From the December 2000 issue of Startups

Finding customers. Serving customers. Keeping customers. You know this song and dance, whether you're a dotcom or a brick-and-mortar. In fact, competition in cyberspace is as fierce as ever-it only takes one click to get to the next e-tailer. So finding customers isn't the main challenge-it's keeping them. Ellen Reid Smith, author of e-Loyalty: How To Keep Customers Coming Back To Your Website (HarperBusiness) and founder of Reid Smith and Associates, a Web marketing strategy firm in Austin, Texas, has a few pointers for you:

First impressions count. Think about the product and/or service you're selling, and paint a picture of your target customer. Then design your Web site around what is important to that group. Are they teenagers? Gourmet food connoisseurs? Soccer moms? "When they first come to the site, your target customers need to see themselves in your site-they need to see their products, their needs," says Reid Smith. The marketing methods you would use in a traditional setting still apply here: Do your research, and get to know your audience.

Be a problem-solver. Think about when you are the customer-do you only want to be shown a bunch of products, or would you rather be told how that product could solve one of your problems? Most people are moved by the latter. Don't overwhelm your Web site viewers with a bunch of products on the first page; you need to sell a solution to them. Whether you're peddling jewelry or public relations services, convince your buyers how you can make their lives easier. That way, "you're or-ganizing your company around customers rather than around products," says Reid Smith.

Reward the loyal. Don't let your best customers feel undervalued. You (hopefully) know who they are-the people who buy your stuff time and time again. Says Reid Smith, "30 percent of your customers could be [incurring] 70 percent of the sales." You want to entice that exceptional customer, not just the average one. Poll them to see what they would like to see on your site. Traditional research can sometimes be misleading-you'll learn what the average Joe wants, but not what the super-loyal Jane wants. "The value of keeping a loyal, high-value customer is so much larger in terms of profitability than a low-value customer," says Reid Smith.

Be at their service. Invest as much as you can afford in terms of customer service. If that means hiring more customer service reps or buying a better phone system to facilitate your customer calls, do it. "Scrimping on customer service is not the way to build loyal customers," says Reid Smith. Note: In order for your customers to come back, they have to have, at the bare minimum, decent service. But if you want them clamoring for more of your product or service, make sure their experience exceeds what your competitors offer.

Make it hard to leave. That doesn't mean a lengthy checkout process, of course; just a fabulous site-with the best product, service, price, fulfillment system or whatever-that makes defecting to another site unthinkable. Harness anything that can set you apart from the crowded Net marketplace. "[Make customers] realize that to leave this supplier or vendor or retailer or Web site, 'I'm going to have to give up XYZ to do it, and I'm not willing to give that up, therefore I'm going to stay,' " explains Reid Smith.

The most important thing to remember, though, is to create your customer loyalty program in the early stages of designing your Web site. "That's probably one of the biggest mistakes," warns Reid Smith. "Most people try to hire me once their site is already up, and I end up having to redesign the whole thing."


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