The concept of relationship marketing in the academic marketing literature is almost 40 years old. Since its inaugural mentioning (Berry, 1983), a rich body of conceptual and empirical research papers as well as popular business books has evolved, establishing the consensus view among academics and managers that strong customer relationships are key to company prosperity and performance (e.g., Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Palmatier et al., 2006). With the digital age, rather than entering its maturity stage, relationship marketing is experiencing its next upsurge, such that nourishing customer relationships is “more critical than ever before” (Palmatier and Steinhoff, 2019, p. 21). Specifically, the exponential advancements in technology revolutionize the way in which customers and companies interact (Steinhoff et al., 2019). Relationships in which relational interactions are mediated partially or even fully by technological means are ubiquitous. Today already, customers are estimated to maintain about 85% of their relationships with firms without any human intervention (Gartner, 2011). Relationship marketers dispose of a rich and ever-evolving technology toolbox to build, grow, and retain strong relationships with their customers (Steinhoff et al., 2019). However, beyond the opportunities for enhancing relationships, each tool also entails challenges. Managers seem eager to learn about these new technology tools and benefit from their potential advantages; accordingly, growth rates of managers’ relationship marketing spending continuously outpace those of brand spending (eMarketer, 2016).
In the digital age we live in, relationship marketing is of ever-increasing relevance for company success and prosperity (Palmatier and Steinhoff, 2019). The strong conceptual foundations of relationship marketing established over four decades of academic research encounter an increasingly elaborate and sophisticated toolbox of technologies to support companies in their efforts to engage customers in successful relational exchanges. However, simply adopting these promising digital tools does not guarantee effectiveness; firms have to do it right. In this commentary, we have presented four major technological trends (ecommerce and m-commerce channels, social networks, anthropomorphized agents, big data) and discussed the opportunities and challenges involved in each. The current COVID-19 global pandemic has acted like a magnifying lens for both these potentials and pitfalls, thereby representing a particularly fruitful and important learning experience to relationship marketers.
Findings from extant research and observations from business practice have paved the way for rich future research opportunities (see Steinhoff et al., 2019 for a research agenda). Profound insights are needed on the contingencies of the diverse technology tools, such that managers can leverage each tool’s bright sides while alleviating its inherent dark sides. Beyond, we encourage work on the interplay of the different components of the toolbox and their joint contributions to overall relationship performance. In conclusion, we feel confident that especially in these times of economic turmoil coming along with a global pandemic, the value of customer relationships will mount even further (Binder and Hanssens, 2015), such that those companies with strong customer relationships find themselves in a promising position to overcome the crisis and thrive in the long run.