In the 1950s, “customer service” didn’t even exist. It was part of the fabric of the way everyone did business, but no one spoke or wrote about it. It meant that an employee at a hardware store or grocery store was carrying your shopping bag to your car. It meant that the milkman delivered dairy products right to your doorstep. It meant receiving a handwritten thank you note from the local family department store for purchasing a poodle skirt for the big dance.
Some time after this, the service changed and became a bit confusing as we focused on other priorities: we paid attention to civil rights and international conflicts and equal treatment at work and at home. Businesses simply tried to survive, and as the more traditional fabric frayed, the service became more rushed and less personal.
Customer service made a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s, and with it came CRM – Customer Relationship Management. Paper customer diaries – customer records of purchases, preferences, and personal information – began to move online. Trends were followed. Segmentation was employed and exploited. It was all about “surprise and delight,” and businesses and customers alike benefited for a time. However, it should be noted that this was a milestone on the loss of privacy journey.
Over time, it became increasingly difficult to surprise and delight … companies calculated that this cost more than they had planned. Customers realized that their standards and expectations had increased, and they grew weary and disappointed, as companies were unable to support these expectations. Fortunately, the customer experience came along and ‘wow’ was reintroduced. In this new era, it was no longer enough to provide complimentary packaging for that special jewelry purchase, or to know that the name of your best customer’s dog was Fluffy Magoo. Providing a great customer experience meant that the complimentary wrapping paper had Fluffy’s photo printed on it. It meant that whether the customer shopped at the store, on their laptop, or from their smartphone, Fluffy’s wish list was accessible. It meant that a purchase from this wish list would result in a 5% donation to the local animal shelter, by the company. The stakes were growing, and the new ways to reach and impact the customer were innovative and exciting, and again expensive. It is human nature to get tired of the same thing. It is human nature to want something new. We wonder what is better, what is different and what is next.
So while the customer experience remains strong, there will inevitably be a ‘next’ and companies will want to be there to welcome the future customer. What is this “next”?
To set the stage, let’s talk about social influencers. In the mid-1980s, the Social Influencers at my high school were two young women, let’s call them Annie and June, who couldn’t have been more different from each other, but they were equally revered and observed for their style and demeanor. Annie was from a wealthy family and was known for her blonde hair that always looked perfect on visits to a royal salon (most of us went to the SuperCuts mall to take our chances), and for having all the colors (14!) From Izod. Lacoste crocodile polo shirt (now known as Lacoste) that I had purchased in a larger city (our little town only had two colors in the local Bon-Ton). It was very tasteful and managed to achieve the “pink and green” color scheme that was so popular, without looking tacky. She was always smiling, never swearing, she had a million friends (today’s “team”) and all her teachers loved her. She was the Taylor Swift of her day, and what I would call an “active” influencer. June, on the other hand, wore the same pair of faded Levi’s every day (but they fit her like Brooke’s Calvins), had frizzy and unruly hair, rarely wore makeup, and had a pose that reminded her of James Dean (? June Dean?). He was super smart, a little distant, and a little unpredictable. I think people, including his teachers, were a little scared of him. She was super cool without even trying. She was the nasty Sophia Amoruso girl of her day. She was a “passive” influencer, as she never talked about herself, her clothes, or her friends.
I admired them both, and I still wear Levi’s at the age of 51 (both old and faded, new and dark and sharp). And, I have a neatly folded white Izod shirt and a lime green in my closet, which served me well this summer. Annie and June, all these years later, you still have influence.
Why are social influencers important, and what do they have to do with the next wave of customer service and customer experience?
This next wave is what I call Consumer Fusion. Why “consumer” and not “customer”? Customer implies a purchase, an exchange of money for goods or services. The consumer is broader: you can consume something (a free game in Central Park, a sunset on the beach in Cape May), without expressly paying for it, and without realizing in some cases, to which brand, company or institution you have to thank the consumption. You need (or want) the brand entity, and the brand entity needs and wants you. Symbiosis, especially if recognized and measured, will lead to a deeper understanding of the cause and effect of actions, both large and small, on the health and profits and perception of the brand or company. Entities that can adequately capitalize on this merger will benefit.
There would be a “Fusion Score”, the number resulting from the measurement of the symbiotic relationship between a customer (Consumer) and a brand, in a sense, the “health perception” of the relationship. Did the brand host an outdoor concert for teens and, three days later, see an increase in sales? Did a pop artist who performed at that concert wore that sparkly one-shoulder sweater from the same brand and gained another 100,000 Twitter followers? Your fusion score goes up 3 points. Does this artist a week later, while wearing the same sparkly sweater, give a bad tip at the hottest restaurant in Hollywood, because she had a bad-tasting salmon dish (and does she tweet about it)? His joint fusion score goes down, because even though the restaurant is to blame for the lousy fish dish, the pop artist blamed the waiters, when it was the kitchen’s fault, which made the artist look petty. His Fusion score just dropped 8 points, as did the Fusion score for the artist with the sweater brand.
You may be thinking … what does this have to do with me or the average person? We are not pop stars, nor are we makeup bloggers with a million followers … why should I care? Well, just like Annie and June, ordinary young women from a small town, can be influential (even 35 years later), so can you. And it’s important to realize that you can be active or passive, and still be an influencer. You can be an extrovert or an introvert. You can shop completely and invisibly online, or be highly visible at your local shopping malls and boutiques, in person. It can be a partygoer or a participant in poetry reading.
Companies and entities still have to worry about the perception of their brand with everyone, not just the Taylors and Sophia. You matter It has the power to shape what those brands invest in, create their products, give their charitable contributions, and pay their employees. You vote with your feet, your wallet and your voice. The brand can shape your image, your perceptions and your well-being and, in turn, you do the same for it. Fusion. The future … not just FOR the customer, but WITH the consumer.