NETSENSE: How to use, not abuse, customer information gathered online

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Those of you in charge of your company's online marketing have probably seen your Web site evolve from the brochure model to the customer relationship and transaction phase.

This is natural. Many of the e-commerce and data-gathering technologies didn't even exist a few years ago when many of us built our first company sites.

With new functionality, though, comes new responsibility. A few years ago, perhaps all you collected was an e-mail address. Now you are gathering more information about your site visitors, prospects and customers. This information is valuable and often personal.

Managing and using this information wisely is your new challenge. Setting some guidelines for how this information will be handled could save you from serious problems later.

You might even consider setting a formal data use policy. The problem, though, is that when you try to set a policy in a corporate setting, you often end up spawning committees, meetings and legalese that bog down your Web efforts.

Information etiquette

Here's a set of guidelines for the collection and use of information gathered from users of your Web site.

  • First and foremost, if people are is nice enough to leave their e-mail addresses, do not reward them by spamming them. See my previous NetSense column ("Don't be a sneak: Make sure your e-mail subscribers really want to hear from you," July 1998, Page 29) on how to make proper use of e-mail addresses gathered at your site.

  • Any information a user leaves at your Web site must be considered confidential. Every bit of it. If you have any plans to use that data for any purpose other than internally, you owe it to your users to ask permission and tell them what that use will be.

  • Never rent or sell information or lists collected on your site unless your users have told you it's OK to do so. I once requested some information from a pool builder via its site and left my mailing address. About a month later, I started getting pool supply and other pool-related catalogs in my mailbox. The only conclusion I can come to is that the original company I contacted sold my name and mailing address. I was not told it would do this, and I didn't appreciate it.

  • Don't offer customer service responses through your Web site unless you are ready to handle the inquiries. Being ready for inquiries doesn't mean you have someone logging in once a day for a half-hour to check the inquiry in-box. It means having a staff member dedicated to the task full time, assigning urgency ratings to each message and funneling them to a person who can respond ASAP if the first staffer can't.

  • Your Web site is multinational and multicultural, whether you think it is or not. Don't make the mistake of thinking people only in your country will be looking at your site. How will you handle foreign-language requests if you get them?

  • The end of the sale is the start of a longer relationship. If people bought from your site, did you check with them to see if they were happy with the purchase? Just because they didn't come back to the site to complain doesn't mean everything was rosy. Most unhappy customers don't complain, they vanish, never coming back to your site again. Don't let that happen.

    After 30 days, a single e-mail asking if the experience or product was all they hoped it would be is the least you should be doing. I don't mean a lengthy questionnaire; a simple "Is everything OK?" will suffice. And have processes in place for any response you might get. Finding out a customer is angry is pointless unless you can act on the complaints.

  • Don't kill prospective deals with good intentions. Once, after I had inquired about a product online, I was sent an e-mail thank-you that included a 25-question survey. The e-mail said something like, "Help us to help you by answering a few questions." Twenty-five questions is not "a few." In fact, even five questions would have been too many. If I spent a total of five minutes at your site making an inquiry, why would I spend an hour filling out your survey?

    If you want a survey completed, invite people to your site to do it. Don't pollute their in-boxes with it.

    One often-ignored aspect of Web-based direct marketing is this: With offline direct marketing, you target the prospect; on the Web, the prospect targets you. For the most part, prospective customers come to you first, no matter what prompted them to go to your site. From that point forward, it's up to you to manage the relationship.

    Eric Ward is a consultant, speaker and writer who launched the Web's first awareness-building service for Web sites in 1994. Reach him at

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