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Is it time to break Dunbar's Number and make customers your friends?

16th Aug 2019
Friendship

What is the Dunbar Number and why do brands need to surpass it in order to build more authentic customer relationships?

Technology has enhanced customer experience immeasurably over the last decade, but CX is all too often seen as the weak link in the total brand experience.

So far technology has been harnessed to improve speed and efficiency (some of the time), but customers are still treated as numbers, not humans.

Instead of treating customers like checkboxes that need to be ticked off, brands need to take the next leap forward. The challenge is how to use the possibilities technology offers to reinvent the discipline of customer experience management entirely. This means building friendships with your customers.

Forging a friendly relationship between brand and customer is a huge challenge. Take Dunbar's Number for example – the limit of a circle of 150 friends famously set by Professor Richard Dunbar, whose analysis suggests that even in the age of social media we can’t be friends in a meaningful way with more than that number of people.

This feels like a huge challenge. However, attempting to be friends with customers is now a credible objective and a natural step in an age where businesses are increasingly judged on the quality of the experience they offer; as well as on speed and fluidity of service.

So how can brands base their CX strategy around friendship?

1. Establish what makes a good friend

What makes a good friend? We’ve found that answers usually range along the lines of - loyal, reachable, and being open-minded. These qualities also tend to be values that companies want to align themselves with. If the way in which you treat a customer can be embodied by your company culture, you are much more likely to develop meaningful, long-term relationships with your customers.

What’s more, if brands create an attractive culture then customers will want to get involved. Empowering your customer-facing staff to behave naturally and to take the initiative as any friend would is at the heart of the friendship challenge.

Likewise, stripping out unnecessary elements in the conversation is important. When was the last time you asked your friend for feedback on that most recent conversation you had? Or checked in on the quality of your phone call to see if it received a 5-star rating? These interactions seem, at best, unnatural and robotic. Quite often, consumers become irritated at these menial check-ins, and won’t want to pick up that conversation again.

If a process feels unnatural, or if you wouldn’t treat your friends in that way – remove it from your CX strategy. As a CX leader, you'll undoubtedly have an intuition for what is and isn't right.  

2. Discard online ticketing systems

Discarding the clunky online ticketing systems that sit at the core of the first digital customer experience (CX) systems has become a priority for progressive brands. Both emerging digital and established companies are simplifying their software and breaking down data and communication channel siloes, in a bid to more closely reflect the way people communicate with each other in everyday life.

You’d never give a ticket number to a friend that’s waiting to hear back from you, so why would you give one to a customer if you are aiming to treat them with respect and friendship? Smarter prioritisation, removing the queue model and empowering agents are vital elements in the evolution of CX.

3. Flex for a multichannel approach

Instead of issuing a ticket number, multichannel communications technology enables brands to reach out to their customers at a time and through a method that is right for them, no matter where they are in their path-to-purchase journey.

Unifying conversations across email, chat and phone eliminates the impersonal, disjointed, unfriendly and often chaotic experience caused by separate systems for different channels. Once again, you wouldn’t care how your friends contacted you and you wouldn’t forget the first part of a conversation with them regardless of which channel it started on. 

You wouldn’t care how your friends contact you and you wouldn’t forget the first part of a conversation with them regardless of which channel it started on. 

4. Free your data

Data should be regarded as a brand’s most important asset. Most businesses now recognise that a unified Data Management Platform (DMP) structure (also essential for GDPR) has huge benefits for sales performance. The north star for many businesses is to create data analytics, optimisation and action structures that will enable personalised marketing and service – in other words, people-based marketing by unifying customer service data with loyalty, purchasing, media investment and individually tailored marketing data.

CX is a critical element in the holistic data management and usage structure. It is a brand’s front of house - and that front of house experience - that will become far more natural, intuitive and friendly if your team have the full picture about the person they are helping.

5. Create a positive feedback loop

Reviews can make or break a brand. More often than not, a bad CX experience will incite an extreme reaction, because people feel indignant when not being treated well by a brand they are paying for.

Now of course, they have the power to say something about that to a big audience. There is a mountain of marketing evidence telling us today’s consumer values the experience above almost everything else. So, going that extra mile to deliver customer experiences that surprise, delight and deliver is a critical part of the brand experience cycle. One of the core objectives for the next generation of CX technology is to facilitate a warm glow, a friendlier feeling and positive feedback after a brand experience.

Going that extra mile to deliver customer experiences that surprise, delight and deliver is a critical part of the brand experience cycle

CX is maturing fast and is recognised as a vital element in brand engagement and business performance. Digital native brands have recognised this from the off, but heritage businesses are catching up fast and both are opening up the way for the next generation of technologies that will support their customer relationship at scale with a truly human touch.

By taking these steps into account to build a CX strategy around friendship, smashing the Dunbar Number is now a realistic objective for every brand.

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