If you read the emails in some of my previous posts on happiness, you’ll quickly recognize some of the same themes and ‘happiness triggers’ at work. As customers what we want usually boils down to the same basic three things: We want the process of purchasing and receiving an item to happen quickly, we want quality products and we hope that through the entire process there’s something that feels personal and friendly about the experience (whether it’s in the ordering process or through customer service after the fact).
Getting what you want when you want it is great. No hassle, no screw-ups, just the facts ma’am.
But, as I’ve said before, it’s really only the bare minimum for happiness and is a lot closer to meaning ‘you weren’t unhappy’ than leading to any true happiness as a customer. It’s the last item, the personal connection, where the difference is being made right now and it’s a lesson being learned across the world in just about every type of business.
What’s fascinating about the personal connection is that it’s the one thing on the list of what we want as a consumer that we don’t really need. If you buy something and it’s broken or it shows up late, you’ll feel cheated and have something to complain about. If you get exactly what you want and it shows up on time, you’re not going to get upset because you didn’t form a relationship with the store owner or didn’t feel a personal connection – strangely enough you usually won’t even realize it’s been missing until it’s actually there to appreciate. "Business as usual" usually means just that, business.
Where did the personal connection go in business and how did we wind up not really expecting it anymore?
Over the last 50 years or so we’ve quickly transitioned from a society built on small, local businesses to seeing many of those ‘mom and pop’ stores pushed out to make room for larger chains which don’t offer the same personal experience. Add the Internet to the mix and suddenly making purchases became an experience that could literally be done with ZERO human contact or interaction.
In a lot of ways, it’s easy to argue that we all want that simplicity. We love the idea of not having to talk to a pestering salesperson, not having to interact unnecessarily (or even leave the house) and just being able to get what we know we want, on time and for a fair price. It’s simple and efficient. But, deep down, most of us still crave that personal connection whether you even realize it or not. And amazingly enough, the Internet, the same medium that seemed poised to bury the coffin of ‘personal commerce’, is now bringing it back thanks to the broad umbrella of social media.
“You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
The Internet has always been a communication tool. I was lucky enough to be young and computer-savvy when the early incarnations of the Internet started to creep into the home. Sure there was talk of research and libraries and access to information, but all of my first online experiences were based around connecting with other people. From BBS’s to chat rooms to just connecting directly by modem to someone in another state (“Hey man, what's your parity and baud rate?") - it was always about breaking down the barriers of communication. I remember using my modem for the very first time to connect with a neighbor a few streets over, it probably took 3 hours of troubleshooting settings and was an awful lot of trouble when I could have just picked up the phone to talk, but it was all about the connection. Seeing a conversation appear on my screen from someone else, regardless of where they were, it was obvious even then that there was something to that connectedness - the future felt right around the corner. Fast forward 20 some years and we’re now calling all this connectedness ‘social media’, but the message is the same: we’re clearly a social species that craves to be connected (well, that and we all love hilarious videos).
Why social media works for people is obvious, but one of the most surprising side effects of social media in the last few years is that it became amazingly clear that people don’t just want to connect with and follow each other’s lives, they’re also interested in connecting with businesses. Why in the world would anyone want to be online ‘friends’ with a business?!?!?
The answer lies in what I refer to as The Cheers Effect:
You go to the same bar or coffee shop enough times and suddenly the person behind the counter knows your name and what you like to drink. You walk into your local hardware store and they remember the project you’ve been working on and ask about the progress. The benefits to these relationships can range from getting discounts and perks to just the simple emotional reward of having someone know who you are and appreciate your support to their business. While the perks are nice, we tend to form these relationships because ultimately it feels good to know people on the other side of the counter. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
In my college days, there was a guy named Al who worked at “The Cave”, one of the cafeterias on campus (Trinity College in Hartford, CT). I first met him before I was even a student at the school, I stopped in for lunch while I was taking a tour of the school as a high school senior. He asked my name and we had a brief and funny conversation, he even predicted that I would go to school there and said he would see me in the Fall. After being there for a few minutes it was obvious that I wasn’t special, he seemed to know and talk to everyone. Several months later, I walked into The Cave and there was Al.
“Seth, right? I told you you’d be here in the Fall.”
My jaw almost dropped to the floor. Not only did he remember my face, he even remembered my name after meeting me once and not knowing whether he would ever see me again. The crazy thing is that I was right, I wasn’t really special – Al knew everyone’s name. Not only that, he also knew exactly what your favorite sandwich was and when your classes were. Got a 2:15 class? You could even count on Al to have your favorite sandwich ready for you at the time you normally came in.
Clearly Al had an amazing gift for memory beyond anything I can even comprehend, but the point of the story is that it created a personal connection that stuck with me to this day. Granted it was on a college campus so I didn’t have many options for where to eat, but if that relationship existed anywhere else I would be a customer for life.
As I said above, the birth of e-commerce eroded the ability to form many of those personal connections between businesses and their patrons. But, social media and all its various apps and networks have finally found a way to harness those connections and make them meaningful again in an online world. It will never capture the connections that are possible in person, but it triggers many of the same emotional responses and comes with many of the same perks. We follow businesses online for a chance to interact with them, to be the first to know about sales and promotions and simply to be part of a larger network. Visit your favorite coffee shop enough and you can now be the “Mayor” of that place. You can take a photo of yourself using a company’s product and post it directly to their Facebook page. If it’s managed well you should quickly get a thank you from the business itself. Be a big enough ‘fan’ online and you’ll likely manage to get perks and rewards from the company much like you would in person.
If there’s a place you do business with a lot you want to feel like a ‘regular’ - and the businesses that recognize your support and respond to it are the ones that will keep you as a customer. Social media has now given customers and businesses the chance to bring that Cheers Effect into an online setting.
Even more importantly, when you actually become a regular at a place what do you often do next? You bring in some of your friends to share that connection.
The ‘lone drinker regular’ at the bar probably doesn’t fit this example, but in almost every other case we tend to share (show off?) these relationships once we’ve built them. “Go down to the hardware store and tell him you’re a friend of mine” or “Let’s go that bar, I know the bartender”.
This is where social media shines in embracing the Cheers Effect, we not only have the ability to form relationships with brands and companies, we also have the ability to show that relationship to our friends and spread the word about places we love (and that love us) with only a few clicks. It’s really not much more than simple relationship building and mutual respect between a business and a patron, but it’s been much less common than you think and only now beginning to be possible in an online setting.
Sure, there will always be people who don’t crave that connectedness. They may enter the same coffee shop every day without speaking a word or caring whether anyone even notices their patronage. These same people probably aren’t using Facebook and don’t have any interest in subscribing to your company newsletter or participating in your next contest no matter how much they like your products. But, the explosive growth of networks like Facebook and Twitter is proof enough that as a society we’re overwhelmingly craving that connectedness and it applies to businesses as much as it does to personal relationships.
It should be pointed out that for this relationship to work the business owner needs to crave the same connectedness (or at least care enough to make it part of their business strategy). For every Al there is a Soup Nazi who believes that he has the best product and doesn’t need to care what you think or who you are as a person. As I said at the beginning of this post, the interesting thing about the personal connection is that when we shop online we’ve been conditioned not to expect much of one, so online companies traditionally haven’t been losing any business by not engaging. But, as social media for businesses becomes as common as the neon ‘OPEN!’ sign, I believe we’ll quickly get to the point where some kind of friendly, personal connection is once again expected and when it’s missing it will be as noticeable as bad service is today.
It’s the little things that matter most and right now we’re entering the rebound period – the personal connection has been lost in e-commerce for too long and now it’s the companies that are embracing it (from big companies like Zappos.com to small businesses like Trek Light Gear) that will succeed (I hope) as a result. The simple fact that you have a good website and a strong social media presence can easily be enough to make someone choose to give you their business over a similar competitor with a lesser connection to its customers.
I can’t change the fact that I have competition in my market, if you want a lightweight hammock you can certainly get one from other brands, but I hear from people all the time who say “I chose you because I started reading your blog and following you online and I love what you’re doing”. That’s why I do what I do, in the age of the Internet you can’t just hope that people don’t know about your competition, you have to give people a reason to feel good about being a customer of yours. It’s the little things, and it’s personal.
Social Media is a broad term and as a business owner you can use social media for any number of things - contests, viral videos, community building and all things marketing. But the most important thing you need to focus on is WHY you're doing it and why it works.
Commerce at its core is boring – you trade money for an object that you want or need. The product alone isn’t enough anymore, it’s the relationship between a business and its customers that is the next big product (all over again).
If you own a business, what are you doing to make sure that your best customers have a chance to feel like regulars?
As a consumer, what are some examples of ways that companies have made you feel a personal connection even in an online environment?