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Jennifer Rice Jennifer Rice
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Andy Lark Andy Lark
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Johnnie Moore is a marketing consultant and facilitator based in London. As well as 20 years of marketing experience he's trained in psychotherapy, NLP and Improv. Find out more at his blog.

Andrew Lark's more than 18 years experience of all facets of marketing, branding, sales and communications spans technology, Internet, telecommunications and consumer sectors. There he has led award-winning programs and teams for brands such as Dell, Sony, SBC, IDSoftware, Nortel, Microsoft and Sun. He is a thought leader and innovator on the convergence of brands, communications and social networking technologies. Find out more at his blog.

Jennifer Rice is a strategist and evangelist for relationship-centric brands. She brings 15 years experience in brand strategy, customer insight and marketing communications, and has worked with companies such as Microsoft, Verizon, Alcatel and Corning. Her current passion is exploring how brands are being impacted by blogs and other social technologies. Her company blog is What's Your Brand Mantra?

John Winsor is the author of Beyond the Brand: Why Listening to the Right Customers is Essential to Winning in Business and the Founder/CEO of Radar Communications, a consumer-centric consultancy. You can find out more about him at Beyond the Brand.

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September 24, 2005

Brand Humanity: From Processes to People

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Posted by Jennifer Rice

Both the blogosphere and traditional media are buzzing about “customer focus.” You can’t go a day without reading about word of mouth, the power of blogs, the shifting balance of power to customers, importance of customer service, and so on. Trendwatching identified "Customer Made" as the next big thing.  Andy Sernovitz, President of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), rightly declared, “The weight of consumer opinion is greater than our advertising power.” And yet it doesn’t seem like anything’s really changing. The most lively discussion board about Comcast is the comments section of my “I hate Comcast” post. Last week Jake posted a complaint letter that he'd sent to American Airlines.

Do we think if we talk about “customer focus” enough, something miraculous will happen? Are we trying to convince the laggards? I don’t believe they’ll be convinced until they start going out of business. One would think that every smart business executive would be working furiously to improve customer service and product quality. There are enough examples, case studies, books and articles making a pretty compelling case that this stuff works.

So why aren’t all businesses noticeably moving towards customer-centricity? They’re either holding on because the old way of business is the only thing they know… or the current organizational structure doesn’t support the new way of doing business… or there’s something else that needs to happen first.

Here’s what I think is going on: contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a product company, a telecom company, a consulting company or a retail company. All companies are people companies. People make products for people. People serve people. People work with people and for people. I’d venture a guess that the root cause of business problems is not financial, not product-related, and not structure-related. Businesses live and die by its executives' and employees’ talents, levels of empathy and ability to play well with others… and by their willingness to listen and acknowledge that customers just may have some valuable input. If a business is rife with internal politics, fiefdoms and one-upmanship, I doubt that it will be successful in this new customer-relationship era. If a company’s employees aren’t successful in their personal relationships at home, it can’t become a successful people company.

The current sea-change is problematic because the necessary solution is not a new business practice; it’s a new people practice. We don’t need a new ad campaign or a new org chart. There are no quick fixes. The skill sets needed in today’s times are not management consultants or word-of-mouth marketing specialists. If we’re all really honest with ourselves, what we really need are psychologists and coaches and relationship experts. We’re talking about real customer connections, not a personalized direct mail piece. And this is why blogging and other social technologies have exploded onto the scene. Evelyn Rodriguez writes,

"With everything you might have heard you’d think the blogosphere is anti-business. And it’s scary for businesses.

That’s not exactly true. But, yes, it is a response to the depersonalization - the dehumanization - of commerce."

Over the past few decades, we’ve lost the humanity in business. With the advent of mass-produced cars and org charts and relocation and nuclear families, we’ve forgotten our ability to relate and connect. How do we expect a company to build relationships with customers when most Americans have difficulty making genuine connections with anyone? In Bowling Alone: The Collapse & Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam notes that social and family ties are loosening and we're increasingly withdrawing into ourselves:

  • In the past 3 decades, participation in government, local clubs and organizations dropped by up to 50%.
  • Job instability, churn and the increasing numbers of independent contractors have resulted in a measurable decline of social connectedness in the workplace.
  • Americans are entertaining friends at home 45% less frequently now than in the mid-70s; the number of picnics declined by 60% in the same time period.
  • The fraction of married Americans who say that their family 'usually dines together' has dropped from 50% to 34%
  • The number of families who vacation together dropped from 53% to 38%; watch TV together from 54% to 41%; sitting and talking, from 53% to 43%
  • Reported charitable giving dropped by almost 20% from 1980 to 1995.
  • The percentage of those who feel that "people in general today lead as good lives -- honest and moral -- as they used to" dropped from 50% in 1952 to 27% in 1998.

So we can keep talking about the importance of customer focus, authenticity and co-creation. But we’ll never get there until we recognize that it’s not that easy to overturn decades of societal depersonalization. We may have to make some difficult choices: letting go of talented employees who are more focused on being right than being empathetic; moving to a new job at a company that fosters a relationship culture; taking a risk and going out on your own. I’m sure that part of the free-agent trend stems from a rebellion against the dehumanization of business.

Evelyn continues in her post:

"Blogs harken back to an era before…

Megaphones. Before Super Bowl ads. Before celebrity-studded concert-format megachurches. Before Ryze, Friendster and LinkedIn.

To a time of community marketplaces, bazaars, neighborhood shops and pubs where everyone knew your name, and town squares. And going back further still to trading posts and tribal campfires.

We know this stuff. Perhaps conversing is nearly a lost art. But it’s fundamentally human too. Basic building blocks of humanity."

So yes, let’s keep talking about customer focus. But let’s also focus on what we can do in our own sphere of influence. Let’s start where we are.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Brand Theory | Community


COMMENTS

1. kris olsen on September 24, 2005 02:48 PM writes...

Nice post. A company's greatest strengths and weaknesses are the same thing - people. Companies tend to talk about empowerment, but act to standardize thought and actions to the point that their people are demotivated to think and act.

Instead of talking the walk, however, companies would be much more successful if they conciously profiled the types of behaviour they keep talking about and went out and proactively recruited people who can actually walk that talk.

Human nature being what it is, people incapable of walking the talk will not suddenly start doing so because the 'brass' says they should. They need to follow the examples of others who do it.

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2. Elizabeth Albrycht on September 29, 2005 04:03 AM writes...

Here's one angle into this: People need to gain power (and be rewarded/recognized as powerful) for sharing information vs. hoarding it. When you become an information sharer, you have to be searching constantly for more information to share. You can't stop sharing, because then your power disappears (vs. hoarding where your power is mysterious and can be milked for years without actually doing anything). This information has to be valuable, and you will increasingly need to look for it outside of your traditional organizational boundaries. That is when you will see a dramatic shift in listening (and responding) to customers and other audiences. The good news is that this process (especially with blogging and other network-building tools) is underway.

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3. Chris Draper on September 29, 2005 04:54 PM writes...

Toffler, Naisbett and others wrote about this in the 90's from memory. The point they made was that information inherently has no value unless it is shared. The paradox is the more you share it the more valuable it becomes.

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4. Loretta Davi on October 8, 2005 01:31 PM writes...

Your article is on Target and businesses do not practice Customer Service. Being courteous, kind, respectful, thoughtful are missing for me when I walk into a store, a restaurant, talk on the phone, ask for donations for charity, driving. It not only is missing in business, it is missing in every aspect of our communities. And you raised the issue, how to put Customer Service back into existence. The first thing is to do as you are doing, presenting it as an issue to be discussed. And the next step is to put it into action...

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