Regular readers of this blog might recall my unbridled enthusiasm for the Cluetrain Manifesto, which signals the empowerment of consumers through the web. Really stirring stuff, and most of it falls into the category of obvious-when-you-think-about-it. Here's a bumper sticker version. And scroll down to the 95 theses on this page for the call to arms. It all begs the question; why aren't all companies already behaving this way?
As I mentioned previously, while I'm a firm supporter of the Cluetrain principles, I feel that the book dismissed "old marketing" a little too lightly. Mass marketing is still very effective for communicating product information and reinforcing brand presence. There are plenty of areas where it's done well, where it still works, and leads to increased sales. And so long as traditional media exists (such as newspapers), there still exists a demand for the humble press release and other traditional PR activities. How can we strip out the bad, leave the good, and augment it with these new principles?
I put this uneasiness to Deborah Schultz (internet-industry veteran and innovator) at the recent FOWA conference, which opened up an interesting discussion about how companies can achieve these objectives. Consensus was quickly reached that old marketing isn't going away any time soon. Quite apart from the fact that it still seems to work, we have to acknowledge that huge amounts of money are involved and people's livelihood depends on this industry. Resistance is inevitable and understandable.
The answer lies, in part, in the way that customer service is treated. Certain companies tend to treat customer service as another vertical installation, alongside HR, accounts, product development, traditional marketing and so on - sometimes going so far as outsourcing the entire customer service department off-shore. The counter-argument is that customer service is something that should sit horizontally across all the other lines of business, where it can be much more effective.
There are lots of reasons why this is the way to do it, ranging from the power of employee blogging (and being allowed to comment on blogs about your product/service), to the quality of your end product when the customer's goals are at the heart of the development process. But I'll focus on one element for now; the importance of one-on-one conversation.
This is where traditional marketing has fallen down, and where the new methods can make a huge difference. Customers have had enough of foreign call centres, scripted conversations, interactive call response, and other symptons of silo'd customer service. When customer service sits right across the company structure, this encourages a culture whereby problems can be handled by the right person more quickly, making it a far more satisfying experience for customers and staff alike. This conversational exchange leads to relationships, which in turn leads to transactions. This process turns disgruntled customers into loyal advocates.
Of course, to suggest all this can happen overnight in a big organisation is unrealistic. But the message to all large companies is that younger, more nimble competitors are doing this stuff already. Tech-savvies in their 20s and 30s are growing up with high expectations. It's time to innovate on an institutional level - or face the unpleasant consequences!