Starbucks. Riz-Carlton. Intuit. MasterCard. Lego. There’s no shortage of case studies showing us how big businesses still manage to create feelings of surprise and delight in their customers by doing small things—things that are nonetheless very personal and very meaningful.
What sticks out about these cases is that the deck is stacked in the company’s favor. What exactly does that mean?
First, these are huge brands that already have a lot of name recognition (and a lot of market saturation). It’s great to hear that they got their customer interactions right. But it would be nice to have some cases where personal relationships actively built the brand, not just cases where it was the icing on the proverbial cake.
Second, these brands are so huge that almost any personal interaction would count in their favor. Consumers are so used to huge, monolithic companies that don’t give them a personal experience, that almost any effort in that direction is hailed as a business miracle. (Notice that we celebrate the personal touch of big brands, but we expect that touch in something much more local, like a mechanic or a real estate agent.)
These two facts mean that big brands have little to lose, and much to gain, for doing these small gestures of goodwill. For smaller or less established brands, the opposite is true: they have much to lose if they don’t do these gestures with some frequency and regularity.
So we need to try to copy every case study that comes down the path and ask the important question: what, exactly, is getting in your way when it comes to engaging customers at a personal level? What is your brand doing wrong, and how can you fix it?
I can’t presume to know what the issues are for each and every brand. Still, there are enough commonalities out there that we can begin to differentiate some of the specific problems. Let’s continue with the example of size:
For bigger and more established brands, the issue is one of consistency.
Creating positive emotions (and positive buzz) requires personal relationships, and those, by their very nature, are time intensive and require multiple interactions. Five percent of front line people are great at building relationships. But 95% aren’t, so overall customer experiences are poor. Many companies try to create memorable feelings, but struggle because traditional methods of relationship building are out-of-date, or simply don’t scale with the size of the prospect or customer pool. So their efforts end up being inconsistent, shallow, or so out of touch as to be forgettable.
Companies need to empower front line employees and account managers—really, anyone who interacts with customers—to do things that go above and beyond. Going above and beyond helps create memorable experiences.
Just as importantly, they need to find ways to scale the kind of personal touch that you tend to find with smaller, local service firms. They shouldn’t have to depend on the “random acts of kindness” of their employees, but rather build a desire for closer relationships right into their corporate DNA. They should be looking at some sort of “customer updates” just as often as they look at product or competitor updates.
For smaller, growing brands, the issue is one of scale.
By their nature, smaller brands tend to be “higher touch” than bigger brands. But, in the rush to grow and grow quickly, the temptation is to stop at just one or two interactions because smaller firms lack the resources to scale operations to accommodate large numbers of customers. What if the initial transaction was not just a memorable experience in itself, but the start of a long lasting relationship? What if those small meaningful gestures were able to be scaled?
As counterintuitive as it might sound, automation can play a key role here. Granted, most of today’s automation systems are not quite up to the task of managing and building upon these kinds of personal relationships. They can all-too-easily lull professionals into a false sense of “connecting.” But, when used right, an automated system can impose the kind of structure and discipline needed to keep up a regular campaign of personal engagement.
For example, imagine that you are in charge of sales for a small software company that sells to companies with over $5 million in sales. Your list of customers and prospects is in the hundreds: nothing in comparison to the number of Starbucks customers, but still enough that keeping tabs on those hundreds of contacts is difficult. The way forward? Formulate a plan to reach out to each contact twice a month, and then select an automation tool that will organize and schedule those touches, building on information you learn about each person.
Another example: suppose you are a medium-sized accounting firm. You need to keep your book of business up by making sure that customers return to you each year around tax season. This means keeping in touch with them in the intervening months– and keeping up with their various life events. You can use an automation tool to remind you to check in with a few clients daily, asking about what is happening in their lives and then updating your information accordingly. A nice personal gift to celebrate important milestones (a new job, a move, a kid going off to college) would also do wonders for the relationship.
In each of these cases, regular, consistent, proactive contact can be maintained even if you do not have an entire team to dedicate to the task. Indeed, a single person could spend ten minutes a day catching up with a few contacts, making some meaningful gestures.
This is not to imply that the tools for each brand must be different. Best-in-class engagement software should be able to handle scale and consistency and frequency. Rather, the point is that there are different obstacles to personally connecting, and so different priorities for removing those obstacles and proactively engaging your customers.
In other words, strategies for building and growing personal relationships cannot be one-size-fits-all. Different markets and different brands will face different challenges. Solve those, and those personal touches will become a true differentiator for your brand.
So we can look to case studies for inspiration and ideas. There is no harm in that. But we need to keep in mind that those case studies are neither roadmaps nor tools. The next generation of customer engagement will look a lot different than these nice little anecdotes. If you have a good understanding of how relationships are built in the first place, you can tailor your approach using the right tools and the right strategy—and you will be ready for that next wave.