Whilst there is a widespread debate concerning the moral nature of business in general, ethical evaluation of business practices in the area of RM is not very common (Takala and Uusitalo, 1996). Surprisingly, given the characteristics and key concepts inherent in RM the literature makes scant reference to ethics. Even though in mass marketing it may be difficult to prove whether a company would profit from a more ethical stance, RM clearly cannot develop without adherence to what customers may interpret as ethical conduct by suppliers. Based on the definition of RM by Gronroos, RM relies on two-way communication and dialogue between a customer and the supplier to pinpoint customer needs and wants. This enables the customization of products and communication by the supplier. Keeping of promises, generation of trust and long-term commitment by both parties were highlighted as essential in RM. The voluntary nature of the commitment as opposed to entrapment, equality of power and mutual achievement of objectives were also discussed. It was also highlighted that achievement of mutual objectives was central to RM. Hence, it is perhaps obvious that successful RM can only be operationalized from a platform of ethical behavior by both parties involved. Behavior that is perceived as unethical by customers could easily lead to lack of trust in the supplier and ruin the chances of developing a long-term relationship.

RM and ethical issues in communication

An area where ethical considerations pose major challenges for the creation of successful RM strategy is communication and two-way dialogue between customer and supplier. Improvements in technology including powerful computers, smart cards (cards with micro-chips embedded in them for the purposes of recording customer transactions as well as personal information), the growing utilization of Internet-enabled communication and call centres make it possible for companies to collect substantial information on customers. Indeed, except in the case of very small organizations, technology-based collection of information is a prerequisite for the application of RM to retailing and consumer service markets (Long et al, 1999). A US study reported that 97 per cent of the websites studied collected personal information. Of these only 62 per cent indicated to the customers that information was being collected. Additionally 57 per cent of the sites contained devices for tracking by third parties (Deitel et al, 2001). No wonder many customers on both sides of the Atlantic are concerned with the security of information they provide on the Internet. The main ethical issues regarding communication relate to:

• Frequency of information gathering/contact;
• The nature of the information gathered;
• Methods of gathering information;
• The purposes for which the information is used;
• Privacy of information.

It is important that the dyadic relationship between the customer and supplier is based on the exchange of up-to-date information between the parties. At the same time, to require customers to fill in questionnaires or verbally respond to a long line of questioning during each contact may be regarded by the customer as a nuisance. A right balance ought to be struck between the need for up-to-date information about the customer and the need to respect his time.

The type of information gathered must be strictly necessary for the conduct, and continuation, of the relationship between the customer and the organization. Questions which are not necessary need not be asked.

Information gathering methods also need to be above board and customers must be informed as to what type of data is gathered and kept about them and by what methods these data are collected.

The purpose for which the information is gathered must be notified to the customer, and subsequently not used for other purposes and not shared with other organizations without the customer’s consent. This consent must be clearly sought. The information held on the customer must be clearly available to him and the opportunity to make corrections must be given.

Customers provide information to suppliers with whom they are in a long-term relationship on the understanding that the information will be kept safe, private and not seen by those who do not need to see it. Such information may include sensitive personal demographic and financial information provided to a health worker, a lawyer, a financial adviser, etc. Not respecting customers’ need for the privacy and security of the information which they provide would be tantamount to basing the relationship on rocky grounds with a short lifespan because trust, the key element that glues the parties in a relationship together, would be broken. Many reports of hacking into information on databases make customers feel uncomfortable about supplying information about themselves on the Internet.