Consumers have a new tool in their tool belt today: the mouse. Today’s consumers are using the Internet to find information, obtain advice and buy products at an increasing pace. Though face-to-face customer interaction and phone calls are not going away, they’re no longer enough. To stay relevant to your clients, you have to add a digital relationship to supplant your traditional ones.

It used to be that you would go to a travel agent, stockbroker or a financial institution to obtain information. Yet, today, information has found its freedom; it’s escaped. You can obtain all the information you need about a product in seconds, and compare your offer to hundreds of others. We can’t control the flow of information anymore, so we have to be available everywhere, 24/7.

You might be thinking, that’s not true in the credit union industry. Ours is a complex sale, an expensive proposition, a relationship business.

Perhaps that is still true, but realize as soon as you make your offer your customers are going to Google your competitor. And if you are not online today, they may never find you in the first place.

Over 50% of U.S. retail will be affected by Internet search in just two years. And that has changed the world of marketing.

Marketing used to be a one-way street–the brand talking to you. Now marketing is a two-way street as consumers are involved and engaged with blogs, wikis, shared video and social networks. And perhaps this is why Yellow Pages sales are expected to decrease 40% during the next four years.

Many industries have already adapted to this new reality. During the last several years, 18,000 travel agents have closed their doors, but 18,000 are still with us–the ones who continue to add value. Companies who will do well in this new environment understand that the Internet is a tool and customers are multichannel animals. We can’t predict what door they will enter, so we must open them all and make them work together, branch, phone and Web.

At the dawn of e-commerce many companies just dumped their brochures on the Web and called it a day. Today’s consumer demands the ability to learn all about your product and make transactions 24/7.

Building a Web presence that can effectively deal with increasingly complex products and customers requires stepping back and realizing that our digital presence should be about building a digital relationship with our clients and prospects.

Like any relationship, digital relationships start with attraction. Curiosity then leads prospects and clients to your website to explore what you have to offer. Next, they want to learn more about your products and services. Then, hopefully, you build trust. If you do all that, they’ll communicate with you, either on the phone, in your office or over the Internet and make the purchase. Now you’ve got a client, and you can deepen that relationship, ensuring they’ll return.

In the beginning stages of the Internet’s popularity, we thought people were surfing. As we’ve learned more, we realize they’re not surfing–they’re searching. They’re out there looking for what you offer, and you have to be a beacon to attract them. Today, the Web is all about search. To get prospective clients to find you, you have to know what they’re looking for.

Think like a consumer to solve their problems. What is your prospective client looking for? What type of financial product do they need, and how can they land on exactly the right page that has that product?

Social media is a great way to attract people. It’s all about sharing and learning. Advertising Age said you can’t control what people say about you on the Web, but you can be a good listener. Listen to what people are saying–good and bad–about you on the Web and use that knowledge to improve your product and your web presence.

Once people get to your website, you have to make them curious. If people are curious, they will start exploring. Make sure all your products are available in a clean and simple way.

With financial products, which many prospective clients may not understand, learning is important. You have to explain, explain, explain. At the same time, be careful not to overwhelm prospects with too much technical detail. People read very quickly online, so give them the right level of information. On your website, offer bite-size pieces of information about the products and services you offer.

One of the best ways to build trust with a prospective client is to tell them what other people think. Online retailers do that with reviews. In your world, testimonials serve the same purpose. Testimonials are a very powerful way to begin to build trust.

Once a client has purchased, use email to effectively deepen your relationship. Email can cross sell, introduce new products and keep you top of mind.

Work your clients through each stage of the digital relationship to be successful in this new wired world. Think about your digital strategy in concert with your overall customer experience strategy. Multichannel customers move channels in an instant, and expect each channel to know what they’ve done in the others, and for all to offer the same level of service.

If you can create a vision for your company of how the steps of digital relationships can improve your overall customer relations, you are well on your way to success in the wired world. Of course, then there’s mobile. ;-) 

Terry Jones is founder of Travelocity.com and chairman of Kayak.com.
Contact 707-838-4379 or terry@tbjones.com