We're all familiar with how human relationships work, which is why I often compare customer relationships to romantic relationships. I was therefore delighted to read a post by Adrian Swincoe recently where he worked up this idea to explain how business and customer relationships could be compared to romantic liaisons.
My only problem with Adrian's analogy is that the situation is far less romantic than he proposes. Relationships in telcoland, as in many other sectors, usually have few elements of commitment, intimacy, emotion or respect. Hell they don't even have the fun element of a one-night stand.
Instead - to extend Adrian's analogy - they resemble forced marriage (because the customer feels they have no choice), domestic violence or even date rape, Too often customers feel abused or shell shocked by the treatment they receive and we hear them asking "how can they treat me like this? what have I done to deserve it?" The level of frustration, distress and misery that some companies cause their customers is abusive and far from trivial, and this effect is even more pronounced when it is delivered, via a call centre, directly into the customer's home or to the mobile.
Sometimes this horrible outcome is deliberate in the sense that it is a result of so-called 'procedures' or 'policies' applied without mercy or discrimination. The CSR bleats that they are powerless to do anything for you even though personally they don't agree with it; the manager you escalate it to blames out-of-touch executives. Blame the culture, blame the Lord on high, because everyone is aware what's going on but no-one puts a stop to it.
Sometimes, however, this abuse is more to do with apathy - the business and its staff really just can't be bothered anymore. Everyone is just going through the motions. This is like the middle aged couple who have long ago fallen out of love but stick together for the sake of the kids.
When few alternatives existed, the customer would stay in a bad relationship, continue to be disgruntled and just moan about feeling exploited. But the world has changed.
Now a sexy young digital dude is going to pull up in his fast car, give your customer the 'glad eye' and off they'll go without so much as a backwards glance.
You can rant and rave about the unfairness of it and the fact you really loved the customer after all. You can realise (too late) how you've made a terrible mistake and beg for the opportunity to fix it. You know now you took your lovely customer for granted and were sometimes quite mean ("It was the stress of the shareholders, regulators and technology darling.")
But let me tell you, we're not living in the 50s and the days when a customer will put up, shut up or remain faithful in anything less than a deeply fulfilling relationship have gone. You simply weren't performing at a time when digital infidelity is rife. The days when the future was bright and Orange have gone. Now the future is kaleidoscopic with more colours and more choices than you can count.
The app store is the Tinder of the ICT world. It's quick, it's fast. Get used to instant judgements, instant dismissal, and a fickle, casual, easily-bored attitude from your customers. Even when they stick with their main supplier, chances are they've got a thing going with a Cloud supplier on the side. You are going to have to accept that loyalty is fast becoming an anachronistic concept. In the future you are going to have to share your customers with others, competing by offering great experiences and being easy to do business with.
And frankly my dear telcos, with your Volvo-like ICT, inflexible rule-based approach and slow, slow processes you look like a newly-divorced 50 year old trying to get jiggy with the college kids. That adjunct system is really just a badly integrated toupée - under it you're still balding.
So act your age not your shoe size and take a good long look at yourselves. The relationships you thought you had didn't really exist. Your 'significant others' were just waiting for an opportunity to escape. So begin treating them with a little more respect, commit to them and for goodness sake have some fun, or they will leave you for someone who will show them a better time.
But cheer up - all is not lost. A mature guy can still have a lot to offer with the right attitude and approach, so long as you understand your audience and work not just on your chat-up lines but on your personal attributes and delivery. Be reliable, be easy to do business with, be fun if you can but, most importantly, be a man of your word and keep your promises!
This is the reality that retailers have lived with for a long time - disloyalty is bread and butter to them. Learn from them about how to delight, entice, maximise and optimise. And understand the lessons of how to operate in an increasingly fickle age.