It feels like we’re entering a golden age in relationships between customers and businesses. But really we’re just coming full circle.
For most of human history, businesses have been constrained by physical location. They could really only sell to the people within walking distance of their location. Business owners had a very finite market they could address so every customer and how they perceived the business really mattered. They did their best to build a relationship with new customers, treated good customers well, and endeavored to build an extremely loyal customer base.
Just over 200 years ago the first steam-powered train entered service on The Middleton Railway in northern England and began transporting coal between Middleton and Leeds. This short railway didn’t connect opposite sides of the planet, but still ushered in a new era in business. The Industrial Revolution’s innovations in transport allowed businesses to operate at a scale which just wasn’t feasible before. The downside of such scale was that business owners become separated from their customers in a way that made service an afterthought instead of a fundamental part of business.
…they continued to force customers to send mail or pick up the phone in order to be heard and get help.
The internet was an even greater equalizer; it allowed anyone to run a business selling goods and services to anyone else in the connected world. They were no longer constrained by physical location or poor communications technology. But lacking proper tools to be human at scale they continued to force customers to send mail or pick up the phone in order to be heard and get help.
Fast forward to today: trends like the consumerization of technology are driving rapid improvements in the tools we can use to support customers. This is forcing businesses to refocus on their customers, which in turn is ushering in a new age of business online. One with striking resemblances to the past; where businesses and their customers focused on building and maintaining personal relationships for the long-term. So what will customer support look like in this new/old world?
Customers care about service not destinations
Until recently the internet has been organized around destinations. You focused on getting someone to visit your website by any means necessary so you could either:
- sell them something yourself or
- charge advertisers for trying to sell them something.
But we’ve finally started to realize customers don’t think or care much about the destinations themselves. They are simply trying to get a job done. They’re looking for the best way to get that job done, not which destination has the best celebrity gossip in the sidebar.
Amazon realized this a long time ago. They make finding the right item trivial. Of course, they intelligently suggest items based on purchase history and what people similar to you have purchased. But then they take it several steps further. They regularly take responsibility for things that aren’t their problem. They allow you to return items on their dime. They spend a lot of time and energy identifying and stamping out common customer questions and issues, sometimes escalating problems all the way to Jeff Bezos himself. This ensures the entire organization remains accountable to their customers.
They offer good prices but, much more importantly, they understand that from a customer point of view, the true cost of doing business with Amazon is more than just the price. Time and mental energy spent searching, comparing, buying, and then wondering when items will be delivered are also costs to the customer that Amazon can work to minimize.
They invest so actively and heavily in making every step of that process frictionless that many of us happily use Amazon over a local vendor because it’s simple, works so well, and is consistent.
Relationships, not transactions
Human beings have a very fundamental need to be connected to others, to be part of a community larger than ourselves. Which is why treating the internet like just another traditional media platform is wrong. We’re not just here to consume content and we’re not just eyeballs to be bought and sold. The power of the internet is it allows us to create and build relationships with one another, no matter where we are physically located. All of the early social networks proved this idea and now messaging apps are taking things further by allowing us to deepen relationships using photos, videos, gifs, and emoji. The internet is increasingly being rebuilt around people and their relationships to one another.
What does this mean for businesses and their customers? First, we must understand businesses are just another “person” with whom people build relationships.
In the early days businesses need to go the extra mile to establish and build trust. Moving from complete stranger to known quantity is a delicate time for any relationship. Your ads, product marketing, sales team, sign up flow – these are just some of the many touch points which influence a customer’s perception of you and set the tone for the relationship to come.
Don’t keep score or treat the relationship as a series of one-off transactions.
Even after the relationship is established, businesses need to communicate thoughtfully. Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers customers give you. Be generous and kind – most of all when you disagree. Don’t keep score or treat the relationship as a series of one-off transactions.
Remember it takes two to tango. Relationships require work from both parties and the relationship between a business and a customer is no different. As a business trying to sell a product or service you should absolutely be prepared to put in more work at the beginning of the relationship. But not all customers are created equal. You’ll want to continue investing in your best customers it’s completely reasonable to gracefully part ways with customers that ask too much of your business too often.
How your business is perceived will be determined in a huge way by the humans in your team, but also by how well you design the interactions that people have with your service. We humans are always trying to bestow human traits on non-human things, your business is no different. You should ask yourself – in every ad, growth hack, new feature, design detail, and in every support interaction – are you maximizing for the long run or trying to squeeze the most out of an individual interaction?
Omnipresent and all knowing
The trend of new technology starting in the consumer space and then moving into business, has had a fundamental impact on customer service. Messaging apps in particular have significantly raised the expectations of customers – whether they are consumers or other businesses.
Your customers don’t want to visit a website in order to find your company’s support email address or phone number. They want to pick up their phone and quickly start a conversation with someone capable on your team. But customers nearly always have several messaging apps on their phones and customers don’t generally align specific use cases around specific apps. One of your customers might prefer Facebook Messenger for friends and WhatsApp for talking to businesses, another might prefer the exact opposite. As a business, you can’t afford to care about these preferences. You just need to be available when and where your customers want to start the conversation.
Simply being everywhere won’t satisfy customer expectations. They want to know that you know who they are and what you’ve talked about before. They want to know that the relationship means something to your business and that you’re actually listening. Not only does your support team need to be quick and knowledgeable, they also need to have context. Asking a customer for their account number and 14 security verification questions just to find out their account balance isn’t acceptable any more (as if it ever was).
Your reputation precedes you
“Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time.”
– Elon Musk
Twitter and other social networks have become a lightweight background check, for both consumers and businesses. Review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have enormous power over both discovery and consumer perception of your business. Your customers now have an enormous number of references at their disposal and they aren’t afraid to use them.
Reputation, like trust, is built by consistent behavior over time. Knowing who you’re doing business with and what to expect provides a lot of comfort that you are making the right purchasing decision. While many successful businesses do a great job ignoring or avoiding all of these third party platforms, you can accelerate and bolster your brand’s reputation by getting involved and being a part of the conversation, wherever it might be taking place. While you can’t always control the medium, you should certainly work to shape the message.
Back to focusing on relationships and people
The nature of the internet and of business is shifting fundamentally and rapidly. Building a business has never been easier but, given the noise and sheer volume of competition, it’s also never been easier to fail.
In this increasingly connected world your business has no choice but to focus on relationships and people rather than maximizing short-term gain. There are no shortcuts or growth hacks to building strong relationships with your customers.