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Business models change to make business transactions more efficient or more effective. For example, in previous models, consumers who wanted to travel called a travel agent, who then contacted the airlines and booked the tickets. Today, consumers work directly with the airlines, because the Internet facilitates their direct exchange.

Such online relationships do not happen overnight. According to the founder of both Travelocity and kayak, they require attraction, which exists because a customer is trying to fill a need. Customers know they have a problem, and they know they need a solution, even if they are not sure what that solution is. They are not necessarily looking for a specific product when they begin. As Theodore Leavitt’s famous marketing rule points out, customers are attracted to visit the hardware store because they want to make a quarter-inch hole, regardless of which tool will enable them to do so. They don’t want the drill; they want the hole.

As they search for the solution to their need, customers enter a curiosity stage, during which they look for information, demonstrations, videos, and extra insights. Much of this information might come from a store visit, but experiences in the store tend to be less convenient or simple than online information provision. So the hypothetical customer who needs a hole can search “drills” and watch videos that describe how they work and which ones are ideally suited to making quarter-inch holes. Through gaining such product and customer review knowledge, the customer achieves the capability to make a decision.

The last step is conversion, the stage when the customer makes a purchase, and the company has initiated a relationship with the customer. It is now the company’s job to bring the customer back for more purchases. The retailer cannot assume that the customer will need many more holes, but through careful research and well-founded inference, it could determine that perhaps the customer would like to drill some screws into that new hole—and then show the new customer just the right screws to fit.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the steps to developing a relationship online? 
  2. How does relationship building differ online versus offline?

Peter Johnston, “Sell Solutions, Not Products,” Stores, October 2011.