Can E-commerce Sites Create Personalized Customer Relationships?


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Can e-commerce sites create personalized customer relationships? As a customer loyalty thought-leader, my answer is always, emphatically, “yes”. Unfortunately, most e-commerce sites are missing a human component and fail to make that critical personal connection.

The strongest loyalty or bond is between two people and not a brand or retailer.  Of course, there are exceptions to any rule and customers align themselves to companies like Zappos, Apple and Amazon.  But remember those companies are known for their customer service and their representatives are trained and empowered to provide a positive customer experience. However, for the typical business and its e-commerce site, the way to generate long-term loyalty and repeat business is to structure person-to-person service; Mary to John, Sally to Jose, Henry to George. It’s about creating and building personal relationships.

The best example I use is the e-commerce site of Mitchells Family of Stores.  Mitchells has replicated their person-to-person philosophy on their e-commerce site.

Jack Mitchell is CEO and author of Hug Your Customers and Hug Your People.   Jack’s motto is, “it’s more important for sales associates to know their customers than to know their inventory”.  Jack says anyone can help you with merchandise, but it’s the salesperson’s responsibility to learn as much as they can about the customer personally.  Mitchells is a large and successful retailer whose customers return again and again.

When Mitchells’ Executive Team wanted to implement an e-commerce channel, Jack put his foot on the brake. E-commerce is impersonal. How can we hug our customers in an online environment?  The solution was simple: allow on-line users to select and email specific people, complete with a photo and profile, when they had an inquiry regarding a potential purchase. When you click on the site, the customer finds a gallery of sales representative’s photos complete with information about how long the person has been working for Mitchells, their fashion sense and favorite designers.  It’s easy for a current or prospective customer to communicate directly with a person, a real person who has a real name. This puts the customer in control, helps to establish a relationship and sets the stage for generating a lifetime of revenues. Jack understands what I also learned from my dad long ago – the value of a relationship with one person to another.

Any e-commerce site that is 100 percent self-serve will not serve your business well. Replicate the person-to-person strategy as Jack did for his business. For customer service departments that support e-commerce, assign specific customers their own representatives. Segment your department into small teams so that even if the assigned representative is not available, someone else on the team can still provide that on-one-on approach.

There is a war going on and you want your business to survive and thrive.  E-commerce must replicate the personalized approach that keeps customers returning to their local coffee shop because Mary or Alex greets them everyday with a big hello, knows their name, what they like, and says, “Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

I’m afraid that with the onset of chatbots, voice shopping and augmented reality, businesses will lose sight of what drives their success:  the customer. Customers have names, associates have names; everyone is a person. Match the appropriate customer with the right associate. It’s a win-win situation for your business. I don’t want to hear that e-commerce sites cannot be used to create personalized relationships. I guarantee it can work.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Richard Shapiro
Richard R. Shapiro is Founder and President of The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR) and a leading authority in the area of customer satisfaction and loyalty. For 28 years, Richard has spearheaded the research conducted with thousands of customers from Fortune 100 and 500 companies compiling the ingredients of customer loyalty and what drives repeat business. His first book was The Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business and The Endangered Customer: 8 Steps to Guarantee Repeat Business was released February, 2016.


  1. We need more great stories like this! Too often technology trumps relationships. Smart organizations are finding ways to connect e-commerce with traditional commerce. My own example is Corley Heating and Air in Spartanburg, SC. You can watch videos on their website of employees telling stories about their experiences with customers . They send an email with photos of the folks who will assist you–the dispatcher, the CSR, the plumber–and when you click on their photos in the email, you learn their backgrounds. The day after the home visit, you get an email from the folks who assisted (with photos) thanking you and seeking your feedback. They find ways to “sprinkle” customers–like a balloon and card at Valentines. Another example is that has humanized the online experience. It starts with making the emotional connection matters “more than the inventory.”

  2. The way Mitchell’s e-commerce site is used makes it possible to maintain and even bolster that person-to-person relationship. The larger the organization, the more difficult it can be to implement this concept and do it well. This is definitely a challenge worth conquering.

  3. Mitchell’s is a great example of proactive evolution, having the vision and focus to stay ahead of the curve on consumer relationship wants and needs before they overtake the company. The big stage for this transformation is with with banks and finservs. Personalized electronic relationship is a Holy Grail for many in the financial industry, i.e. the ability to create and sustain human-like conversations and relationships with customers when the only interaction they have is through an app. A lot of banks have yet to figure this out, so some former leaders are finding themselves behind the curve.. Blending the electronic and mobile with the human and emotional will be an ongoing challenge in many industries, not just retail and financial services.

  4. Mitchell’s makes a good case for extending the personal attention that was available in retail’s yesteryear into the data-intensive, algorithm-driven, software-dependent, stone-cold impersonal world of e-commerce. Oh, how good things used to be!

    The question is, how many people – I mean spenders – wistfully recall that nostalgia? Or even care? That would be interesting to explore, now that we know that digital natives have different CX preferences than non-natives. Further, has Mitchell’s been profitable through this program? How has the company performed revenue-wise against other e-commerce sites? I certainly like the initiative of assigning a person to hand-hold every customer who wants hand-holding, but I am unclear whether that’s a good business move, especially if revenue growth is a strategic concern.

    That’s a big if because many times, growth is an assumed objective when it shouldn’t be. Maybe Mitchell’s doesn’t worry about the tactical challenges of adding employees to maintain a target ratio of support staff-to customers. Or having to reduce staff when business slows down. Both are an anathema to many companies, which is one reason they stress over ‘scalability.’

    Perhaps what you are saying with this example is that it’s better to build a good business, or a valuable business, rather than one with a rapidly rising revenue trajectory. But it’s unclear whether the Mitchell’s approach is one that can be – or should be – used for every online retailer.

  5. Chip, Michael, Brenda and Andrew, sorry, I was in back-to-back meetings all day and was not able to reply. First, thanks for everyone’s input. Chip, thank for providing us other examples of where the human-to-human connection has been incorporated into electronic commerce so successfully.

    Brenda, I totally agree that it is worth the investment and to make it work.

    Michael your focus on financial services is important to highlight.

    Andrew, you definitely make some excellent points, however Mitchell’s overall is one of the most successful retailers and is continuing to expand while others contract. If you don’t add the human component, you take the enormous risk that your products become commodities. Pricing, designs, technology can be completely replicated. The loyalty to one person to another cannot. Jack Mitchell wants to “hug his customers” whether they purchase online or in his beautiful stores, and figured out a way to do it. I don’t have privy to their financials, but I’m confident based on their expansion activities, they make a good profit. Richard

  6. Hi Richard: thanks for commenting about my comment. I must demur on your observation that pricing, designs, and technology can be completely replicated. They cannot. In many large tech and CPG companies, strategies, software, systems, algorithms, processes, designs, ingredients, bills of material, manufacturing methods and even distribution channels, can be highly opaque. Even when they are not, it doesn’t mean other companies can replicate them. Many times, companies establish formidable obstacles through NDA’s, patents, legal contracts, vendor restrictions, and IT firewalls and cybersecurity.

    Even when the methods a company uses for proprietary advantage operate in full sight, there’s no certainty that others can replicate it. Walmart’s pricing strategy isn’t a secret to anyone. But few retailers have been as successful by copying it. Most simply can’t – there’s much more going on in the background that enables Walmart to deliver on its ‘lowest price anywhere’ promise.

    Thousands of electronics manufacturers can deconstruct an iPhone and see exactly what goes into it. But the design and technology is protected with patents, along with a supply chain and material sourcing model that few – if any – companies can duplicate.


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