December 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

Reaching out to shoppers can move them to reach for their wallets

As more consumers embrace online shopping, building relationships with them could be the key to Internet retailers standing out in the crowd. One study finds that almost half of online shoppers would be more likely to buy if offered assistance up front.

As more consumers embrace online shopping, building relationships with them could be the key to e-retailers standing out in the crowd. And relationship-building requires increased interaction between seller and buyer, many experts believe.

For example, a report sponsored by Talisma Corp. and based on research conducted by JupiterResearch LLC in September showed that consumers are open to preemptive offers of assistance. The report said 42% of online shoppers agreed they would find a proactive offer for live chat assistance useful, and 47% said they would be more likely to buy if offered upfront customer service regarding a product issue.

The report, titled “Proactive Customer Service-Strategies to Satisfy Customers and Drive Sales,” notes that many e-commerce sites have left business on the table because of shoddy customer service. For instance, 42% of 1,179 online consumers surveyed have left a site without purchasing multiple products because they couldn’t get a question answered about one of the products in their shopping cart; 41% decided not to make a planned purchase because they couldn’t readily find a piece of information about the product or service; and 33% have not made a planned purchase from an online store because they couldn’t find the links to contact customer service.

Customer relationships might be the only area left in which retailers can truly separate themselves from their competitors, says Steve Yastrow, a former marketing executive with Hyatt Hotels and now a marketing consultant and author specializing in customer relationship-building.

“Your brand isn’t what you promise; it’s what the customer thinks about your business. In virtually all product categories, consumers believe most products are interchangeable,” Yastrow says. It’s the same with service, because anything one retailer does can be copied. Relationships with customers are the differentiator, he contends, because if consumers can get the same product from several sources, they will buy from the one where there is a relationship.

“Retailers need to believe that customer relationships are not only a true competitive advantage but also an economic engine, and they will unleash latent profit within each customer,” Yastrow says. “If the relationship is strong in the customer’s mind they will give you a disproportionate share of their business.”

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