Friends with benefits: How close can you get to your customers?
Can customers become friends? It may sound odd but it probably happens every day. My father’s best friend is one of the craftsmen who built my parents’ house back in the day. Back then, it was a relationship between supplier and customer. That contact slowly developed into friendship. Thirty years later they’ve been going on holiday together for many years. A customer becomes a friend.
But the real question is this: can it be done on a larger scale? Does modern technology allow companies to build a meaningful and emotional relationship with multiple customers? Well, the sky is the limit where technology and humanity meet.
Although I must admit that real-life examples are few and far between. Let’s just say this blog is a naive dream of mine.
Customer loyalty is declining
Considering the sharp decline in customer loyalty in recent years, it would appear that a dream is all it is. In his book “How brands grow”, Sharp even negates the classic 80/20 rule. The golden marketing rule that 20% of the customers generate 80% of the turnover, no longer applies. The ratio has shifted towards 60/40 and there are signs pointing to a 50/50 rule for the future. The hard truth is that growth is generated by disloyal customers instead of by loyal customers.
So much for my dream...
Let’s take one step back and wonder why customer loyalty has become such a rare commodity. Is it the consumer? Or have companies been doing everything to alienate their customers? Recently I wanted to book a room in a hotel. I stay there several times a year but usually just for one night. I was told there were no more one-night rooms available and I had to book two nights. This is an economic choice and while I understand their motivation, I was still less than pleased from a customer point of view. As a result, I opted to stay at a different hotel. The hotel put an end to my customer loyalty. This often happens with other companies as well. They keep track of how many new customers come on board but they ignore how many have jumped ship in the meantime.
Many companies don’t understand their customers’ infidelity. After all, they have a loyalty program, don’t they? It’s called a loyalty card. Sharp’s research teaches us that the average loyalty program has little or no impact. Customer loyalty is not earned through loyalty programs.
What if your best friend becomes a customer?
Let’s revisit the question from my dream: Can customers become friends in a world of declining customer loyalty?
To find the answer I’d like to turn the question around for a minute.
What do you do when your best friend becomes a customer?
The answer is simple: you do your very best to make the customer experience enjoyable. Quite possibly you’d try just a tiny bit harder for your best friend than you would for an average customer. After all, your friendship and reputation are on the line. It adds a personal dimension.
What characterises a friendship?
Friends are all about having fun. You also share loads of everyday anecdotes and probably a few secrets as well. It’s fun to surprise good friends from time to time. And, if necessary, you ask them for advice on decisions great and small.
“Can a company build this kind of rapport with a customer”, you ask? Of course they can!
You can even hire specialized agencies for this type of thing. Just ask your creative agency to provide customers with entertainment and the odd surprise. Of course, we also share our daily content with them. Through modern research techniques we even ask their advice.
Turning customers into friends is easy this way. Or is it?
No, it’s not. Keep in mind that friendship goes way beyond what is described above.
Friendship is a deep emotional connection between people. You build memories with your friends. Friends help you without asking anything in return. Friendship is about spending time together. Friends forgive each other’s mistakes and shortcomings.
Can a company build this kind of relationship with a customer? It’s difficult but it can be done. People don’t have all that many friends. Companies can’t become friends with all their customers but it’s still a worthwhile investment. What would life be without true friendship? So how about a company then? What opportunities and quality moments will you miss if none of your customers are your friend?
Doing business from and to the heart
Building a strong emotional connection with your customers is one thing you can’t outsource. It’s about who you are as a company and not so much about what you do. Ben & Jerry, the founders of the eponymous ice cream brand, undoubtedly have friends among their customers. When the Dutch branch founded an online community with B&J fans, both founders decided to pay them a visit. The first 150 fans got to meet Ben and Jerry in person. They clearly thought it was worth investing time in a small group of fans from a relatively small market. Now that is doing business to and from the heart. It’s no coincidence that Ben & Jerry’s is one of the world’s top ten brands when it comes to customer loyalty.
Doing business from and to the heart is an intrinsic quality that a company either has or lacks. It’s extremely difficult to learn. Compare it to someone who’s on a diet versus someone with a healthy lifestyle. When you’re on a diet, it’s so easy to slip back into your old behavior in the face of temptation. Someone with a healthy lifestyle has no trouble whatsoever to continue down the chosen path and simply ignores temptations.
Fortunately some people manage to turn their life around by switching from a diet to a healthy lifestyle. Change is possible but it’s hard. While you can learn how to do business from the heart, it’s very difficult if it’s not in the leaders’/owners’ genes.
Only for small companies?
When you think about this approach, it appears as though this philosophy only applies to smaller companies, like my father who became friends with an SME owner. It’s probably easier in a smaller organization simply because they tend to work more from the heart than from Excel.
Still, some larger companies succeed in doing business this way. A prime example would be Coolblue, the fast growing ecommerce player. This online player is able to project a very human image. Conversations on social media are very personal. The messages on the packaging are emotional. Employees explain how the company’s products work in videos on YouTube. They open offline shops to further improve their relationship with the customer. Very few pure online players decide to open an offline shop with the sole purpose of enhancing customer satisfaction. Today, Coolblue boasts an above average customer loyalty. Doing business to and from the heart generates more customer loyalty than the rational approach.
Doing things together
Offering good customer service from the heart is an important step in building a friendship with your customers but you also have to take it one step further: you have to do things together. My dad and his friend became friends by working on the same project together. When the craftsman was working in our house, my dad would help him during weekends and time off. This collaboration is what sparked the friendship. Involving customers whenever you can is the key to turning a satisfied customer into a friend.
The words “crowdsourcing”, “consumer collaboration” and “co-creation” definitely ring a bell in the corporate world. Unfortunately it’s often the wrong bell. Co-creation usually means that consumers get to play along briefly in a marketing campaign and this purely for PR purposes. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not what I would call a structural collaboration.
In order to become friends, you have to actually work together. Threatless allows its customers to design its entire product catalogue. Telecom player Giffgaff has its customers develop every aspect of their customer service. With this type of collaboration, the customer is on a par with the company. In these two instances, collaboration is more than just an afterthought.
Tupperware was probably one of the first companies to really get this psychological approach. At Tupperware parties, the customers do just about everything. The customers are the event manager, they take care of the catering and the logistic follow-up… As a result, those customers often feel they are an integral part of the company.
Friends with benefits
Can customers become close friends? The answer is unambiguous: yes, they can. It’s not easy, though. Few companies find the right recipe and that is exactly why average customer satisfaction scores are dropping.
Those companies that succeed in building a friendship with the consumer get to reap the benefits. Brand identification research conducted by InSites Consulting has shown that the emotional bond between company and consumer gives rise to a number of beneficial side effects: consumers buy more often and in larger quantities, they are more loyal to the brand and they mention the brand more often. It’s a friendship with benefits.
As I said at the start of this article, this story is probably nothing more than a naive dream. Still, I can’t help thinking we should try to do business from the heart instead of with our minds a bit more often. Even if the results are not encouraging, it will at least make your own life a bit more enjoyable. Good luck!
Steven Van Belleghem is Professor at Vlerick Business School and runs his own inspiration and coaching company, B-Conversational. Steven is also an award-winning author of “The Conversation Manager” and “The Conversation Company”.