hell," Bultema said. Yet these are really the "customers from heaven," as they are trying to increase the personal connection, he said.

Companies need to identify where the breaks are in the flow of the conversation between them and the customer, Bultema said. "If you want a successful customer relationship, you have to be brutal in hunting out disconnects," he said. After all, the competition is literally just a click away.

E-loyalty is possible, according to Bultema, and customers are often more loyal in e-relationships than traditional relationships with brick-and-mortar stores. One factor is that there is no geographical limit in e-relationships, he said.

"One of the other issues is the tension between privacy and personalization," Bultema said. A challenge presents itself when companies try to identify customers and personalize their experiences. "How much experience do you have to have with a customer before you say you know them?" Bultema asked, also wondering if companies should allow "anonymous" customers. He cited cookies and ID/password combinations as ways to personalize a site.

There is also the risk of credit card fraud, according to Bultema. He cited an experience he had purchasing a $500 item off the Internet. The company, since he had not purchased anything from them before, requested a faxed copy of his driver's license and credit card, which Bultema implied was obnoxious.

Yet another challenge is to unify the customer experience, and don't forget the phone, he said. "The phone is the safety net when all else fails," Bultema added.

Bultema's closing advice for building relationships is to first, know as much as possible about the customer, use technology as a tool for personalization, and pay attention to subtle messages, such as customer buying behavior and interests.

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