First Word: One-to-one, past and present

Several years ago, the book, “The One-to-One Future,” by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, became required reading for those of us in the media business.

The book emphasizes business on a one-to-one basis in a world that has gravitated too much toward the mass marketing approach of selling goods and services. Today, fast, easy access to comprehensive data about our customers and prospects is a major factor in being able to target the audience who is most likely to do business with us. That is just a good start though. How you communicate with those customers once you have identified them is the key to future success.

Okay, enough marketing jargon; the real truth is, we are all in the business of sales, whether it is advertising sales, insurance, the local Wal-Mart or Home Depot, or, you guessed it, in the business of construction. We all have something to sell – primarily ourselves. Customers want to know how much you care before they care how much you know, and with that in mind, it is this direct, personal relationship with each customer that keeps them coming back for more.

Most of us would probably admit that it is repeat business that keeps us in business – those good customers who have grown to expect a first rate job and call you first when there is a new project in the works. This same business philosophy is found in many industries. The airlines today are focusing, not on winning new customers, but in getting their current customers to give them all of their business. They do so with many incentive programs, including liberal frequent flyer rewards (i.e. free tickets). The local dry cleaner now offers alterations, embroidery and free pick-up and delivery, and is absolutely killing the competition.

These are examples of differentiation, the newest term of the decade. The companies that practice differentiation make themselves different from the competition in the perception of their customers. When you complete a job on time, true to the initial specifications, within budget and avoid conflicts – or at least solve problems immediately and to the customer’s satisfaction – then you have just possibly earned a customer for life. That customer will not only tell others how great your company is, but they will have your number at the top of their list for every job they need. And the better the relationship develops, the less important your price becomes.

This philosophy, however, contrasts with the new approach to business that so-called cutting edge companies practice today. The Internet, on-line banking, catalog and toll-free shopping, all are designed to bypass dealing directly with people. High-tech business communications work all right, until there is a problem. And if you have ever been there, then you have experienced the frustrating exercise of dialing through the automating switchboard, just trying to find someone to talk to about your problem. It quickly takes all the joy right out of this new way of doing business.

“The One-to-One Future” could more appropriately be called the “One-to-One Past,” because what the book claims as the new model for successful businesses is pretty much the way companies did business 100 years ago. People want to know who you are, what you stand for, how strong your character is, whether you are willing to do the little extras to ensure their complete satisfaction, and if you are going to deal with them on a one-to-one basis, and not just as another job number.