The insurance company wrote to me again. That can only mean it’s a bill or a change in policy. Either way it’s more expensive – literally, because I’m paying more, or metaphorically because I’m getting less for the money I do pay.
I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been to where marketing managers in the financial sector and in utilities have told me that they are keen to build closer relationships with their customers. They want more loyalty, they want customers to engage with them. Everyone nods.
But then their customer service teams keep sending out the same bills and policy changes, and they wonder why they don’t have more likeable brands. It’s not rocket science. In fact it requires something much more daunting. A change of heart.
In order to relate to customers as people, insurance companies need to start thinking of those customers as more than named policies, phone companies need to see them as more than accounts, electricity companies need to see the people who pay their bills as more than bill payers.
If brands in these sectors want people to associate them with more than just money, then they need to have conversations with them that extend beyond money. And for many organisations in these sectors that’s very, very difficult – they have nothing else to talk about, because their culture is honed to think about nothing less. It’s not that they are usually particularly greedy or even obsessive. It’s just how they have always talked to customers – as customers, rather than as people.
But the relationships between customers, services and experiences have shifted massively with the maturation of social media, and will continue to do so. Not long ago, people were sold services, and experiences were a value-add. Increasingly, people buy into the philosophies of likeable brands and then expect validation of that worldview when they purchase products. That validation comes through the experiences they receive when they buy and the ways that the brand itself looks to engage with its customers.The things it talks about socially. The causes it supports. The subjects it is interested in. The areas it engages with in the media.
In a pre-Google world, where it was so much harder to access data, brands provided information and people saw that as a cornerstone of the experience. We judged brands by their ads or their correspondence for example – because it was so much harder to judge them any other way. In an online-centric world, brands need to prove they are likeable and offer experiences that people are interested in across a wide range of fronts before anyone pays much attention to the information that brands want to send them.
And without that buy-in, the information itself is considered worthless. It’s something people ‘have no time for’. They’re too busy – read, they’re too busy to give whatever it is their time.
Here’s a great presentation by Steve Dimakis, the Senior Media Planner at MEC Wellington using research done by Argyle Social on just how much brands need to be thinking about as they engage with consumers, particularly in the emerging social channels.
But engaging like this, in ways that encompass but also extend beyond the business relationship, are a massive disruption for conservative institutions. Imagine a general insurance company having to think about and talk about motorbikes for example instead of just focusing on motorbike policies. A specialist insurer might do that, but for a general deliverer, that seems too hard. Which is why these companies revert to what they do feel comfortable talking about and why customers revert to believing that’s all they want to talk about.
An explanation in writing, however nicely phrased, of why customers need to pay more for their policies is not a conversation. It’s not even interesting to the consumer. It’s just more correspondence. It’s paperwork. It’s another brand talking about itself on its terms. And that, consumers find, increasingly socially unacceptable, in the broadest interpretation of that idea.
What likeable brands recognise that other brands do not is that they need to earn the right to talk with people. They don’t automatically have that right. Or rather they may have it technically, but they must keep earning it emotionally.