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Most financial institutions have profitable client relationships they've built over the years. They know how many products their customers own and keep customer contact records.

E-commerce strengthens this customer relationship further. It allows you to assess customer interests real-time. It frees up your time for face-to-face relationship-building with your best customers, while not neglecting the rest of your customers.

When we arrived at one regional bank, they had over 200,000 retail banking customers. Yet, they had 300 email addresses. And their strategy was “relationship banking.”

In four months, we grew the in-house list from 300 to 8,000 customers. How?

1. By getting the buy-in from the people who handle the customers
Most failed e-commerce projects originate at headquarters, where, after meetings with a handful of people, an announcement—through a memo or email—comes to the rest of the company about the “new” project. Customer Service was very reluctant to ask customers for their email address. Did we pay them to acquire addresses? No. We thought about it, but decided that treating online differently from other channels accorded it a status it didn't deserve. They had no problem confirming an address or phone number, but drew the line on an email account. Once service reps understood that e-commerce could free them up from the mundane calls that make up 80 percent of what they do all day, and allow them to focus on higher value activity—such as following up on sales leads that could potentially earn them more money—they thought nothing of it.

2. By not asking for more information than we really intended to use
A recent study lamented that most of the corporate probing we all experience was unnecessary, given that most companies never act on the information they extract from us.

Know in advance exactly what you intend to do with the information you're going to collect. Objectively prove to someone outside the project (or even better, outside your department) how knowing this information will increase profits.

3. By doing the best we can to not make the customer repeat the same information over and over
Most customers don't mind telling their banks the ages of their children if they think the bank will use the information to help them sort through the myriad college savings plans or make them aware of estate planning issues. But nothing irritates customers more than having to repeat the same information to each channel—the branch, call center, or web site, as if it's the first time they've ever heard the information.

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Jeremy Bachmann (Jeremy@e-bgroup.com) is a principal and co-founder of the Espenschied-Bachmann Group, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA, a management and technology consulting and services firm focusing on the financial services industry.