Communication, responsibility, leadership and customer-centricity

Did I make a ridiculous fuss about nothing?

Recently,  a reader (pxfast) read this post on Klassic Books and commented:

“You are making a ridiculous fuss about nothing. Leaving feedback is a normal part of online trade so we know whom to trust. It was request, not an order, although the email could have been worded slightly differently so as to be clear it was optional. But is there enough time to consider all nit-pickers? What your list of questions has to do with the email I do not know, but you seem to be super-sensitive about your own affairs. They were simply confirming your order and politely requesting an optional acknowledgment in return, not a surly reply.”

I like to think of myself as a learner so I revisited this post and the memory of my experience. Then I went and looked at instances where I had been complimentary about the communications of book companies.  Three instance  came to mind:

If you look through these three cases of communication and compare them with case of Klassic books, I am confident that you will notice the following regarding the communications:

a)  Better World Books and the RocketSurgery Crew are being of service to me – making my life easier and/or enriching my life.  Whereas the Klassic Books communication is focussed on its needs and asking/expecting me to make the time/effort to fulfil their needs.

b)  The tone of the Better World Books and the Rocket Surgery Crew communications lands as human/warm – human talking to a fellow human being possible across a cafe table.  Whereas the tone of Klassic Books shows up as corporate/cold – lacking that human touch.

I say it is possible that I misinterpreted the intent of Klassic Books.  I say it is possible that I read into their email to me what was not in the email.  I say it is quite possible that I have been ‘unfair’.  And the issue is that my experience is not as such.  My head may speak this way, my heart does not.

My experience is that Klassic Books expected me to provide them a good customer review simply because they delivered a book on time.  Something that shows up as ‘table stakes’ of being an Amazon partner and getting my business.  And when I did not provide them with the review they sent me a second email and told me off for being a ‘naughty customer’: We once again request you to leave your valued feedback on this purchase.”

What stance can you take regarding your communications to your customers?

Before I dive into this I wish to point out that the lack of communication (including none at all) is powerful in itself. Why? Because, no communication communicates!  I hope that you get that.  Now let’s dive into the matter of communication and its relationship to customer-centricity and leadership.

When it comes to communication it is worth remembering the following:

– the communication will land/be experienced in a specific way e.g. helpful, unhelpful, warm, cold, relevant, irrelevant…;

–  the communication will make an impact leaving the customer thinking more or less highly of you and feeling closer or more distant towards your organisation; and

–  the communication will elicit a response – a non-response is a powerful response if you listen for it.

Which is my way of saying that when you communicate – and you cannot help communicating because you are always communicating – you act on your customers.  And when you act on your customers they respond, they communicate to you.

Now my question is this, who is responsible for the response that your communication calls forth from your customers?  It occurs to me that you can stand in one of two places.

1. You can make the customer responsible for his/her response to your communication.  This often leads to labelling and blaming when customers don’t respond as expected.  Customers are labelled ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, ‘greedy’ and so forth.  And they are blamed for not responding to requests, filling in forms incorrectly, asking ‘stupid’ questions, wasting company time…. This the default stance of many/most folks and organisations.  Why? The charitable view is that we are blinded by our intentions and not the consequences of our communication.  The less charitable view is that we will do just about anything to ‘look good and avoid looking bad”.

Notice that this is what pxfast – the reader who triggered this post – is doing.  He is criticising me and other customers like me as ‘nit-pickers’.  Have you noticed the negative labels being applied?  “Ridiculous fuss” and “nit-picker” If a customer is labelled a “nit-picker” and “causing a ridiculous fuss” then the logical thing to do is to ignore that customer.  I call that a ‘get out of jail’ card being played.

2. You can take responsibility for the customer’s response to your communication.  This is taking responsibility as in I am the author of this response.  Or I am the ’cause in the matter of’ the communication that I have received from the customer.  This mode of being is rare at the individual, group or organisational level.

If you want to show up as a leader and/or as a customer centric organisation then embrace responsibility as opportunity

I say that if you want to show up as a leader then it is necessary for you to own up to your communication: how it lands, what impact it makes, and what response/s it generates.

I say that if you want your organisation to show up customer-centric then all the people, especially those who communicate with your customers, must take responsibility for their communication and the communication of your whole organisation: how it lands for your customers, what impact it makes in/on your customers, and the responses it generates from your customers.

Why take responsibility?  Because, it is the most powerful place to stand if you wish to be effective.  When you take responsibility you let go of the option/luxury of labelling/blaming customers.  Instead you listen for how your communication lands, what impact it makes, and what responses it generates. And where there is a difference to what you expected you say to yourself “How interesting!  I wonder what I did to cause that?  I wonder what I need to do more of?  And what do I need to do less of?  And what do I need to do differently to show up the way that I want to show up in the lives of my customers and generate the kind of response that I am up for generating?”

When you have that kind of listening then you have all that you need to become a master of communication; every leader has to be/become a master of communication; and every customer-centric organisation has to be a master of communication.  And if you have not noticed then ‘social’ is all about effective communication between you, your people (employees), your customers.

An inquiry into ‘customer engagement’ – making the abstract concrete

‘Customer Engagement’: old wine in a new bottle or  new realms of possibility?

Customer engagement is the new buzzword.  Whenever a new buzzword shows up it suggests that either we have ‘old wine in a new bottle’ or that  ‘new realms of possibility’ has shown up.  If you fall for the ‘old wine in a new bottle’ you may end up looking and feeling like a fool.  If on the other end the buzzword points to ‘new realms of possibility’ and you do not step into and make full use of this realms then you are likely to go out of business – sometimes it can take a little while.  So lets take a closer look at ‘customer engagement’.

There is no such thing as ‘Customer Engagement’

The English language tempts us into errors by converting verbs into nouns.  So we need to be mindful and remember that there is such thing as ‘customer engagement’.  If you do believe it exists then please bring it to me and I will give you a$1m.  Now if I offered you the same deal for bringing me a table then you would have no issue.   To get to grips with ‘customer engagement’ lets examine the verb ‘to engage’:

“en·gage

  • Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention
  • Cause someone to become involved in (a conversation or discussion)
  • Pledge or enter into a contract to do something
  • Reserve (accommodations, a place, etc.) in advance
  • Participate or become involved in
  • Enter into conflict or combat with (an adversary)”
So we can say that when you engage a customer or a customer engages you then there is some action going on.  Put differently, ‘customer engagement’ shows up as behaviour.  A engaged customer will perform certain actions which a disengaged customer will not.

What engaged customers do

What engaged customers do largely depends on what you allow and what technology enables.  Lets just list the kind of actions that engaged customers can perform with today’s technology:
  • They provide you with ideas and suggestions.   Dell ( Dell Ideastorm) and Starbucks (MyStarbucks Idea) are two organisations that have set-up platforms to let their customers share their ideas
  • They ‘turn up’ to special events.  Harley Davidson is a great example – Harley lay on events for their fans and the fans turn up in droves.
  • They do some of the work, they help out.  GiffGaff (telecoms player) is a great example – the customers provide a lot of the customer service to each other.
  • They write and post reviews of your products and services.  Amazon is a great example – customers review products and this gives other customers more confidence to purchase the right products.
  • They collaborate and co-create with you whether that is new advertising, new products or new services.  In the early days of CRM Nokia and Siebel collaborated to build out the Siebel’s telecoms product.  In the B2C market Threadless is a great example – customer can design T-shirts and get a cut of the sales revenue if these designs take off.
  • They complain when you fail to live up to your promise and their expectations.   You might think this is odd yet research shows that the customers that are disengaged from you simply walk away – they cannot be bothered to take the time and make the effort to complain.
  • They buy from you – they walk into your retail stores, they use your website, they respond to your email and direct mail offers …….This is so obvious that most people take this for granted and don’t make the most of this yet Zane’s Cycles does.
  • They bring their family, friends and colleagues along to your stores and encourage them to buy from you.   A small business that thrives on this is Preston Car Sales which is based in Preston, Lancashire. (Disclosure – I helped design and set-up this business.  It is owned and managed by my brother).
  • They speak well of you to their friends, their social network and even the world through social media (blogs, social networks, tweets..).  I am good example of this – two companies that I have recently recommended include Better World Books and HCML on this blog.
  • They do some of your marketing for you by creating new ads or remixing your content to create new ads and post them to the likes of YouTube.  Amber Lee Ettinger (‘Obama Girl’) is a good example of the kind of impact such a engaged customer can make
  • They provide you with feedback when you ask for their feedback e.g. by taking part in customer surveys.

Incidentally, the possibilities that can be listed here are limited only by your imagination.  In the future, if it has not already happened, I can imagine companies setting up prediction markets and inviting customers to take part in them.

What does it take to engage customers?

I wrote several posts a little while back which give a flavour of what it takes to engage customers:

My take on ‘customer engagement’

The internet, mobile and social technologies have created  ‘new realms of possibility’ around how we can engage customers; how customers can engage with us – the organisation; how customers can engage with each other; and how customers can engage with world wide web.  A few souls are stepping into these new realms of possibility and disrupting the way that things are done.  The majority are simply putting old wine into new bottles and labelling it ‘customer engagement’.

The trick is to figure out the form of engagement that your customers are up for and which if acted upon will build mutually profitable and enjoyable relationship and help you build competitive advantage.  Any as any good strategist will tell you there are no formula’s for that – it requires the artful synthesis of analytical and creative thinking along with some good fortune.  And you have to accept that some things will work out well, some will flop and some will be simply ok.

Please remember that a customer that ticks a box that says he is willing to recommend you is very different to a customer that actually has recommended you.  So focus on creating topic that mean something to your customers, build a platform that enables interaction then listen, learn and adapt.

If I have not spelled it out enough – your existing organisational mindset is the key barrier between you and your customers.  You have not got engaged customers because fundamentally you do not want to engage with customers.  Remember that engagement is a two process it requires a degree of openness and vulnerability which many organisations are simply not willing to step into.

Finally, I thank Peter for asking me to comment on ‘customer engagement’ and thus being the genesis of this blog post.  Peter, I hope that this contributes to you.

Better World Books: a great example of hi-touch relationship marketing

Better World Books is a customer-centred company

We like customer-centric companies because they leave us feeling good.  And also because the kind of behaviour that we label as being customer-centred is rare.  It is the combination of the two that put Better World Books on my emotional radar back in December 2010 when I received an email from Better World Books that took me by surprise and delighted me.  I was so impressed that I wrote the following post which I encourage you to read: ‘Better World Books: a great example of customer-centricity’.

Their latest email is a great example of hi-touch relationship marketing

Today I opened up an email from Better World Books that left me smiling, laughing and just delighted.   In fact, this email is such a good example of hi-touch relationship marketing that I want to share that email with you.  Here it is:

Dear Maz,

We’re just checking in to see if you received your order (The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living). If it hasn’t arrived please respond to this email and let us know.

We aim to flabbergast our customers with impeccable service so do let us know if we haven’t achieved this in your case by responding to this email. Amazon.co.uk gives you the opportunity to leave us feedback. You can do this by visiting http://www.amazon.co.uk/feedback . We would be grateful if you would take the time to rate us on the order and service received.

Thanks again for buying from us.

Humbly Yours,

Indaba (our super-cool email robot)”

Straight after reading the email I went to Amazon and gave Better World Books a five star rating – the maximum.  And here I am sharing it with you. 

What makes this email so effective, so delightful?

The vast majority of business communications strike me as dull, inhuman (corporate speak) and the communicator pushing stuff at me.  And as such I tend to ignore them – I suspect that you do the same and that is why direct mail response rates are around 1 – 2%!   So what makes this email so effective?

“Dear Maz” Maz is what I call myself yet it is not my first name and it is not on Amazon’s records.  So it is clear that Better World Books have gone the extra mile to figure out, record and use my preferred first name.  That is a great first touch – only friends and colleagues call me ‘Maz’.

“We’re just checking in to see if you have received your order.. – the way that I relate to this is wow here is a company that cares about me and is checking to see if all is ok and if not it is inviting me to get in touch with them.

“We aim to flabbergast our customers with impeccable service… – this sentence has such a resonance because of my past experience with Better World Books, the fact that the book that I ordered arrived before it’s due date and because of this email.  Put differently, I totally believe that Better World Books are being straight when they say that they aim to flabbergast their customers with impeccable service.  Lastly, I am simply flabbergasted that I company would make such a statement in writing.  I have never read that kind of statement from any other company that I do business with!

“Amazon.co.uk gives you the opportunity to leave us feedback..” – they are inviting me to leave feedback and it really does occur as an invitation that I can accept or decline, there is no hard sell.  Yet by the time Better World Books are making this invitation they have done all that is necessary to get that feedback, positive feedback, from me;

“Thanks again for buying from us. – as human beings we do like to be acknowledged and a simple thank you is great way of acknowledging our customers and making them feel good about us;

“Humbly Yours,  Indaba (our super-cool email robot)” – I cannot tell you why but at some emotional level I simply love this ending.  It is so unpretentious and it is something that one of my best friends would write.  And there is a wonderful twist: it really would be something if a robot was writing such a personal email that pushes so many emotional buttons!

It is short and it is easy to understand – it probably took me less than 30 seconds to read it and get it both emotionally and rationally.

Conclusion

In the west we live in and are immersed in a technology centred world and this technology has brought us great benefits.  The downside is that it has encouraged businesses to act like machines.  In the process many of us, especially as customers and employees, are starved of the human touch that reaches into our emotional core.  So there is gaping hole waiting to be filled by smart companies like Better World Books who use hi-tech to practice hi-touch!

One more thing to mention

There is world of difference between relationship marketing and database driven direct marketing practices by most customer marketing groups.  Relationship marketing aims to build relationships  through emotional bonds like this email from Better World Books.  As such relationship marketing communications are not all about selling.  This is sharp contrast to database driven direct marketing masquerading as relationship marketing.  How can you tell the difference?  You only hear from the latter when they have something to sell to you in part because these marketers cannot demonstrate ROI on service centred communications.



Better World Books: great example of customer centricity being practiced

I am curious about all kinds of stuff – that means buying quite a few books.  So recently I placed a number of book order from various Amazon partners – one of which is Better World Books.  Before they were invisible to me and now they are firmly in the limelight.  All because they sent me an email last week that simply stopped me in my tracks.  Here is that email:  Better World Books email.

Their email to me is a great example of customer-centricity.  Better World Books have taken the time to put themselves in my shoes and respond to my needs even before I realised I had those needs!  Specifically, they have:

  • anticipated a situation that is likely to get in the way of delivering on their promise and thus result in a poor customer experience;
  • written to let me know that there is a problem and explained what is causing the problems;
  • apologised for any impact that this situation – which is outside of their control – may have on me; and
  • given me sensible options – stick with them or to cancel the order.

The other noteworthy points are:

  • the tone of the email is just right – it is written in a friendly conversational – human – tone;
  • they have supplied their email address and encouraged me to get in touch with them if  I have concerns or questions; and
  • they have done their best to remind me to take circumstances into account when I rate them on Amazon – clearly this is a company that gets the importance of ratings on future business.

Now here is the thing.  I do not know if Better World Books has a customer strategy or not.  I do not know if they have CRM technology or not.  I do not know if they have optimal business processes etc.  Nor, as a customer, do I care.  What I care about is how they treat me, how they leave me feeling.  In my case I am feeling great about doing business with Better World Books.  And I think that their name is apt – they have helped to make my world better.

Next time I am faced with a choice as to who to buy from Better World Books will be top of mind and most importantly top of heart.