Quit Trying to Control Your Customers
As a technology journalist, I interact with public relations professionals regularly, to the point where some firms have asked me to speak internally about what journalists are looking for from the companies they cover.
Usually, these are straightforward discussions -- journalists want access and they want honesty. Like everyone else, they're more inclined to tell a good story after hearing a good story.
Every now and then, though, a PR pro will reveal an ulterior motive, asking questions like, "How can we get journalists to write this the way we want them to write it?" or "Is there any way we can get writers to include us in any story they write about our biggest competitor?"
The answer is no. Journalists are autonomous beings who can see through such efforts -- that's part of their job -- and they tend to harbor resentment toward those who think they can manipulate them and get them to serve a business' needs.
Now, look at that previous paragraph, and replace "journalists" with "customers." It holds equally true.
We have more opportunities to interact with customers today through the proliferation of channels technology is creating. These channels can help businesses build relationships, and those relationships can generate increased loyalty, higher levels of satisfaction, and the conditions that lead to good word of mouth, consistent renewals and greater upselling opportunities
How do you get customers to that point? By engaging them -- and doing so in a way that allows them to turn into those loyal advocates on their own. You can't force or command them to do so, nor are there methods to achieve this transformation without the customers' willing participation.
That is not to say that you should be passive and hang back, letting the customer steer every aspect of the conversation. That's not viewed as a method of relationship building -- it's seen as apathy. Instead, you need to do what smart PR people do when they try to reach journalists: Involve them in your story, and allow them to then make that story their own.
You do you do this? Start by ratcheting back the selling and instead become authentic. People would rather have a conversation than sit through a sales pitch, so participate in conversations -- especially the ones you don't initiate. Use social media to show your expertise and your willingness to help. This is all about building trust.
The next step is engagement. This is where you can get clever -- it's about conversations you start, and they don't have to take the shape of a Facebook thread. They don't even have to involve social media -- although that's a very effective way to reach a lot of people quickly.
They can come in many flavors; check out what the band the Avett Brothers is doing with their "Live and Die" cover contest. This is an ingenious effort -- it makes customers the stars while at the same time tying them closely to the brand/band. Do you think any of them feel manipulated or forced into making a version of the band's song? Certainly not -- instead, they feel like peers or partners, and they contribute quite literally to positive word of mouth. And I bet they all bought the band's new album in one format or another, and they're much more likely to see them when the Avett Brothers play in their town.
Another good example is that of the T-shirt company Threadless, often used by Paul Greenberg and others to illustrate how to build genuine intimacy and partnerships with customers. Threadless has its customers send in designs, and then customers vote on those designs to pick what the company sells. That makes these customers instantly invested in what the company's doing -- and makes them much more likely to buy their products. No one feels manipulated or used -- they feel like part of the Threadless team.
How does CRM technology play into this? It's where all the data you collect from these peer relationships is stored, and the hub from which different parts of the business access it to improve the efficiency of your business -- and to further enhance customer relationships.
No matter how effective you are at bringing a community of customers together, that can all be unraveled by bad service or the impression that you don't know who your customers are. There's no way you can store and access all the insights that are to be gleaned from these relationships right in the heads of your employees; that's what CRM is there to do for you.
If you want people to do things you want them to do, stop trying to drive them like cattle and instead engage them with experiences that make them enjoy the process of becoming customers, advocates and participants in your business.