Smallbiz/cw1st By ALF NUCIFORA One of the few miseries of my life as a consultant is the demand for extensive travel. Last year, it was 12-15 days a month. Like all experienced road warriors, I carry the proverbial wad of plastic frequent traveler cards covering all the major airlines, car rental companies and hotels. Last week, while doing a late hotel check-in, I instinctively handed over my preferred member card without giving much thought to why I did it or, more importantly, why the hotel needed it. The obvious answer is that I want the points in order to secure a free room or an upgrade at some later time. From the hotel’s point of view, it’s a way of forcing loyalty. I’m more inclined to call it bribery. But it raises the issue of how companies misuse and abuse their valuable customer databases. Let’s address the hotel sector specifically. It’s a more competitive environment than the airline industry, where travelers are generally forced to stick with one airline because of hub monopolies (Delta in Atlanta, Northwest in Minneapolis, United in Denver). The traveler can normally select from any number of equivalent hotel properties surrounding the airport or in the city center. Admittedly, the preferred member club will attract those users who want the points, the upgrade or the free room. To that extent, these programs force a certain degree of shallow loyalty. However, their real value lies in their ability to generate a database of customized information that can be used to legitimately bind the guest to the hotel in perpetuity, based on reasons that are emotional as distinct from purely economic. A smart hotel marketer will have me enter salient, personal information once and once only at the time I apply for membership in the program. In addition to the standard name, address and phone number, I should be asked to provide (and will willingly give) fax number, e-mail address and, more importantly, preferences on type and location of room, bed size, food and beverage and other specific needs such as newspaper choice. Once that information is in the system, I should never be asked to fill out a guest registration form again as long as I patronize that brand. But here’s where it gets interesting. With information of that type on file, a conversation at check-in would sound something like this (as the check-in clerk surreptitiously peruses my data file on the computer screen, conveniently located beneath the glass-top counter), “Good evening, Mr. Nucifora. Welcome to the Minneapolis Acme Hotel. I see you stayed at our Chicago property last week. That’s one of our finer locations and I hope you enjoyed the stay. Mr. Nucifora, I’ve reserved for you a non-smoking room with a king-sized bed as you requested when you made the reservation. In addition, I know that quietness is very important to you, so I’ve put you on one of our upper floors, at the end of the corridor, away from the elevator bank and the ice machines. All your phones have second lines and voice mail and I’ve made a note to make sure that you get a copy of the New York Times in the morning, in addition to USA Today. One more thing, your mini-bar is stocked with sparkling water. I’m told it’s a frequent request of yours. Is there anything else I can do to make your stay with us as comfortable as possible?” In all my years of traveling, I have yet to encounter a hotel capable or willing to offer me such a greeting. And yet, the technology exists to capture the data that would provide such an experience. What’s more important, any hotel that would provide me with that degree of customized nurturing would have me as a preferred customer for life. Ironically, most hotel chains, particularly those well-established brands in the medium price category, could deliver that degree of customized service if a true commitment were made to utilizing the customer database as a lifetime marketing tool. There is a lesson in this example for the small marketer. Every business has to solicit new buyers. But the easy profit is in the repeat customer. There are two primary ways to stimulate a repeat sale. 1.) Provide a superior product or service and, 2.) Trap customer information on a database and use that information to form an unassailable marketing bond with the customer. For large companies with high transaction volume, expensive, custom-designed software has to be developed in order to guarantee a database tracking system that is both accurate and usable. But most small businesses can survive with off-the-rack customer contact programs such as ACT! and Access. We all want more sales, but sometimes the answers are right in front our nose. Your existing customers have already made a commitment to you. That’s why they bought from you. Build on that commitment. Capture the information about their desires, wants and preferences. Then, use that information to convince them that those very needs will always be addressed if they continue to do business with you. Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, his web site www.nucifora.com, or by fax at 770-952-7834.