By, Leah Cunningham
No one can argue that the Internet has us exponentially more "connected" as a society than at any other time in our history. Information is shared and transactions are conducted with a reach and efficiency that we could not even begin to approach through any other traditional channel. Although the commercial implications of this expanded connectivity are far reaching, one thing we need to ask ourselves is what is the cost to our sense of community and our personal connection with those with whom we do business?
Bringing the Internet back to the community
The Internet-based companies that effectively rise from the ashes will be the ones that have learned to respect and emulate the rules of traditional business. Even global companies and pure e-commerce companies need community presence and participation. A crucial element of building or maintaining a positive brand image is through human contact and exceptional service
Personal service, the missing element
As we have discussed in past articles, one of the major drawbacks of Internet technology is the commodity affect it has on business. While the leveled playing field has provided a major advantage for smaller or lesser-known businesses, the standardization of the medium has left companies searching for new ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. This is why you notice that most pure online presences are very commodity-based, such as the travel industry, which has done well with bargain airline ticket selling, but not so well with higher-end or more customized travel planning.
Four immediate rewards of humanizing your Internet presence
Local partnerships are the key
Customers are inherently more likely to place their trust in a company if they can match a face or a voice with the name. They are more confident that if there are problems or questions about their purchase, there is a specific person they can turn to and/or hold accountable for making things right.
Unless you want to be constantly competing on price on the treadmill of commodity selling, you must differentiate through the added "human touch". An actual sales person can communicate directly with a prospective customer, reading body- language, overcoming hidden objections, and appreciating the subtlety of the delicate selling process. No technology in the world will ever replace the instinct of a good sales representative.
Once trust and differentiation have been established, the inevitable result is a higher real and perceived value of your product and/or service. The minute this sense of added value has been established, you can remove yourself quite effectively from the commodity-selling trap.
Higher end purchasing
OK, now that you have proven you offer more value than your competition and have a unique offering, you can raise the bar on your transactions. Not only can you raise your prices, but you can gradually add in higher ticket items and services that require a more sophisticated custom-selling process.
Let's revisit the travel industry example from earlier. It's no secret that travel has been a major player in the online space. It's also no secret that this industry has fallen headlong into the commodity crisis.
On a recent Today Show interview, travel expert Peter Greenberg commented:
" Surprisingly, 2002 will see a major shift back to the future: Travel agents will become much more important in the flow of information. Americans are now more determined to get up to date information; some are nearly desperate for it in the wake of the events of Sept. 11 and travel agents who specialize in a particular destination or experience will be sought after for their information as much as for the deals they might offer...."
Some companies are ahead of the curve with this strategy. A great example is travel site www.webeenthere.com This site houses a network of highly screened and qualified travel agents that are specifically trained in one geographic location or type of travel experience. This small group of full service agents are making the best of both worlds. They provide the high-end sales support of a traditional travel agency as well as taking advantage of the same reach, efficiency and purchasing power of those commodity online ticket brokers. The result is simultaneous higher value and lower cost for the customer, along with the trust and relationship of the personal selling experience. This is an excellent win-win marketing model that any company can modify to make their online presence more personal and more profitable.