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.