In the 1950s, “Customer Service” was not even a thing. It was part of the fabric of the way everyone did business, but no one talked or wrote about it. It meant a hardware or grocery store clerk carrying your bag of purchases to your car. It meant the milkman delivering dairy products right to your door. It meant receiving a hand-written ‘thank you’ note from the local family department store for your purchase of a poodle skirt for the big dance.
Sometime after this, service changed and got a little fuzzy, as we focused on other priorities – we paid attention to civil rights, and international conflicts, and equal treatment at work and at home. Businesses just tried to survive, and as the more traditional fabric frayed, service became more hurried and less personal.
Customer Service came roaring back in the 1980s and 1990s, and with it came CRM – Customer Relationship Management. Paper clienteling journals (records of customers’ purchases, preferences, and personal information) started moving online. Trends were tracked. Segmentation was employed and exploited. It was all about “surprising and delighting”, and both the companies and the customers benefited, for a time. It should be noted, however, that this was a milestone in the journey of the loss of privacy.
Over time, it became harder and harder to surprise and delight… companies calculated that this cost more than they had planned for. Customers realized their standards and expectations had increased, and they became jaded and disillusioned, as companies were unable to support these expectations. Fortunately, along came the Customer Experience, and ‘wow’ was reintroduced. In this new era, it was no longer enough to provide complimentary wrapping for that special jewelry purchase, or to know that your best customer’s dog’s name was Fluffy Magoo. Providing a great customer experience meant that the complimentary wrapping paper had Fluffy’s photo imprinted on it. It meant that whether the customer shopped in-store, on their laptop, or from their smartphone, Fluffy’s Wishlist was accessible. It meant that a purchase from this Wishlist would result in a 5% donation to the local animal shelter, by the company. The stakes were ever higher, and new ways to reach and impact the customer were both innovative and thrilling, and again, costly. It is human nature to tire of the same. 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 is still going 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 scene, let’s talk about Social Influencers. In the mid-1980s, the Social Influencers in my high school were two young women – let’s call them Annie and June, whom could not have been more different from each other, but were equally revered and observed for their style sense and conduct. Annie was from a wealthy family, and was known for her blond hair that always looked perfect from visits to a real salon (most of us went to the mall SuperCuts to take our chances), and for having every color (14!) of Izod Lacoste (now known as Lacoste) alligator polo shirt that she had acquired from a larger city (our small town only carried two colors at the local Bon-Ton). She was preppy, and managed to pull off the “pink and green” color scheme that was so popular, without looking tacky. She was always smiling, never swore, had a million friends (today’s “squad”), and was liked by all her teachers. 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 fit her as Brooke’s Calvins did), had frizzy, unruly hair, rarely wore makeup, and had a stance that reminded one of James Dean (June Dean?). She was super-smart, a bit aloof, and a little unpredictable. I think people, including her teachers, were a bit afraid of her. She was uber-cool without even trying. She was the Nasty Gal Sophia Amoruso of her day. She was a “passive” influencer, as she never talked about herself, her clothes, or her friends.
I admired them both, and still wear Levi’s at the age of 51 (have both old and faded, and new and darkly crisp). And, I own both a white, and a lime green Izod shirt folded neatly 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 which follows 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. Consumer is broader – you can consume something (a free play in Central Park, a sunset at the Cape May beach), without expressly paying for it, and without realizing in some cases, what brand or company or institution you have to thank for the consumption. You need (or want) the brand entity, and the brand entity needs and wants you. The 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 whom can capitalize on this fusion appropriately 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 open-air concert for teenagers, and three days later, see an uptick in sales? Did a pop artist performing at that concert wear that same brand’s one-shoulder glitter sweater, and gain another 100,000 Twitter followers? Their Fusion Score goes up 3 points. Does this artist one week later, while wearing the same glitter sweater, tip poorly at the hottest restaurant in Hollywood, because she had a bad-tasting salmon dish (and Tweet about it)? Their joint Fusion Score goes down, because although the restaurant is to blame for the lousy fish dish, the pop artist blamed the waitstaff, when it was the kitchen’s fault, resulting in the artist seeming petty. Their Fusion Score just dropped 8 points, and so 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, or makeup bloggers with a million followers… why should I care? Well, just as Annie and June, ordinary young women from a small town, can be influencers (even 35 years later), so can you. And, it is 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 wholly and invisibly online, or be very visible at your local malls and boutiques, in person. You can be a party animal or a poetry-reading participant.
Companies and entities still need to care about their brand perception with everyone, not just with the Taylors and Sophias. You matter. You have the power to shape what those brands invest in, create their products from, give their charitable contributions to, 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.