Contact Is Not Connection

Have you read the book “The Human Brand?” Based on original research by customer loyalty expert Chris Malone and social psychologist Susan Fiske, it suggests that “people everywhere describe their relationships with brands of all kinds in deeply personal ways — we hate our banks, love our smartphones and think the cable company is out to get us.”

The authors maintain that we relate to companies, brands and even products in the same way that we instinctively respond to other people, making two specific kinds of quick judgments: What are their intentions, and how capable are they of carrying them out?

Called “warmth” and “competence” by social psychologists, these two categories of perception drive most of our attitudes toward each other — and, Malone and Fiske say, cause us to become devoted to certain companies, brands and products.

It’s not really a new idea. Customer relationship management has been around for decades. While most often attached to technology-based systems that monitor and manage leads and contacts, in essence CRM covers all aspects of interaction between a brand and its customers. Its goal is to enable the organization to better understand customers, provide them with positive experiences and engender the kinds of feelings Malone and Fiske claim are now critical to success.

Social media certainly has reawakened corporate sensibilities about the value and power of CRM. Organizations that want to get closer to their customers are jumping on the bandwagon in droves and rapidly trying to exploit social networks like Twitter.

When the messaging service announced its IPO plans last October, filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosed Twitter had 218 million active users as of June 30, 2013 — a 44 percent increase from a year earlier. Many of these new users were companies looking to engage with customers and prove they are making an effort to relate.

But while being retweeted or getting “liked” on Facebook may seem worthwhile, making contact shouldn’t be confused with making a connection. Such social CRM efforts may not be stirring up the desired “warm fuzzies” Malone and Fiske describe.

What’s missing? A recent study by IBM suggests that, even though today’s businesses are fervently building social media programs to get closer to customers, the assumption that consumers are seeking them out on social sites to feel connected to their brands is wrong. It turns out customers are far more pragmatic.

According to Carolyn Baird, global CRM research leader at the IBM Institute for Business Value, customers are more interested in getting “tangible value in return for their time, attention, endorsement and data.” She suggests businesses may be confusing their own desire for customer intimacy with consumers’ motivations for engaging. And what customers want are authentic, relevant relationships that deliver real value and reward their involvement with competence and quality experiences.

For years, we’ve been talking about running learning like a business. CRM and brand management are core parts of it. Within the larger enterprise, your learning organization has its own brand. It represents how you are perceived and regarded by your customers — the internal and external users of your workforce development programs — and their response to it indicates whether they feel like they are getting what they really want and need from you.

So, if you applied the theories espoused by Malone and Fiske, how would your customers rate your learning organization for demonstrating competence and worthy intentions?

Would they “like” the range and depth of development programs provided? Would they say they love to attend training or think it’s a waste of time? Would they feel they have access to all the knowledge, tools and resources they need? Do they believe you are capable of consistently delivering valuable learning with clearly defined outcomes? Would they describe what you do as just offering courses or offering opportunities? More important, would they say you are truly connected with their individual development needs as well as with the overall objectives of the business?

It’s something worth thinking about.