Customer Experience

OPINION

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 whatjournalists are looking for from the companies they cover.

Usually, these are straightforward discussions — journalists want access and they wanthonesty. Like everyone else, they’re more inclined to tell a good story afterhearing a good story.

Every now and then, though, a PR pro will reveal an ulterior motive, askingquestions like, “How can we get journalists to write this the way we want themto write it?” or “Is there any way we can get writers to include us in any story theywrite about our biggest competitor?”

The answer is no. Journalists are autonomous beings who can see through suchefforts — that’s part of their job — and they tend to harbor resentment toward thosewho think they can manipulate them and get them to serve a business’ needs.

Now, look at that previous paragraph, and replace “journalists” with “customers.” Itholds equally true.

Bountiful Opportunities

We have more opportunities to interact with customers today through theproliferation of channels technology is creating. These channels can help businessesbuild relationships, and those relationships can generate increased loyalty, higherlevels of satisfaction, and the conditions that lead to good word of mouth, consistentrenewals and greater upselling opportunities

How do you get customers to that point? By engaging them — and doing so in a waythat allows them to turn into those loyal advocates on their own. You can’t forceor command them to do so, nor are there methods to achieve this transformationwithout the customers’ willing participation.

That is not to say that you should be passive and hang back, letting the customersteer every aspect of the conversation. That’s not viewed as a method of relationshipbuilding — it’s seen as apathy. Instead, you need to do what smart PR people dowhen they try to reach journalists: Involve them in your story, and allow them tothen make that story their own.

You do you do this? Start by ratcheting back the selling and instead becomeauthentic. People would rather have a conversation than sit through a sales pitch, soparticipate in conversations — especially the ones you don’t initiate. Use socialmedia to show your expertise and your willingness to help. This is all about buildingtrust.

Get Creative

The next step is engagement. This is where you can get clever — it’s aboutconversations 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 wayto 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. Thisis an ingenious effort — it makes customers the stars while at the same time tyingthem closely to the brand/band. Do you think any of them feel manipulated orforced into making a version of the band’s song? Certainly not — instead, they feellike 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 oranother, and they’re much more likely to see them when the Avett Brothers play intheir 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 itscustomers send in designs, and then customers vote on those designs to pick whatthe company sells. That makes these customers instantly invested in what thecompany’s doing — and makes them much more likely to buy their products. No onefeels 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 fromthese peer relationships is stored, and the hub from which different parts of thebusiness access it to improve the efficiency of your business — and to further enhancecustomer relationships.

No matter how effective you are at bringing a communityof customers together, that can all be unraveled by bad service or the impressionthat you don’t know who your customers are. There’s no way you can store andaccess all the insights that are to be gleaned from these relationships right in theheads 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 likecattle and instead engage them with experiences that make them enjoy the process of becoming customers, advocates and participants in your business.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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