A few decades ago, in the early days of automatic banking terminals, the management at Citibank made a somewhat reluctant decision to introduce automatic tellers.
They were anxious to cut costs, but they assumed that customers would rather deal with human tellers, had they the choice. Therefore, they compromised and reserved human tellers for people with more than $5,000 in their accounts. Depositors who weren't in such a fortunate position were relegated to the machines.
It soon became clear, though , that the machines were wildly unpopular. Citibank stopped using them a year or two later.
“Well, " thought the bankers, “we were right all along. People just won't get used to dealing with machines. " It seemed as if one of the most promising inventions of the time would be laid to rest for good.
Fortunately for everybody (except perhaps for Citibank), an executive from a rival bank tried to put himself into the collective shoes of bank clients.
His gut feeling was that small depositors felt comfortable enough with the machines. They had just resented being treated as second-class customers. He introduced automatic tellers in his own bank - but without “class distinctions. "
The rest is history. Even at Citibank, machine transactions are long taken for granted.
“Never assume!" I was chided by my teachers during my school days. “It makes an ass out of you and an ass out of me!"
But I often wonder when I think of this story - would the big brass at Citibank have made the same mistake had the clock moved forward a number of years and had they been publishing an email newsletter?
Today, it seems inconceivable that a large and prestigious company like Citibank could be so out of touch with the thinking of its clientele. In the best business circles, the importance of solid, open lines of communication between producers of goods and services and their consumers has long been established.
This is the age of the “Learning Relationship. "
This, say personalization experts, the Pepper and Rodgers Group, is “a relationship between an enterprise and an individual customer that, through regular feedback from the customer, enables the enterprise to become smarter and smarter with respect to the customer's individual needs. "
In the brick-and-mortar world, it's no particular big deal for the owner of your favorite corner hardware store to establish productive learning relationship with you, as one of his regular customers. Obviously, the more face-to-face contact he has with you, the easier this will be.
On the Internet, however, we somehow tend to associate this concept with giant e-commerce enterprises sporting sophisticated store fronts and advanced technological capabilities - which enable them to anticipate our specialized needs with greater accuracy every time we log on to their sites.
But what about the small business owners with very limited resources? Are they forced out of the picture?
Let's say you're a small virtual company carrying a very limited range of durable products in a niche market.
You know that existing customers are like gold, but what you don't know is what kind of new products would appeal to them. Alternatively, you may be a professional, even a brick-and- mortar one - say, an accountant - and you're swept off your feet during the tax season, but you hear far too little from your clients throughout the rest of the year!
The ideal tool
In all such cases, there's no better tool than email for implementing the principle of the Learning Relationship, for putting yourself, so to speak, into the shoes of your target community, for gauging their needs, assessing what will work and what won't - and finally, for promoting the fruits of your efforts to the very people who inspired them.
How many companies, even those who publish newsletters on a regular basis, are really making use of this opportunity?
We hear so much about the value of email publishing for driving people to websites, for public relations, for advertising your existing products. If you're a business coach, for example, you may be making good use of your newsletter to let your clients know about your upcoming seminars and teleclasses.
But if the level of interest in your seminars isn't yet what you'd like it to be, do you really know why?
If it's just a matter of inconvenient times and locations, it may be easy enough to find out. But perhaps your community is craving for a change of topics or emphasis, or it prefers audiotapes, or private counseling? Whatever your business may be, do you know what your market really wants?
So let's get to the bottom line: in practice, how can your newsletter help to find answers to your questions?
Granted, it's not always easy. Human nature being what it is, a straight appeal to your readers to tell you what you want to know - even if you explain that it's in their own interest - may meet with little response. They may feel that they've subscribed to receive information from YOU, not the other way round!
Offering tangible incentives is one way of getting round this problem. But even if it doesn't affect the accuracy of the information gathered, it may not be necessary. Moreover, you can achieve your objective without compromising your readers’ perception of your publication as a carrier of valuable content.
Go to the drawing board and design the product or service you'd like to offer. Write up an article describing its features and benefits, analyzing its strengths and shortcomings, comparing it to other products that meet similar needs and explaining as objectively as possible how it differs from them. Perhaps you can even weave all this into a larger article dealing with a more general topic.
Ask your readers what they think about the idea, whether they see it as making a differences to their lives. Provoke as much discussion as possible. Offer to publish the best responses. More than likely, they WILL respond.
With creativity and practice, you'll come up with many variations on this theme.
Remember: in-depth insight into your customers’ (or subscribers'!) needs is the first and most basic prerequisite to maintaining their loyalty in the long term.
Azriel Winnett is creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal . This popular free website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.