Humanism. Can we scale it?

06 Mar
March 6, 2014


“any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”

There is a revolution going on.  A revolution in the way customers are finding, interacting, and advocating for a wide variety of good and services.  The revolution extends way beyond the Internet, yet is fueled by the amount of information and the ease of access.  And it’s going to get more and more intense.  One response by certain brands to this new era of information provided by the Internet and social media is to focus on becoming more “human” in their interactions with customers.  How, and why are they doing so?

Brands have recognized, through this revolution, and through academic knowledge and experiments like those documented in “The Human Brand – How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies”, by Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske, that loyalty, advocacy, and connection toward a brand is driven from just two things: warmth and competence.  In fact, the human brain is wired to identify both these elements from a stranger’s face in just seconds.  The research goes on to suggest that brands are stand-ins for people, logos are substitutes for faces, and companies are the equivalent of tribes.  Brands can, and do, exhibit warmth and competence in varying degrees.  Warmth describes the nature of how the stranger or brand appears as friend or foe.  Competence is the appearance of how successful they’d be in carrying out their intentions. We have an immediate and spontaneous attraction to signs of warmth and competence.

As more companies make their customer support and sales efforts more human-centered, people will raise their expectations about what is acceptable in their interactions with brands.  If the brand is not fundamentally committed to bringing more human connections to its underlying business processes, those expectations will be unmet, driving the potential customer further away instead of closer to advocacy.  Moreover, trying to fake warmth and competence merely commoditizes the effort, backfiring on a fundamental basis.  For example, grocery stores issue loyalty reward cards.  Most people of one for every store they frequent, obviating the intended response.  More and more consumers are coming to understand that the rewards they get – through frequent flyer miles, grocery cards, and credit card refunds, are actually a tax (just read the fine print) on the goods and services they purchase to reward heavy users, and result in increased costs without actually driving more loyalty at all from most people.  Though it sounds odd, the complexity of these programs ensures that many of the “rewards” are never actually delivered to customers.   A recent study of credit card reward programs concluded customers and card issuers are both worse off from these rewards.

It is not rewards that create warmth, nor programs that deliver competence.  Worthy intentions signal behaviors of deserving loyalty.  Those intentions are manifested in elements like knowing a person’s name, and delivering some extra attention.   Creating opportunities to connect with your customers in a meaningful way can lead to better loyalty and advocacy – even if it is to respond to a complaint.

In the 2010 Customer Experience Management Survey, Strativity Group discovered that customer who complain, and then experience promptness and respect, become more loyal than others.

The question remains: can we use a combination of design centered thinking, information systems technology, and just plain good customer service management to deliver a human approach to our customers as our brands grow larger and more global, or are those large brands doomed to be fractionalized by niche companies setting the bar on “humanism” by the very nature of their size?

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