The Net result: relationships with customers

It's true that your Internet-equipped customers have more information, more choice and more power and that they can jump to a competitor's Web site with the click of a mouse. But it's also true that you can use the Net to build much deeper relationships with your customers than has ever been possible..

Chances are good you have a relationship with Amazon.com Inc. The company has invested in customizing an environment for you. You've invested in educating it about you, your shipping preferences and your interests.

In the interactive world, Amazon can get to know you, educate you and deliver value-added services on a personal basis. It can e-mail you when a new book fits your personal profile. The relationship is mutual: You create value for the seller and for other participants by contributing your views. You can establish a personal profile that includes a gift registry.

The more time and effort you invest, the more personal the bookstore becomes. You build loyalty to this company, not just because of the services it provides, but because of the effort required to re-educate another company about you. For both buyer and seller, this networked relationship constitutes capital.

Amazon.com can seek a greater share of your disposable income by cross-selling new products and services. This year, it scored 84 out of 100 on the American Customer Satisfaction Survey the highest score ever recorded for a service company in any industry. Because of this, Amazon is one of the most successful brands in the world. The retailer this year will serve 25 million customers and enjoy revenue of more than US$3 billion, and it's on its way to profitability.

The wealth embedded in customer relationships is becoming more important than the capital contained in land, buildings and even big bank accounts. Relationships are now assets. This relationship capital accumulates and provides a new foundation for marketing and sales revenue. A firm's ability to engage customers, suppliers and other partners in mutually beneficial value exchanges determines its relationship capital.

Think your company's product or service doesn't allow an Amazon.com-like relationship? Think again. As the Net expands in ubiquity, functionality and bandwidth, the opportunities to establish deeper relationships continue to grow.

Volkswagen AG operates www.radiovw.com, an Internet radio station that streams the catchy tunes VW uses in its hip television commercials. It also offers other tunes that were considered for use in the commercials but didn't make the final cut. Like a tune and want to buy the CD? Drop by your local VW dealer and pick it up. The VW Web site offers a host of features that have nothing to do with running a vehicle. The intent is to deepen customers' belief that VW understands their values.

The customer-facing aspects of relationship capital require a profound rethinking of marketing. For the first time, companies can forge two-way, interactive, personalized relationships with all customers on a mass scale. While the virtue of deep relationships was always self-evident in theory, it was rarely practical before the Net.

Don Tapscott is chairman of Itemus Inc. (www.itemus.com) and co-author of Digital Capital (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

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