Is the computer killing our customer relationships?

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In our lifetime, there has been no technological advancement that’s made our business life more efficient than the computer. Our record-keeping is streamlined. Our access to knowledge is unparalleled. Our communication accelerated. Our responses to inquiries can be automated. We can even be “open” around the clock and don’t need an employee manning the counter of our 24/7 store.

But there’s also a problem, as I see it. The computer can become a help or a barrier to building the kind of relationships with our customers that can ensure the future of our dealerships.

Put another way: customer loyalty doesn’t come through cyberspace and we might be failing to recognize this.

That’s because we’ve become dependent on computers. Think about it: How many hours a day do you spend with the computer? Probably more than you realize. After all, how do we most often reach our customers today? We send emails, computerized newsletters, posts on Facebook, Tweets and so on. Likely, we spend far too much time parked in front of the screen instead of in front of the customers. In a very real way, the computer is a wall between us and our customers.

We talk a lot these days about how important it is to develop a personal relationship with our customers. Marketing experts often tell us the computer is very helpful in that. I don’t mean to imply it’s not.

However, when we become so computerized and automated in relating with our customers that we no longer seek voice-to-voice and face-to-face interactions, hasn’t the computer become a block?

If we don’t purpose to avoid it, the computer can trap us. Today, we handle the majority of product information and education, as well as a lot of the sales and service process, without actually talking to a human being. We think we’re building a personal relationship with our customers so we keep doing it but, in reality, the customers don’t feel any sense of relationship. Indeed, they might even feel disconnected.

How many times do we go through a day never seeing (face-to-face) or talking (phone) with customers? If the honest answer is “quite often,” it’s time to push back from the desk and go talk. Long-standing customer loyalty is built on communication – interpersonal contact.

Making it a point to talk to customers should be a priority. For one thing, it lets them know you want a continuing relationship. For another, it shows you care about what they care about. And it’s the surefire way to determine with certainty that your dealership team is producing the results the customers want.

Don’t actually see your customers very often? No problem. Sending them an email has limited value, so how about giving them an occasional call? Some management experts recommend calling three to five customers a day simply to stay in touch and see if there’s anything you can be doing to make their boat or boating better.

And, for the very best customers, a periodic lunch can be a power move. Obviously, if your customers are around, such as at your marina, getting out on the docks when they are there and pressing the flesh will beat an email or a Tweet every time. Whenever possible, the “personal touch” should be job No. 1.


Maine Boatbuilders Show opens tomorrow

In its second year in a new location, the Maine Boatbuilders Show opens tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Portland Sports Complex. Sail and powerboats, plus engines and accessories will all be on display.