Technology can bring you closer to customers -- too close for some customers' comfort

Imagine you're sorting through your mail at home when you come across a postcard touting an upcoming sale at the store where you bought a shirt last week. That's funny, you think. You're sure you didn't give the clerk your address. So how did you end up on the store's mailing list? There's only one explanation: the store must have lifted your address from your credit card. You vow never again to shop at that store. (Too bad -- you liked the selection, and the service was great.)

Effective one-to-one relationship marketing, in which a company relies on a well-trained sales force backed by information technology to cater to the needs of each customer, can boost revenues dramatically. But there's a fine line between aggressive one-to-one relationship marketing and invasion of privacy. Bombarded by sales pitches of all sorts, many people are trying to stay out of the line of fire by keeping off the very sort of databases that are the core of successful one-to-one relationship marketing.

Companies that aren't careful about how they get and use customer information risk doing more harm than good. It's true, for example, that you can find out your customers' addresses through their credit-card numbers. The credit-card providers don't release the information, but there are independent companies that will, for a fee. And you really do need addresses so you can send out the customized mailings that are a cornerstone of a sound one-to-one marketing program. But siphoning addresses off credit cards? It's probably not worth the risk of angering customers. Of course, you can always just ask customers for their address when you write up a purchase. But by doing so you may trigger their fears of ending up in mailing-list hell.

Credit-card siphoning isn't the only way to offend customers' sense of privacy. Imagine that you drop into a store and mention to a friendly salesperson that you're looking for a gift for someone you're dating, unaware that some of the details are going to be typed into a database as soon as you walk out. Long after the relationship has soured, you stop by the store -- only to be greeted by an unfamiliar salesperson eagerly making suggestions for romantic gifts. Some customers get the creeps from the idea of a store's tracking even basic information, such as their birthday or waist size.

So what's a retailer to do? The solution isn't rocket science. It's just another application of the one-to-one marketing concept. Mostly what's called for is sensitivity to which customers are offended by what sorts of information gathering -- and careful records in your database noting those preferences. Salespeople should be trained to put customers at ease before asking for their address and to back off if a customer seems at all reticent. They should never wave even marginally intimate knowledge in the face of a customer unless they know the person well. As for customers who hate being tracked in any way, that information should be recorded, too.

Then again, rocket science -- or something close to it -- may be the answer. Customers are becoming increasingly comfortable interacting with computers -- perhaps more comfortable than talking to salespeople. I'm considering an information kiosk for my store that would encourage customers to type in personal data in return for information on what the store provides. Companies that set up on-line stores on the World Wide Web or elsewhere may find that on-line browsers readily supply all sorts of personal information in the course of their virtual shopping.

Who knows? Eventually, stores may have systems that recognize customers' handprints, voices, or even images. The systems would tap into vast on-line databases that would reveal everything from a person's name and address to his or her color preferences. But for now, the competitive edge goes to those of us who have learned to get the information without scaring off the customer.

Oh, one more thing. Don't you have an anniversary coming up?

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Blessed with a 31-inch waist, Stephen M. Silverman ( applies today's technology to the philosophy of selling he inherited from his father and grandfather.