TLC and the WWW

Doing business online doesn't have to mean an end to the human touch, nor should it

By Karen E. Klein

Businesses with Internet operations face special challenges when it comes to customer care. Let's face it: A blinking computer screen, no matter how bright and busy, is a poor substitute for a cashier's cheerful smile or a business owner's reassuring handshake. So, how can you retain existing customers even though your online business cannot deliver the visual and physical clues that let traditional shoppers know they are your company's VIPs?

Here are some thoughts from the Better Business Bureau:

Forge a customer bond. Since you are not likely to actually meet most of your online customers face-to-face, you need to find alternate ways to build bonds with them. Some online merchants circulate regular monthly or quarterly newsletters to keep in touch with customers. The best of these are more than just electronic marketing brochures - they strive to create a personal relationship with customers. The point is not pushing new marketing campaigns, but asking how you can help the customer connect – and remain connected -- with your business.

Always say "thank you." Most online shoppers know that they will get an e-mail acknowledgement of their order. But few get follow-up e-mails, after delivery, thanking them for their patronage. This second e-mail can not only deliver your thanks, but can also ask the customer to let you know if he or she has experienced any problems or has any suggestions to make their next shopping experience better.

Reward loyalty. Companies in the travel industry recognize and encourage customers loyalty with frequent flyer programs. You can do the same by giving your better customers advance notice of sales or special sale prices available only to them. Offering points that repeat customers can earn and put toward discounts or gifts also is a possibility.

Do not get too creative. Since your Web site is your storefront, your regular customers become familiar with the way it works and is laid out. Changing it can be unsettling for your regulars -- so make sure you don't shake things up just for the sake of change. Unless the changes really enhance the ease of the customer's shopping experience, you may frustrate and annoy them.

Reward referrals. Among the best new customers (and the least expensive to acquire) are those referred by existing customers. Find a way to reward existing contacts who send new business in your direction.

Solicit problems. A good customer may need one unsatisfactory experience to become a former customer. Don't for a customer to tell of a problem. Actively seek out problems and suggestions, and provide ways to let you know how you and your employees could have done a better job.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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