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Has ecommerce driven a depersonalisation of business-consumer relationships?

31st Aug 2014
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Where I grew up, you were born into one of two fanatic tribes, it wasn’t a case of becoming a fan. Specifically, you either supported Liverpool FC or Everton football clubs. Any poor mite born into a family of Tranmere Rovers fans would struggle to break free from their Dad (and fourth division) and ingratiate themselves with the two main clubs. Football really was something to fight, and form friendships, over.

Football is one of those things that stirs up a territorial, unshakeable loyalty in the UK. Whichever club you were born into growing up, you couldn’t change your mind even if sometimes you did disagree with what your club did. Importantly, this devotion didn’t go unnoticed: players gave back to their local fans, and loyalty was on both sides. This symmetry of commitment is something that’s vital for creating long-standing relationships.

The same could be said for businesses and brands vying for customers’ attention and, ultimately, their loyalty in a crowded market. Customers are time-poor and choice-rich, which can present challenges.

When it comes down to it, brands today can buy our loyalty more cheaply than 20 years ago, and the symmetry of loyalty has adjusted accordingly.

Depersonalisation

In my view, ecommerce has driven this depersonalisation of business-consumer relationships. For example, I use Amazon’s service a lot as I think it’s great (I may even be a ‘promoter’). But at the end of the day, it’s just a website – it doesn’t stir up the affection and passion in me that Liverpool FC does. Emotional loyalty is dependent on human relationships that (most) people don’t derive from a website, no matter how far web designers move from a corporate to a casual tone, incorporating a ‘friendly’ design throughout.

This also goes part way to explaining why people hate automated customer service systems so much; they take away the last remaining point of human contact that many customers crave from a business. Despite business success always being underpinned by solid figures, many of the world’s most successful brands differentiate their offering on the basis of service and customer care, not just visibility or price.

Case in point: vinyl is making a comeback. I recently got back in touch with my inner geek and dusted off my Rega Planar 3, which takes me straight back to my university years. Listening to my old records is less about the sound quality than the enjoyment and nostalgia. Now that digital tracks are accessible for next to nothing, I seek out a more substantial and human experience.

The same thing has happened in the PC industry, where we have observed that since the 1990s the average PC has lowered in price from $2,500 to $500, and the manufacturing margins have also dropped from around 35% to just 5%. This once expensive product is no longer defined by cost; it’s the experiential factors, such as colour, that have come to the fore to define desirability.

So has this altered the nature of what it means to be a fan? There’s no doubt in my mind that efficiency has levelled the playing field, because the battle for customer loyalty is no longer won on a cost basis – quite frankly, we want more for less. Although I must reiterate that I am not advocating that businesses can have a great human touch without backing it up with a good back-end process. But without customers at the centre of an experience, businesses will struggle to build up a genuine and devoted fan base.

Richard Owen, CEO Satmetrix, will be speaking at the annual Net Promoter Conference hosted at the Chelsea Football Club, London, from 10-11th September 2014. For information and to purchase tickets, please visit: http://www.satmetrix.com/net-promoter/conferences/

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