October 12, 2007

The Customer Is In Control?

These days, you can't open up Google Reader without hearing somebody tell you that "The Customer Is In Control".

Folks write that our modern internet world changes the relationship between merchant, marketer and consumer. The consumer can read blogs, write blogs, add feedback on merchant sites, interact with CEO bloggers, compare prices, you name it. The customer uses "word-of-mouth" to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down of your brand.

Some go so far as to suggest that the customer co-design merchandise, or help create marketing campaigns.

For the catalog and online merchant, there is some element of truth in these proclamations.

However, I believe the role of the merchant is more important than ever before.

As an example, let's review elements of this blog.

Technically, we're a community of about 1,000 individuals with a shared interest in the intersection between direct marketing and database marketing.

The merchant (technically, that's me, you're buying my words, books, and services) must have a symbiotic relationship with the customer (technically, that's you).

As a merchant, I have to carefully listen to what you say, how you act. I have to pay attention to what you read, what you purchase.

But I should never "over-listen".

For instance, when I write an article about e-mail marketing, visits to the blog go sky-high. E-mail posts are easily the most popular of the topics I write about.

So if the customer is in control, I should spend a disproportionate amount of time writing about e-mail marketing, right?

Conversely, posts about Multichannel Forensics are among the least popular. If the customer is in control, I should spend less time writing about this topic, right?

And yet, 35% to 40% of my annual revenue will come from individuals who read articles about Multichannel Forensics on my blog, and then elect to have me work on a project for them.

If I let "my customers" have control, I would never have written a book on Multichannel Forensics, because my customers would never have asked me to write a book on a topic so different from mainstream database and multichannel marketing.

The role of the merchant in an e-commerce or catalog business has never been more important than it is today. The best merchants listen to their customers, even let the customers have a voice.

But at the end of the day, the merchant must make decisions about what to sell, how to price it, and how to present it. The merchant must innovate, listen, and give a steady diet of "what has always worked" ... all at the same time.

As we evolve further and further away from true merchandising, tying our future to the mechanical implementation of web-based algorithms, we need to remember to be more "artistic", more "creative". We need to listen to customers ... while we simultaneously innovate. The customer isn't truly in control. The customer does have a say, however, in a symbiotic relationship between brand and customer.