Nurturing the Customer Relationship

Building good relationships is a lot of work. This is as true for individuals as it is for brands and their customers. Social data and the increased access to a consumer’s digital identity has created this parallel.

Let’s agree that there are four types of brand-consumer relationships: Strangers, Acquaintances, Friendship and Romance and each of these has a direct impact on the degree of engagement you can expect from consumers. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each type of relationship and the parallels that we can draw with the Purchase Intent Funnel.

NurturingCustomerRelationships

Strangers (Initial Awareness, Understanding)

Every relationship begins here. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. A dance of preference happens, particularly for a brand trying to determine the right value proposition to achieve consideration and for that customer, a mission of determining if this product or service is right for their particular needs.

Just like when I saw you in the crowd wearing the shirt from a band you like, I knew we had the basis for an initial conversation. That context allowed me to separate you from an undifferentiated flock of strangers and determine what you might like on a superficial level.

The greatest challenge for brands is creating meaningful interactions with potential customers with no previously identified preference. These consumers really are strangers and brands must use every tool in their arsenal to convert them. The good news is that the data is readily available when a user registers with a social profile, but how you use that data is paramount to building a meaningful relationship. Just because you came to my party doesn’t mean we’re going to be friends. We have to understand that and begin building a relationship.

Acquaintances (Consideration, Purchase, Opinion)

At this point we’re talking. We’ve found some form of common ground and now both parties are looking for something very simple: value. What am I going to get out of this relationship? The math here is straightforward: Brands are looking to increase preference and consideration to turn a consumer into a customer and then turn that customer into a repeat customer and an advocate.

For the consumer, while the equation is also simple, the motivations are sometimes complex: value for them can be defined just as easily by financial impact as it can by the emotional satisfaction that a product or service can bring. Sometimes it feels good to get a good deal and sometimes it feels good to spend a lot of money on something I think I deserve.

Regardless of motivation, at this stage the brand is just beginning to understand the needs and motivations of the consumer and the consumer is somewhere between consideration and opinion in the funnel.

For the brand, this is where the real work begins. Are we going to be fair weather friends, where you only buy when their is a compelling deal or offer, the kind of friends who show up at an event or party, but rarely ever call? Or, are we going to have a real relationship where the brand understands the customers needs and markets directly in accordance with them?

But for the consumer, hopefully now a customer, the real question to be answered at this stage is: Does this brand represent me and what I stand for?

The best way for a brand to answer that question is by understanding the breadcrumbs of social data and online behavior they’ve been capturing about each of their customers. Aligning value propositions and brand messaging with these interests strengthens consideration and opinion. Just as paying attention and responding thoughtfully and contextually strengthens a relationship.

Friendship (Investment)

Now things are getting interesting because both parties, brand and customer, have decided that this relationship is important enough that it’s worth an investment of time, energy and most importantly, money. We’ve decided that we like each other enough that we’d go out of our way to see each other on a regular basis if need be. We’re willing to share things that we don’t share with just anyone. There’s an intimacy.

For brands this marks the point where they can count on their customers to consistently pay attention to their offers and promotions. It’s the point where the customer, fully invested in the brand’s marketing and loyalty program, can expect to experience forms of preferential treatment like VIP shopping events, birthday discounts and enhanced customer service. The perks of friendship.

If the relationship is “clicking” then brands can anticipate that consumers stop shopping with respect to their products and services and remain loyal. More importantly, when the brand does disappoint the customer, they’re more likely to get a second chance.

What’s interesting here is that the deeper relationship leads to more frequent online interactions with the brand, which in turns creates a richer profile full of interests and preferences that the brand can use to better serve the customer.

And of course, as we all know, as a friendship grows it can lead to a deeper level of relationship . . .

Romance (Advocacy)

Now we’re all in. Some of us have been hurt before and we swore we would never fall like this again. But here we are. The customer becomes fully engaged with the brand to the degree that they consider it representative of their beliefs and lifestyle. The customer wants to share their love for the brand with others and convert them to advocates as well. Of course social media in various forms from Facebook to Instagram have made it easier for advocates to have a louder and louder voice on behalf of brands.

At this point the brand need only do three things:

  1. Care for the relationship.
  2. Continue to feed the advocate compelling shareable digital content.
  3. Use social data to identify customers who are most likely to become advocates and foster those relationships.

You might ask about established brands like Coca-Cola, Samsung and Google who seemingly have built preference into the DNA of consumers. Sure, they’re the popular kids in school and when they talk people listen. But that doesn’t constitute a relationship, at least not one that will prove to be valuable over the long run, if they aren’t invested in their relationships. And for the record, these brands certainly do invest in customer relationships.

The beautiful thing about relationships is that they’re always a necessary two way street. You can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t consider you a friend (and if you try to, the results are usually disastrous). A friendship requires equal participation from both parties. Now, one party can take an active role in creating and nurturing a relationship (usually the brand). You can always walk up to a stranger and say hello, but the onus of turning that interaction into a friendship rests on all four shoulders.