For the Week of February 21, 2005
The big e-commerce innovation of our time is people.
By that I mean that it's in getting the people selling the goods in touch with those who want to buy that counts more than anything.
In a small business this is fairly easy to implement. When people come to the shop you try and get them on your e-mail list. You broadcast to that list only when you have something to say. But you still display your e-mail address prominently, and when someone writes in, you write back immediately, personally, or just pick up the phone and help them.
When it works it's golden. My wife and I don't usually go out Valentine's Day, but this year we did, because a restaurant we've been to had us on their list, and sent us a note advertising a special. We talked it over and I made the reservation.
These rules are very simple yet they are still ignored by 99.9% of small businesses. Our family can't reach its doctors via e-mail, or our pharmacist. Most businesspeople are scared to write, scared to put an e-mail address out, and they don't check their mailboxes as they should. If they would just think of an e-mail in the inbox as a customer at their check-out they might get the message. That person who wrote wants to give you money - write back and take it.
In a larger business, putting people together becomes, first, a system integration problem, and second a problem of training. Both can be solved.
Here's an example.
Want to know why Lowe's is doing so well against Home Depot these days? The answer lies in a button.
Each Lowe's department has a pedestal, and each pedestal has a red button on it. When a customer can't find what they're looking for they press the button. An announcement comes over the store's sound system, telling that department someone wants help.
By contrast, customers at Home Depot have to do the "Home Depot shuffle," anxiously looking around, poking their way down aisles in search of orange aprons, and, usually, buttonholing the wrong person. Or they stand around impatiently and don't get what they need.
How does this relate to the Web? The problem is putting people in touch with workers who know something. The best customers are contractors. Each Home Depot store should have its own in-store phone number and e-mail address, which it shares with its own contractor list, along with an employee standing by to answer calls as soon as they come in. It doesn't matter whether the customers want to call, text message, or e-mail. If you can develop a relationship between the day shift and the contractor, so that contractor has his order waiting for him, he can save an hour or more of real work. This pleases his customer, and will do more to secure regular trade than a big discount.
Most big stores now have e-commerce sites. Many deliver from their own local trucks, or connect the sites to local inventory lists. This kind of e-marketing just requires computers and procedures. It's linking computers to people that remains the challenge.
Extending personal service from the best customers to all customers in a big store is not easy. Retail customers don't know what they want as well as corporate accounts do. It's inefficient to give them the time of highly-trained experts. They're going to have to make do with the regular floor staff. So copy the Lowe's button. Even if the phone call, or e-mail exchange, doesn't work, you can at least convince them to come in and have someone waiting for them. If you're going to advertise "we can help," be ready to help.
This same trick applies in other "big box" retail environments as well. Many stores, like Best Buy, have become pretty good at having goods available for pick-up from Web orders. The next step, as with Best Buy's "geek squad," are installers who offer personal answers to personal questions. If someone has a relationship with the floor staff before they come in, so that the staff knows what to show and knows the customer's name, the chances of making a sale on that visit grow dramatically. The best way to do that is for each store to build its own e-mail list of "regulars," and to get two-way communication going with that list.
It doesn't take a database to "know the customer." It takes a relationship. The time has come for all stores, both small and large, to use electronics for what they were meant for, relationship marketing.
In partnership with ZDNet, I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout, a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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