I am just back from the Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association (NEPA) conference in Orlando where a remarkable new online marketing tool was revealed to me. Let me tell you what it is. Are you ready? It's called -- the telephone.

Yes, it appears that for a growing number of publishers, telephone ordering is the season's "must have" Web solution. Publishers of specialty information products (and a number of our data publishing clients) are noticing significant lifts in both the volume and size of orders when a telephone number is added to online order forms (one publisher told me that his average order increased nearly 20%). This is true for both B2B and B2C marketers. The underlying dynamic is straightforward but significant. Order size increases when a phone number is added primarily because it creates an opportunity to upsell the customer. The number of orders increases because customers can get a quick answer to specific product questions.

So while the Web makes it easy to create what is effectively an online vending machine, you should not fall victim to the self-service approach to selling. With our industry now on a relentless push to create deeper and more sophisticated datasets and software tools, we are necessarily adding complexity. At the same time, our customers have increasingly specialized and sophisticated uses for our products. That means our products are becoming harder and harder to sell "self serve" from a Web page.

I worked with a very successful print directory publisher about ten years ago who told me the thing he liked most about directory publishing was that orders came in the mail, and he shipped out his directories by mail, and there was almost never a need to actually talk to a customer. To him, things couldn't get much better than that. Indeed, he semi-seriously contemplated getting an unlisted phone number to further insulate himself from his customers. This wasn't exactly a clever business idea, but in an era of simpler products and less competition, you could act least contemplate doing business that way.

In this new era of technology, when you can now easily and perfectly avoid customer contact and get them to do their own order entry to boot, it's actually more important than ever to maximize customer contact. It's not just that you can generate more orders and more dollars per order. It's that customer relationships built on self-provisioning aren't really relationships at all.