Customers are like lovers, and as such they have certain needs that must be met, or the deal is off.
This should not surprise you. After all, you’ve heard again and again that purchasing decisions are driven more by emotions than logic. Customers engage in the same justify-to-satisfy tactics that we have all – ahem – used to satiate our appetites. Yes, whether we like to admit it or not, whether the object of our desire is a gorgeous pair of Louboutin dress pumps, a high-end life coach, a sexy piece of premium writing software, or an inappropriate paramour, we find ways to make our decision look good on paper.
Likewise, if we feel emotionally slighted by a brand, we have few qualms about giving it the silent treatment, talking trash behind its back, or breaking up with it (sometimes in a very public forum … just for impact and drama).
Hell hath no fury like a customer offended.
So, what are the basic needs that must be met to ensure a never-ending brand love affair?
Let me tell you.
I recently took a quick trip up to Acadia National Park with my daughter and my beau. Between glorious hikes, we perused the many shops in downtown Bar Harbor. I was struck by how differently we were greeted and treated depending on where we were.
In one shop, we were completely ignored. The girl behind the counter was absorbed in a book and didn’t even look up until we were walking out the door. I’m not sure if she had just noticed us, or was checking to make sure we hadn’t stolen anything.
Now, I’m never one to fault a person for having her nose buried in a book; but there is a time and a place for everything. Without the girl ever saying a word or even making eye contact, I had a very strong sense of being nothing but a bother – an interruption.
In another store, an overly boisterous and ebullient clerk fairly shouted a hello to us from her station behind the register. Though I am sure her approach was well intentioned, it came across as just a bit too much. It felt contrived and affected, like she was playing a part.
As much as the bookworm had offended with her complete lack of attention, this girl offended by making me feel like I was about to be played. I also wondered if maybe she had a caffeine problem.
Finally, we found a store where the staff were not only properly attentive, but actually seemed genuinely interested in us as human beings. One of the saleswomen spent an inordinate amount of time with my daughter – helping her try on apparel that she knew we weren’t going to buy, talking to her about the art of shopping in second-hand stores and accessorizing with flair. She actually went so far as to recommend two consignment shops that were only a few doors away. Because of how we were treated, I ended up buying a $36 skirt for my daughter and several beautiful cards featuring the work of one of my favorite artists (which I only discovered in the back room because I was browsing while my daughter bantered away about hemlines and scarf techniques with the sales woman/stylist).
What does appropriate attention look like online?
Even online, where you don’t have the benefit of face-to-face interactions, there are ways to show too little, too much, and just the right amount of attention. The way your content is written will convey the “voice” of your brand. It can be too you-centric (full of navel gazing), too loud and promotional (like a used care salesman), or it can be welcoming and inviting (like the engaging saleswoman in the clothing shop). Done right, your web copy will visitors the sense of being in the right place. It will encourage them to explore your content and possibly even reach out to you directly via social media or your contact form.
Listening is so important to any relationship, and the brand/consumer relationship is no different. Many brands fail to listen well, which is silly since a) today’s technology makes it easy, and b) listening to your customers is one of the best ways to gain valuable insights into what they want and how you can better serve them (and grow your business at the same time).
There are three steps to listening:
Step 1: Pay Attention
The first thing you need to do is just open your ears. Your customers want to tell you things about their experience with your brand, you just need to be aware of the conversations and tune in. Engage. Participate.
Step 2: Listen Actively
When you are conversing directly with a customer, don’t be distracted by thoughts about how you’re going to respond. Listen with focus. Take your ego’s need to defend/explain/expound out of the equation. Repeat back to the customer what you heard so that she knows you’re really hearing her. Most of the time, that’s all people want – to be acknowledged.
Step 3: Take Action
Finally, the proof that you’ve really listened isn’t part of the conversation. It’s in your actions following the conversations. Like a lover, you have to show that you heard what your partner said by showing that you understand. Lip service is for losers. You need to step up and do what needs to be done. Make changes if that’s what the customer wants. Whatever it takes.
What does real listening look like online?
There are so many ways to listen and engage online. The topic really deserves its own post, but for starters let’s look at a few things that are not real listening:
- A Twitter stream full of automated promotional tweets, a complete lack of @replies, and unanswered DMs. Not listening.
- A collection of ignored Facebook or blog post comments. Not listening.
- Unheeded outcries via ranking of rating sites. Not listening.
… you get the picture.
Trust is one of the great cornerstones of any relationship worth its salt. Without trust, you’ve got nothing.
Though most brands know enough to get their customers to trust them, they forget the importance of also trusting their customers – trusting them to be smart, trusting them to be loyal, trusting them to be ethical. Too often, brands see customers as the enemy – a hoard of faceless entities who might take advantage of the brand or try to “get away” with something.
I saw this a lot when I worked in retail. I was only one year into college and had taken a job at a venerable, family-owned jeweler in Boston’s Jewelry District. Time and time again, I witnessed salespeople cross-examining customers over a return or refusing an exchange over technical details. Security guards and male staffers would hover menacingly around certain customers who were deemed a potential risk and practically chase them out of the store.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a tiny, artist-owned shop in the Rocky Neck Art Colony in Gloucester. Two summers ago, I was there with my beau and found a fun, turquoise-bead necklace. When I went to purchase the item, I was dismayed to find that the shopkeeper only accepted cash or check. I had neither. Instead of losing the sale, the woman invited me to take the necklace home and just mail her a check.
Seriously? Who does that?
That woman does. And she earned my continued patronage with that simple act of trust.
I was back there recently and found the shop open, but empty. Apparently, the woman had recently purchased the ice cream parlor next door and was busy dishing up sundaes. While she was away, she left the shop on “honor system self-serve.” There was literally a box where clients could leave cash for whatever items they wanted to buy … and make their own change as well.
What does two-way trust look like online?
Trust online can be a tricky thing. You don’t want to expose yourself to undue risk, but you also don’t want to wind up letting fear of being “taken” rule your every move. Start by avoiding anything that makes your prospects or customers jump through hoops. Don’t require everything but their shoe size when they register for something. Maybe don’t require them to register at all. Don’t be fanatically overprotective of your content or other intellectual property. Caution and due diligence are one thing, putting up electric fencing and alligator-filled moats is quite another.
Appropriate attention, real listening, and two-way trust. These are the things you need in any relationship, including the one you create with your customers. Don’t turn them off by missing the mark in any of these critical areas. If you do, you’ll be sorry. A customer’s loyalty is hard won and easily lost. What took months to build can shatter in an instant if you misstep by paying the wrong kind of attention, failing to listen well, or putting out distrustful vibes.
But, if you can get it right, you’ll be in for a beautiful romance.
What do you think? Which are the most important elements of a strong brand/customer relationship? What did I miss?
Image Credits: All images from the wonderful Imagine Gallery on Rocky Neck in Gloucester.