Last night I wrote, in the context of customers:
- They want to be treated like human beings, not account numbers.
- They want to know they can trust the people they do business with.
- They want to know that the people they give their business to actually value their business.
- They want products and services that are fit for purpose, made available at a reasonable price.
- If and when something goes wrong, they want to know the facts. Quickly. Without window-dressing.
- They’d like to know what is best for them, so they’d like to talk to their friends and relatives about it.
- They’d like to know what their friends recommend, and they’d like to recommend things to their friends.
- They’d like help when something turns out more complicated than they’d expected, or when they’re trying to do something different.
- And they’d like to know that they’re being treated fairly.
- In exchange for all this, they are willing to give their custom regularly and loyally. As part of a trusted relationship. Where people buy from people and people sell to people.
- In exchange for all this, they are willing to become customers.
Today I want to spend a little time looking at each of these things, seeing how companies can make it easy for customers to do all this. But before that I want to remind you of the question I repeated before these points, on building trust.
Trust. The lynchpin of any relationship between customer and company.
Whenever you’re designing products and services for the customer, start with the question:
Will this help build trust between the customer and the company?
If the answer to that question is No, then everything else doesn’t really matter. Just icing on a cake that no customer wants to eat. No customer, no business.
That’s Social Customer Rule 1. Whatever you do, it must not weaken the trust relationship between the customer and the company.
[An aside. I am trying to frame this in such a way that we no longer have to worry about terms like B2B and B2C and large-cap and enterprise and SMB and SME. These principles should work in the limit case of a single-person "company" dealing with a single person. And then we should be able to scale those principles up.]
For now, let us assume that the answer to the question is yes. I will come back to this overriding question, this “envelope” of trust, later on in this post.
So let us now look at some of the detail in what a social customer wants to be able to do. In order to do that, I’d like to work with a simple model of the customer.
There’s been a lot of research into why people buy. It’s written by people a lot smarter than me. This blog is not where you should come for that research. What I’m trying to do here is to build a simple from-first-principles model of what makes a customer buy, and then to explain what a “social”customer would want as a result.
So let me start with an impetus to buy, formed by one or more of many possible stimuli (a perceived need, a whipped-up need, a slice out of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a want, a wish to keep up with the Joneses, a drive to acquire a la the Nohria and Lawrence 4-driver model, a lonely impulse of delight, environmental psychological design a la Paco Underhill, “retail therapy“, Christmas, the consequence of this appalling modern tendency to build obsolescent products, children, TV, advertisements, excess credit, pure unadulterated greed, whatever).
Someone wants to buy something. Which is made easier by the existence of an inventory of all the things that can be bought. That inventory needs to have some classification, some labels, some tags, an ontology and a taxonomy. If you want an understanding of this, you should read David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined as a starting point. Customers need to know what’s available, in a simple and convenient way. The problem is, there’s a forest of things out there and it’s not easy to see the trees. So the labels and classification and search tools and find tools matter. This by itself is not a “social” thing. What makes it social is the support for folksonomies, citizen tagging, above and beyond the chosen ontology and taxonomy.
Which brings us to Social Customer Rule 2. Inventory should be taggable. Your inventory of products and services, besides being easily discoverable, must support some form of tagging, some way to harness collective intelligence in solving the you-say-tomahto-I-say-tomayto problem.
So now the customer’s found something, which may or may not be suitable. There are lots of questions that need to be answered, in terms of quality, price, reliability, future-proofness, whatever. Here, “social” really comes into its own. In many cases, collaborative filtering techniques will come in useful. People who looked at this also looked at. People who bought this also bought. X% of people who looked at this bought it. The customer wants to know that the seller is reliable. Which means that seller ratings become worthwhile. In the same way, information about the product can be gleaned socially, via reviews and suchlike.
And so we have Social Customer Rule 3. Product and Seller information should be made social by allowing for reviews and ratings to be shared; price comparisons and collaborative filtering should be supported.
At this point I want to return to the question of trust. Reviews can be gamed. Ratings can be gamed. Those of unscrupulous bent have mastered the act of “shilling” the web. [Incidentally, a paper on Collaborative Filtering with Temporal Dynamics won the KDD 09 Best Research Paper award, and is worth a read if you’re interested in such things. Filters can be useful, but they can also be insidious if selected by others. Eli Pariser makes this point well in The Filter Bubble. You need to be able to switch filters on and off at the subscriber level; to be able to look at collaboratively filtered information at a general level (people who did A did B) or at your network level (people in your network who did A also did B). Support for all this needs a sensible approach to identity at a minimum.
Which brings us to Social Customer Rule 4. A sensible identity framework, supporting federation, should be in place.
Of course it doesn’t stop at identity. Because attached to that identity can be a whole slew of information to do with behaviour, preferences, activity, friends, purchases, rentals, status, location. From a social viewpoint, two things matter in this context. Who can see that information. Who decides. And the simplest answer is that the customer is the sole decision-maker of who can see what, when it comes to personal information. If the company wants to be in the business of sharing that information, it has to be done on the basis of informed consent.
One key point to remember is that this is not just a company issue. Individuals may choose to share their transactions, their activities and their intentions with their network of friends, and even beyond that network. The customer is also in the sharing business. Customers will want to share the price at which they bought the airline seat, the hotel room, the album or the car.
And that gets us on to Social Customer Rule 5. Customers should be able to share their preferences, their profiles, their actions, transactions, activities and intentions with others if they want to. They must be able to decide what they share and who they share with. Sharing of this sort does not happen with the publish side alone, there has to be a subscribe part to it as well. A customer should be able to “tune in” to the general populace in terms of what they’re buying/selling/eating/reading/making/shaking; to be able to restrict the listening area to a location or a level of personal network, to filter the population as needed.
Underpinning all this we would need what I’m visualising as an “envelope of trust”, embodied in a set of rights”. The right to change your mind when you buy or rent something. The right to take your business elsewhere. The right to take your data elsewhere. The right to know what data is held about you, and who has access to that data, and for what purpose. The right to know how long that data is held, and why. The right to know when and where the whole enchilada has been breached, either through government agency or by “bad actor”. The right to know the status of all online services. The way old rights disappear and new rights emerge. The right of appeal.
Instead of listing a whole series of rights, I could just have said “behave with openness and transparency”.
These are just my thoughts. None of this is going to happen overnight, and there are many reasons why companies won’t invest in all this anyway. Many companies have been of the belief that customers are like children, preferably not seen, definitely not heard. So they concentrate on “managing” products, since products tend not to complain or ask for their money back.
But it’s changing. Some companies are providing tools that allow customers to become social. To share their activities, to be able to give and receive recommendations, to rate and review participants and products and services.
To put it another way, some companies are investing in real relationships with their customers. And customers are responding by being frequent and regular in their custom.
This has been happening for a while now, in some cases for over a decade. None of this is new. None of this is rocket science.
Customers are social by nature. They enjoy being with their friends, sharing their thoughts and beliefs and experiences and preferences. They will continue to do all this.
When they decide which companies they will give their custom to, they will look for companies that make it easy for them to share all this.
That’s what designing for the social customer is about.
Time to quote Drucker again. In an interview about a decade ago, he said:
No financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a company makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that. They think money is real. Shoes are real. Money is an end result.
That’s pretty harsh about financial men, and probably unfair. I have known many good financial men, men who understand that “shoes are real”. But then I don’t know the context in which Drucker stated it.
What I do know is that the principle is sound. That we should all concentrate on making shoes well, openly, transparently, to the spec that the customer wants. And if we’re good at it, the money will come.
More in a week or two, once I see the responses to this post. No responses, no follow-up post. The market decides…..