Keeping Customers: 1

Erik Jay
Ruben Sturman, and later Larry Flynt, moved their early book- and magazine-selling operations from back alleys and car trunks into adult bookstores that eventually dotted the U.S. map. Twenty or 30 years later, it was the advent of the Internet that accelerated the evolution of the adult industry into a high-tech trend-setter that is a large and acknowledged — if not to say mainstream — component of the nation's economy.

Much has been written in the past decade or so about the adult entertainment industry being an early adopter of new technologies or, even more impressive, a driving force behind such technological advances as broadband Internet, streaming video and ultra-high-capacity DVDs (Blu-ray and HD DVD). Less publicized are the tremendous advances in marketing, sales, niche advertising, credit card processing and other business practices developed by savvy adult entertainment entrepreneurs — value-neutral practices that are just as good for the bottom line of, say, Zondervan, the religious publishing company, as for adult Internet powerhouse Danni's Hard Drive.

After all, business is business. And one of the most buzzed-about acronyms in business these days is CRM, customer relationship management, the new millennium's turbo-charged, genetically-enhanced version of good old customer service. Think of it as customer service on steroids, with buffed biceps and powerful fingers poking into every nook and cranny of business operations, with just one thing in mind: keeping customers satisfied — and buying.

Danni on PBS
Time flies in our always-on, constantly connected, high-speed Internet world. Although it seems like just yesterday, it was more than five years ago that "Frontline" interviewed Danni Ashe for the documentary "American Porn," which has been rebroadcast a number of times since then on PBS.

"Over the years," former company owner Danni Ashe said in her interview segment, "we've had to develop a lot of technology to support the business of Danni's Hard Drive — streaming video technology, hosting technologies, credit card scrubbing technologies, processing, customer service." On camera, Ashe is circumspect, wise for a businessperson talking about proprietary systems, but she avers that her CRM procedures were "working so well that they have value to other companies, and we're beginning to market those technologies to other companies." Tellingly for a high-profile, softcore service with widespread mainstream acceptability, Ashe then admitted that the marketing of her CRM package was "actually the largest area of growth" in her business that year.

Although it seems to have remained just under the mainstream media's radar, adult e-commerce companies continue to be at the cutting edge of customer service and relationship management. One of the people who helps define that edge is Doug McIver, director of product management at Allurent, a software firm whose commerce applications focus on the entire "life cycle of online shopping," from product browsing to order management, checkout and post-sale service.

Writing in the Nov. 20 edition of CRM Buyer, McIver says that traditional offline stores pay attention to each and every aspect of inventory, retail space and the total shopping experience.

"Online retailing should be no different," he says, "The online experience needs to optimize the experience for target customers, building solutions that solve their problems and address their needs. Understanding customers and refining their experience over time, based on purchasing behavior, site feedback and direct interactions is critical to succeeding in next-generation e-commerce."

That makes perfect sense to Jacqueline Vega, assistant to the CEO of SugarDVD, one of the major online adult DVD rental firms. "On an average day, we get about 50 calls with a big mix of issues," she says. Of course, there is always the occasional shipping error, the rare defective disc and, once in a while, an irate customer. "But those are not the majority of calls," Vega says.

In keeping with that "cutting edge" of CRM, every SugarDVD customer service representative (CSR) works hard at understanding customer needs and refining their experience through cordial, even friendly direct interactions, she says.

"Actually, when I am around that department, I often hear calls where a customer service rep is making product recommendations, helping with the movie selections," Vega says. "With every SugarDVD CSR fully empowered to resolve any customer complaint, there is no putting callers on hold or bouncing them from department to department. "You really, really won't get switched over to someone else when you call here."

In part two, we'll look at live chat services, outsourcing properties and more.