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Viewpoint -- Coming To A Dot-Com Near You. . .A Real Live Person

Stung by lost business, Web firms are providing more resources to customer relationship management.

The 1980s were about globalization. The 1990s were a search for forms of persuasion more subtle than old-style advertising. And the marketing mantra for 2000 is the art of building customer relationships. Indeed, "CRM," which stands for customer relationship management, has become the buzz word du jour. It's especially critical for Internet marketers who've lost customers for failing to deliver after they've driven traffic to their site. The rule of thumb in marketing is that it costs five to six times as much to attract a new customer as to retain one already in the fold. Failing to hold on to prospects a Web site has attracted is like throwing money out the window. Newly enlightened marketers are bustling to create standards and seals of approval. Several have offered "live person" intercession. Within a few months's client roster more than doubled to over 1,000 companies offering its brand of click-through help. "Just around 4% of American homes have a second telephone line so calling an 800 number meant signing off the Internet . . . this is considerably more efficient," says Robert LoCascio, the company's CEO. It's also cheaper, because "operators" who could only handle one phone call at a time, now can do four instant messenger or typed conversations simultaneously, he says. Companies that sell over the Web must invest in call centers to succeed, says Gartner Group director Fred Landis. American customers rate salesworkers the most important factor in their buying decision, according to a survey by the Stamford, Conn.-based Internet consulting company. "On the Internet, the call center may be the only place where the customer comes into contact with a company representative," says Landis. Studies show that people shop the Web for convenience, price, and variety but they fear giving out credit card information and often want to see a product before buying it. According to Harris Interactive, 92% of Internet users are uncomfortable sharing personal information with a Web site, and 88% are concerned that information was being used to send them other data. More than three out of four worry their credit card information would be passed on without their permission. Yet companies are still guilty of major lapses. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study found 67% of sites surveyed didn't have a clear way to find security disclosures on their site. Twenty-one percent of sites had no security policy disclosures, or were so scattered and hard to find that they were not helpful. Almost nine of every 10 sites were explicit about how to set up an account initially, but one-third did not inform customers how to get back into their account if they lost or forgot their password, says PricewaterhouseCoopers. More than half of companies--55%--failed to recommend a minimum password length, and 57% didn't suggest more secure password techniques to protect information -- niceties that would have been easy to implement. More than 75% of sites did not disclose whether inactivity lockout was enforced on their site or if the account would be deactivated after a number of failed login attempts. Almost two-thirds of sites did not explain to consumers how to determine whether they are on a secure site and to whom the site belongs before they transmit sensitive financial and personal data. Twenty-three percent did not inform customers whether transmitted confidential information was encrypted to ensure data security and confidentiality. This despite the fact over 90% of companies are already using the highest levels of security commercially used. Only three-fourths of companies inform their customers. Other offenses are more glaring. Analyst Meredith Hickman of Celent Communications, a research and consulting firm in Boston, notes many financial services companies are not responding to customer e-mail inquiries. Fifty-six percent either don't answer them at all or fail to answer them in timely fashion. But poor service may not be the only reason many sites do not attract repeat visits or convert visitors into customers. Web-usability guru Jakob Nielsen randomly surveyed 500 Web sites and found a huge number of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and poor writing. Bernice Kanner writes about advertising and marketing from her base in New York and is the author of The 100 Best TV Commercials...and Why They Worked (1999, Times Books).

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