Is the relationship between the customer and us really the one that counts?
There is no denying the importance of relationships in marketing, although we are pretty keen to jump to the assumption that it is the relationship between the brand/company and customer that is all important. Certainly, all the hype over customer relationship management suggests this assumption is reality, but it is worth asking if the relationship between the customer and us really is the one that counts. Obviously, I am going to suggest that it is only one of the relationships that matter and just maybe it is not the really important one.
But, perhaps we should start with another assumption, that we actually have a relationship at all. The truth is that relationship as we use the term is a metaphor. We have relationships with other people and each person in the relationship is equal (and no doubt when one is more equal than the other the relationship will have a problem). In marketing despite all the talk, the relationship is based on the fundamental need for somebody to buy something from us. We must remember it was marketers, not customers, who came up with the idea of a relationship between the two.
Just how precarious this position is, is demonstrated by a simple matrix. Down one side simply put positive or negative towards a relationship from the company perspective and across the other positive or negative from the consumer perspective. A quick look makes it clear that in only one box is a relationship possible, in the other three it is impossible, because one or both parties doesn’t want one. Now, of course it depends on how many people are in each box, but the odds are that in the current climate there are a lot of people who do not want a relationship with a company. Instead they want things like low prices and service.
But, let’s move on from arguing about the terminology and think a little more about the situation. If we take a broader look at the buying of products and services, we can easily see that a multitude of relationships exist in and around the act of buying. As business people we know all too well the importance of relationships with suppliers who make up the supply and value chains. But then we take this perspective and assume that the importance of relationships with the company also applies to customers.
The unfortunate reality is that for the person doing the buying, they are not a consumer they are someone who sometimes consumes. For us in our everyday lives, buying stuff from companies is what we do sometimes, not what we do all the time. Obvious? Yes, but it is also important. Because that means we have lots of other things in our lives, including real relationships. You know, the ones we have with our partners, families, children and friends.
That takes us back to the point we made earlier, we have relationships with people, other people, and they are the important relationships for us. They are the ones that provide our love, identity and meaning for living. Unlike those that we have with companies, except perhaps the ones we work for.
So now we can consider the “with whom” question. And for me the answer is that the important relationships are with other people, not with companies, (and as a small aside not with technology, we can not have a real relationship with a computer). When I go snowboarding it is the relationships with my friends and teenage daughter that are important (even if she now jumps higher, faster and more cleanly than me), not the one with the manufacturer of my snowboard. Now if that seems pretty normal, and we can apply that logic to many other categories from foods to clothes to cars, then we should probably seriously consider whether the relationship that really matters is the one between a brand and the customer.
It suggests to me that instead of building relationships between brands and customers we should consider whether the real role of the brand is to foster the relationships that matter to customers. At a simple level, is the relationship between the phone company and the customer really that important? The phone is actually a tool to foster the relationships that matter, between me and my friends and family. So instead of trying to understand, measure and grow the relationship between the customer and phone company we should be trying to build and enhance the relationships between customers in ways that benefit both the customer and the company. Clearly, some phone companies understand this, as demonstrated by free calls between phones on the same network, and family and friends packages.
Back to the snowboard and it seems Salomon recognises this as well. Instead of attempting to build relationships with customers, something that young snowboarders will reject anyway, they attempt to build their brand by fostering or facilitating the relationships between the ‘boarders. They build parks and offer workshops and equipment to try. Not for one-to-one relationship building, but to get the boarders talking and doing stuff (like big jumps that they do on purpose).
This is in fact a reality in most youth markets, as young people tend to be rather dismissive of corporate overtures. They are willing to use what is offered to them, but are not interested in anything that would appear to be an unequal relationship. It must be said that this is true of more and more people, with a study in 2001 suggesting that more than 90% of English consumers thought that despite all the talk about relationships, companies were only in it to benefit themselves.
If this makes sense then we are looking at a rather fundamental change in our thinking. It suggests that our focus on the individual is often misguided. Because all too often we forget that individuals exist within complex groups, (tribes, herds, networks or whatever else we want to call them). And it is the interactions between the members of these groups that is important. Which is of course, why word of mouth is so important.
There is a gradual recognition of this among academics in a number of fields and it is called The Latin School of Societing, which reflects its background in Latin countries. These academics argue that we are leaving the era of the individual and returning to our basic need for being part of a group (perhaps with the exception of the US which seems to be continuing with its emphasis on individualism). Without the individual being primary, concepts such as one-to-one marketing and the process orientations of customer relationship management make less sense.
Instead of thinking about individuals and our relationships with them we need to start thinking about people as belonging to groups or networks. Of how, networks operate as dynamic systems with the added complexity that people belong to multiple networks. There are some industries that are ideally placed to explore these areas, such as sporting clubs and phone companies, while for others it may demand understanding what someone does with our messages, rather than trying to understand the whole network.
We should also look for inspiration in other dynamic systems, such as those we see in biology, which may be better metaphors for the marketplace than the rather over-rated relationship and commitment metaphors we currently rely on. An ideal starting point is to understand what is called a ‘new kind of science’, which essentially says we need to understand that life is due to processes within dynamic systems and not linear links between the things that make up the body. Just as the biology we studied at school is dramatically changing, so should our conceptions of relationships within markets.
And if this still hasn’t convinced you, consider this: Instant messaging (IM) is the fastest growing communication medium in the world today. What is so different about IM is that the user decides who they will and will not allow onto their buddy list. Only those on the list can join in the chat, no-one else can intrude, and that certainly means no marketer who wants to have a relationship with the user. The user decides and if the buddy lists of people I know, from teenagers to those in their 40’s, are anything to go by, these lists are made up of important relationships, such as friends and family. SMS briefly offered the same thing, texting your friends in class. No wonder there is so much concern about so-called CRM that uses SMS, and why viral marketing is so important in youth markets.
On that final note I am going to dinner with the most important relationship in my life.
Peter Wells is a founder of Nilewide, a diverse group that seeks out and analyses the latest thinking in marketing strategy. The results are available through the services of Nilewide and Brainfruit and fortunately appeal to marketers and their agencies in all major markets and across many industries.