Realized opportunity, value of real customer conversations

Stuart Elliot writing on advertising for  New York Times described the purpose behind Omnicom Group’s launch of a new ad agency, sparks & honey.  The Agency seeks to capitalize on the latest evolutionary shift in the relationship between consumers and marketers, “from a monologue to a conversation.”

Customer services

Customer services (Photo credit: gordon2208)

Really? Brands have accepted that talking with customers no longer means talking at.  But are they really ready for interactive conversation?  Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the move to a higher level of engagement.  I merely wonder how the brands benefit from advertising agencies occupying this intermediary ground, especially when the brands livelihoods increasingly depend on their ability to respond immediately.

Implicit in a conversation is receiving, or listening made clear in non-verbal posture and behavior as much as  words.

As Dave Carroll’s viral video demonstrated, brand reputation can suffer when listening isn’t followed by appropriate responses.  Brand management teams everywhere noticed how translating a bad customer service experience into song  boosted Taylor guitars‘ reputation while tarnishing that of United Airlines . What got Carroll’s goat was the lack of response by airline employees watching other employees  manhandle his precious guitar.  The colorful story in the hands of a capable songwriter also boosted, if not fired up, Carroll’s brand.

To relegate the story as an abject lesson in Customer services misses the wider opportunity listening to your customers affords.  Either way, how will hiring a savvy intermediary help resolve issues, deliver authentic feedback to product development or spawn key insights into the changing behavior of customers for helping a company adapt and ultimately survive?

Why would a company want to pass on the opportunities listening and responsive internal systems can foster?  There’s great value in using smart analytic systems to mine the exchange of key word morsels caught in dialogues with customer service, sales or technical support.

As Peter Shankman, steak lover, discovered one day last year when he had no time or energy to grab dinner out,  but longed for the simplicity and consistency of Morton’s reliably delicious meals. As he describes it, one tongue in cheek tweet before taking off for home resulted in the surprise service of a lifetime. One only Morton’s could co├Ârdinate and deliver because they were listening to one of their most loyal customers far from home!

So, yes it matters, what conversations you are trying to make happen.  Increasingly you need to collect the data.  This requires that you will need intelligence gathering or listening posts everywhere your customers are talking about you, including  the virtual conversations. Just because they seem less critical  than face to face exchanges, especially since the nature of the medium is slightly off sync, today no conversation can can be ignored. What customers say, how each of you share it,  and with whom makes them both dangerous and advantageous.  Machine learning systems, algorithms and human insights can  track “the emerging cultural waves”  and that’s how sparks and honey plans to find and then leverage them.  Their business model relies on  their ” proprietary next generation, real-time engagement engine to distribute culturally relevant brand content.”

In the era of big data, business intelligence software has been actively integrating the new feeds and applying similar processes.  The merging of collaboration, productivity  and newer intelligence tools that digest  input from a variety of listening posts shows great promise and opportunity. I haven’t seen Cognistreamer, one of a number of  collaborative and innovation platforms; but I understand it combines feeds from social media, customer service and internal correspondence to allow more fluid interaction across sources operating within and outside the enterprise. I’m sure IBM and Microsoft are busy at work bringing these capabilities to their platform suites as well, I’m just not sufficiently in the loop to know.

I applaud the move toward authentic conversation that can displace the reign of the focus group or on the spot pop-up survey whether it’s at the mall or online. But I’m not sure I buy that ad agencies, or even Dave Carroll’s newly launched Gripevine service, and clever communications can effectively close  the natural gap between producer and consumer.   If I’m looking for a custom fit, or personal response how can any agency deliver,  no matter how clever or deft at communications they may be, the goods and or service I’m seeking?

I wish sparks & honey luck, but I do hope that brands looking to capitalize on the rising consciousness of consumers are also thinking a little more about finding ways to share the responsibilities for insight and innovation across their enterprise.  Giving everyone equal opportunity to engage with customers and share insights that wider conversations make possible, is certainly a great start to creating an innovation pipeline.