The ultimate objective of personalized customer communications is to treat each outbound document as if it were a portion of a conversation. When we talk with each other in business - even if we text, instant message, write letters, or email - we accept the response from the other party and use it to craft our next communication. We take information we've gathered from the other party's previous message and use it to do things such as:

· Elaborate upon a previously-discussed point
· Change our approach to a particular topic
· Respond directly to something the other party brought up
· Provide examples to strengthen our position
· Add new topics that are suggested by the other party's comments
· Hand over the conversation to someone more suited to the other party's interests
· Or even, change the whole course of the conversation

In communications with customers conducted through normal business documents however, we generally don't do any of those things!

The Typical Customer Communication Strategy
The majority of today's business-document and marketing material creators behave as if they are partly deaf. We may respond to what the crowd is loudly roaring, but we do not hear the soft murmurs from individuals. We have all probably generated letters, emails, notices, statement messages, and bill inserts that we say are "targeted to the individual customer". But for the most part, high volume communications are segmented mailings at best. They are not targeted to an individual, but rather to a demographic, psychographic, or geographic group of people who have similar characteristics.

Today's document composition tools have the capability to create what some are calling "hyper-personalized" documents. But they are still very much one-way messages. There seem to be very few applications today that can actually use specific customer feedback to influence subsequent messages.

Getting Usable Customer Response Data is Difficult
There are lots of reasons why marketers and corporate communications people don't consider individual customer responses in their document processes today:

· The responses may come from multiple, unrelated sources which are largely uncontrolled. These sources can include incoming mail, fax, email, web, phone, or in-person.

· The communication may be received into the organization at multiple points such as various departments at headquarters, remote phone rooms, branch offices, retail outlets, field agents, or field service personnel.

· There is no defined procedure or training for identifying important customer feedback, recording it accurately, and communicating it internally to a centralized database.

· The response from a customer must sometimes be interpreted, such as a non-response to an offer, or inferring a particular fact from two or more unrelated customer actions.

· Even if the customer responses are captured and recorded, they reside in databases managed by independent departments within or outside of the organization.

A Way to Start
Implementing a corporate-wide customer response-driven communications strategy would be a huge undertaking for a typical organization with a myriad of legacy systems. It may be possible, however, to focus on only a single application that has more of a narrow range of interaction. Here are some steps towards creating a response-driven document application:

Identify all the customer touch-points where data that is relevant to the chosen application might be gathered.

Develop a separate customer data gathering mechanism. This mechanism might take the form of a survey, contest, or personalized URL.

Use all the data gathered by the new mechanism to craft your next messages. Then include your customers in the conversation by inviting them to tell you if they consider the messages to be relevant to them.

Gradually add more data sources and continue to fine-tune the message-construction logic.

Once a single application is successfully running and producing positive results, then look at bringing on additional applications using your first project as the model.

Measure the Results
The benefits from developing a personal relationship with customers may be measurable by such things as less customer churn, more referrals, and fewer complaints. Be sure to include a way to track results, but don't limit your performance criteria to sales alone. Not every customer will start buying more just because your company is communicating more effectively.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide improve their production workflows and develop customer communication strategies. For more tips visit and sign up for Practical Stuff - the free newsletter for document operations. Your comments are welcome. Send them to