If you are not establishing systems and procedures to respond instantly and intelligently to Internet inquiries and orders, better make it one of your ’99 resolutions. And fast.
The Internet has already become the great medium of customer and prospect relationships, and Internet marketers who don’t realize this will be left in the dust. That’s why you need to move to electronic fulfillment, executed instantaneously if possible.
Electronic fulfillment can perform valuable functions that replace the need for paper-based fulfillment. These functions fall into several categories, listed here in order of what I call “relationship intensity.”
Just the simple act of immediately acknowledging an inquiry or order is a powerful and affirming communication technique. When a prospect or customer completes a web response form and presses the “send” button, an acknowledgment page can instantaneously appear in response with the simple phrase: “Thank you. We have received your inquiry and will process it immediately.”
In a marketing world that has become de-personalized and automated, this simple acknowledgment in direct response to an action is plenty reassuring. The impact of an Internet thank you should not be minimized.
But electronic fulfillment should go beyond simple acknowledgment, of course. Next comes confirmation of specific information.
For example, when you call a toll-free phone number and place an order from a catalog, you interact with another person. This individual not only takes your order, but confirms that order over the phone. He or she will typically repeat your credit card number, verify your name and address, confirm the items you just ordered, and tell you the total amount that will be charged to your credit card. You will also know, before you hang up, when you can expect to receive the items you ordered. Sometimes you will be given an order confirmation number as well.
This level of personal interaction is not yet possible via the Internet, although it is now very close. Look at the way such leaders as Amazon.com and ebay.com acknowledge and confirm transactions, and you’ll see where electronic fulfillment is headed. The customer still has a need to know that the order has been confirmed at a web storefront.
In fact, the need is greater, because there is no person-to-person voice contact — the order is being placed computer-to-computer.
Leading web-based sellers have nearly instant response systems. At the point of sale, for example, the customer is led through a question and answer process, entering necessary data along the way. At the end of this process, a built-in auto-responder feeds back all of the data at once, asking the customer to review it and make necessary changes before pushing that “Send” button one last time.
This is an important step in the confirmation process, because the customer is taking responsibility for the accuracy of the transaction.
The next confirmation contact point is typically an email to the customer re-stating the specifications of the order – now confirming that it was understood by the company, and completing the confirmation loop by sending it directly to the user’s mailbox. Confirmation at this stage is important for another reason — if the customer didn’t place the order, or the order is incorrect, the individual can still take action to correct it.
Finally, some Internet marketers take the confirmation process one step further, informing the customer that the order was shipped and when to expect its arrival. This step is obviously essential if there is a delay in the order. But it is just as useful and reassuring if the order is a normal shipment. Some marketers will include instructions for tracking the shipment at this stage, even offering links to the appropriate shipping company’s web site.
While I’ve used an order confirmation process as an example here, confirmation just as easily applies to an inquiry from a prospect. It is particularly useful in confirming a prospect’s attendance at a seminar, for example.
At its highest level of relationship intensity, electronic fulfillment functions as the channel for actual physical fulfillment. Using traditional media as an example, fulfillment of an inquiry is most often handled through a paper-based transaction. In some cases, an inquiry may be fulfilled via fax. But most often, the inquirer receives paper fulfillment, which may include a letter, data sheets and brochures, perhaps packaged in a folder, all enclosed in a large envelope, and mailed or sometimes delivered via a package delivery service.
Even if the inquiry goes through a two-step fulfillment process, the individual receives (at the very least) a mailing with some additional information and a reply device designed to further qualify that person’s interest. If the individual responds to this step, he or she will receive additional information — usually in paper form — from the marketer.
Whatever the marketer sends, there will be a time lag, unless the fulfillment is by fax only. That means a potentially hot prospect will continue to cool off as days or even weeks go by.
That’s why traditional fulfillment is one of the weak links of the marketing process for many business-to-business companies. While it may be unrealistic to convert the entire paper fulfillment process to electronic fulfillment, moving towards fulfillment over the Internet has to be an attractive long-term alternative.
And here’s a bonus. Like much of the Internet, electronic fulfillment is environmentally friendly! Traditional fulfillment is paper-based and labor-intensive. Electronic fulfillment, on the other hand, wastes neither trees nor ink.
It does not have to be produced in quantities of one, ten, fifty or one hundred thousand. It does not have to be cut, folded, stapled, and inserted into folders and envelopes. It does not burden your staff or postal workers. In short, it saves natural resources, time, and money.
Now printed literature can have a longer shelf life, because time-sensitive information can be just as easily conveyed electronically, on the web. Collateral materials can be mirrored electronically to leverage copy and artwork.
This extends far beyond the point of a casual convenience for prospects and customers. Electronic fulfillment is a desirable means of delivering information almost instantaneously — at a cost that is just too low to ignore.
Electronic fulfillment provides customers and prospects with a new kind of “instant gratification.” They can receive information instantly in an electronic form that can be viewed online, or printed out and saved. They can just as easily unlock or download information of high perceived value, or software that they can demo, try, and buy, right from the computer desktop.
Information can even be personalized to meet the individual’s specific needs and delivered free and on a regular basis to the individual’s computer. Based on more feedback, electronic fulfillment can be further tailored.
With the addition of intelligent or active “agents,” marketers have the ability to feed individualized information to web site visitors, based on the information visitors provide. For example, every time a prospect revisits a site, active agent technology recognizes the visitor, calls up the visitor’s profile, and guides the visitor to specific pages that would be of interest to him or her. Ultimately, targeted content can be delivered to each visitor to a site who is in the site’s database.
Using push technology, the visitor doesn’t even have to be online at the time. Active agent technology also allows the marketer to communicate with that person proactively and automatically, transmitting relevant information to them as it becomes available.
Electronic fulfillment thus becomes the beginning of a relationship. You can engage your prospect or customer in a dialogue which allows you to continuously learn more about the individual’s real needs. You can collect data from the prospect or customer by asking questions on electronic surveys and response forms and then turn it into actionable marketing intelligence. You can then use this intelligence to build a highly effective communication program, tailored to individual needs. Database-driven electronic fulfillment ultimately meets the informational needs of many individuals, one person at a time.
While you drastically reduce the costs and lag time of traditional fulfillment, you give customers or prospects what they want from you, instantly. You develop an on-going one-to-one relationship with the prospect or customer, learn more about that person’s specific needs, and reap the financial and time-savings benefits of electronic fulfillment.
Ain’t the Internet grand?