Last month, as part of Aaron+Gould’s first birthday, we gave away 3 experience consultancy sessions. On Monday, I had the opportunity of spending one of those sessions with Rick Timmis, and hear all about what he’s doing with making Customer Relationship Management (CRM) more personal and more friendly.

Other than the Exeter Tweetup I held in August, this is the only other time I’ve met Rick, but thanks to social media, we were able to build upon the conversation that we’d been having online for months and get straight into things. I don’t want to divulge the details of the consultation, as in short, we built a plan for Rick to take over the world, but I do want to harp on the one thing that we kept coming back round to: making it personal.

A shift is upon us, as we as enter the two-thousand-and-teenies, from the brand machine to people. In other words, people are despising the great awe and wonder and distance that big companies have, that once upon a time were considered the marks of success. This old school thinking went along the lines of “The more people between the CEO and the customer, the bigger, and therefore better, the company is.”

Not anymore.

Now, the more people between the CEO and the customer, the more bureaucratic and out-of-touch the company is. CEOs are tweeting and brands are becoming ‘Olivia at Coca-Cola’, ‘Rick at Abazander’ and ‘Michael Hyatt at Thomas Nelson’. Personal doesn’t just mean you give me your name – it means I can contact you personally. Hear that? I can contact you personally. In other words, the relationship is no longer you telling me what do to. It is about you and me having a conversation. You listen to what I have to say, take it on board, and I in turn listen to you, and when you are unable to deliver on something I’m fine with it – because we have a relationship.

Relationship. The beginning of business. Adam Stone was telling me yesterday about a keynote he had attended by behavioural economist Roger Martin-Fagg, who was boiling business down from economic grandeur to the level where it began: relationship, tribes, identity, and felt need.

When you begin to talk about getting personal, many businesses step away. They are afraid of personal, either because the people in their organisation are money hungry wolves with no care for the well being of the customers, or because they don’t want to make mistakes, or both. Me, I have no time to work with these companies, nor these people. I’m onto more relevant things than money. Businesses that invest in being personal will win in the future – they will help more people, make the world better, and yes, they’ll increase their revenue because their customers will be telling their friends just how much this company cares.

Of course, this won’t be mainstream for years to come. But do yourself a favour and think innovatively for a moment. My predictions:

  • The wise utility companies (Phone, Gas, etc) will start having personal reps. No longer does John from Vodafone call me but I can’t call John back and am instead stuck with Sally. In the years to come, I will become a client of John, my rep for Vodafone, just as much as I am of Vodafone.
  • The wise high streets store will start cultivating personal name based relationship with their customers, as opposed to only the few that currently do like independent retailers and the innovative Gap and Starbucks.
  • ‘Removed’, as a mark of stature, will be replaced by ‘In Touch’. The ‘In Touch’ CEO will nurture a more emotionally connecting brand, and will command greater respect than the ‘Removed’ CEO.
  • Mobile Phone numbers on websites will no longer be a mark of being ’shoddy and can’t afford a landline’, but be an expected way to directly get hold of the person you need to talk to.
  • Websites, then, without the names of the people who are running it and the people you want to speak to, will become essentially worthless. Average Joe loads the webpage, can’t find the person he needs to speak to, and figures ‘why bother?’ I don’t know about you, but business websites without names make me think they’re fake.
  • Company Twitter accounts, unless they are brands that have thousands of followers, will make you look small because why follow the company when you can follow the CEO? Hence, Company Twitter accounts will become CEO Twitter accounts.
  • Twitter, social media and realtime personal customer care – i.e. ubiquitous business – will boom as people flock to their mobiles for the internet. A quarter of Facebook’s 250 million users are mobile, for example. Decisions can finally be made in a moment – by checking on your mobile.
  • An extension of the above, reviews and rating of products and service has become real time and will continue to become more intuitive. For instance, is a realtime monitoring of HSBC tweets, creating an overall rating of how good / bad they are.
  • The current clumsy nature of getting train time updates, for example, will be replaced by digital personal assistants – a merger of the Google voice activated iPhone app and ReQall – only far faster. If I had the capital, I’d be investing in this technology. It’s Star Trek in action.
  • Mass personal customisation – a hallmark of the experience economy – will become increasingly more mainstream. Think about the personal card greeting market that is increasing, and then imagine it across over markets and products.

Is all of this new? Not at all. As our friend Roger Martin-Fagg points out, it all goes back to year-dot behaviour, just with modern technology. Hairdressers, shopping in upmarket stores, small businesses and coffee houses, as well as others, have been doing relational, personal business for years. It is now time that the big companies scale down and get personal. Big used to be an advantage, but now, consumers are wanting names – and the companies that are flexible enough to offer them will win.

Fast forward to Tuesday night as I’m putting the final touches on this post and talking to Dave Thomas over the phone. Dave was telling a story of contacting his clients and receiving referrals from them. The point was, that unlike the ‘Removed CEO’, Dave had built relationships with his clients, was in touch with them, and could personally ask for a referral without the fear of embarrassment – because, hey, friends ask each other for favours, don’t they? This takes me to the final punch for making business personal…

The old method of doing business – the one that’s currently struggling to survive in the face of the social media revolution – is based on fear. I, the customer, fears the business. The IT agency knows all, and I fear their knowledge. The web host mysteriously holds all my files, and I fear they’ll switch my hosting off. British Gas serves my utilities, and I fear their bills when they don’t reflect our monthly arrangement. I fear the big successful CEOs and Creative Directors, especially compared to my small budget. It’s all fear.

Making it personal means trading fear for friendship. I don’t fear the IT company who are friends with me (and incidentally, that’s Dave’s company down to a T). I don’t fear the big CEO because through Twitter, I’ve made friends with her. Sure, I’m not inviting the CEO over for dinner, but there is friendship and relationship in the place of fear and the unknown. Alistair Banks (@banksy6) put it like this:

People buy people and that is so important – without being personal you simply don’t get that.

The ball is in our court. As innovators, Executives, Directors, Pastors and thinkers, we’ve got to take the first step of friendship towards our customers. I know full well that if you went onto the high street and asked people if they wanted their mobile phone company becoming all personal with them, they’d say ‘no’. But what I gleaned from Steve Jobs and Henry Ford is this: you need to tell people what they want. If Henry Ford had made what people wanted, he’s just have tried to make horses faster. Thankfully, he saw beyond what others saw. And that’s the point. People are so used to customer sacrifice that talk of customer surprise seems alien to them. (BTW, for a great slideshow on this subject, check out this.)

The challenge, then, is for business to grow some kahunas and be the first to do it. Because second place just sucks.

Archived Comments

    • Robin_Dickinson
      Hey Scott,

      Making it personal adds tremendous value and builds profitable relationships. Where companies often struggle is finding the balance between value and volume i.e. scaling the value to deliver the volume.

      Businesses are being pressured to deliver the numbers for quarterly reporting (volume), but are growing to realize the opportunity cost of not personalizing (value).

      My business is based on long-term relationships. It’s 100% referral and I’ve never made a call for business, ever. But that takes time and effort. Relationships need engagement, interaction, communication, two-way exchange of value. Neglected relationships die.

      This “costs” time in the short and long-term. And time costs money i.e. salaries and on-costs. Communication – real communication – slows down processes. You can’t automate relationships – although many are deluded enough to think you can.

      What that balance is, I don’t know.

      There’s nothing better than waiting in a queue to buy a coffee and being recognized by the barista, who then engages in friendly conversation with you and takes a genuine interest in your loyal custom .

      There’s nothing worse than being in a queue – and in a hurry, waiting patiently to be served, only to be stuck behind a customer chatting away to the barista.

      Two people. Two customers. Two different experiences.

      No easy answer. What fascinates me is the effective implementation of sustainable, relationship-building, “personal” practices that are scalable to deliver volume metrics.

      Much to discuss,


    • OK – so, wow, awesome comment.

      You’re right, and i hadn’t even considered it, that this is largely a volume v value issue. Of course, you can’t automate relationship.

      And you’re bang on the with the queue metaphor – two people, two different experiences.

      So what frameworks do we provide? How do we strike this balance?

    • alexgreen
      Its a conundrum I face too, the guest arrives 5 to 10 minutes late and still wants / needs the full 1/2 hour, I give it to them but the person waiting is upset at having to wait. When they come in though, naturally they want their full 1/2 hour!

      Someone at some stage is probably going to feel undervalued. One hopes everyone will be understanding but its not always the case.

      The first thing you say to the person who has been waiting is crucial to how things are going to proceed from there.
      A few years ago I discovered (unfortunately to my loss) that asking them how they came to find out about my business (a completely valid and useful question for my information collecton in the context of my work) was definitely not the best question to ask first!

      I do think that however people come in, whether its like Robin’s scenario or otherwise, engaging with them as if they are the only other person in the world at that moment and really genuinely meaning it is only going to be a good approach.

    • This is tough – the type of thing that only expecting a guest to be late will fix.

      Of course you serve less people in the day, but without rushing ppl and giving them more time, you are giving a better experience?

    • Robin_Dickinson
      Yes, that’s the real conversation we need to have. The one that’s being skirted around by all and sundry.

      Let’s get some bright minds together and thrash it out.


    • I’m hoping we can tackle some of it at next month… 🙂

      Robin it is hard work – it requires real thought – but without getting bogged down into bureaucracy…

    • timburley
      Do I want a relationship with John from Vodafone? No, I want a service from Vodafone that means I don’t need to interact with them at all. I want them, silent and efficient in the background, doing what they’re supposed to. John from Vodafone may be the nicest most personable guy imaginable, but as a customer I just don’t care.

      Actually, do you want to see my prediction for large scale customer service? Then see this video from gaming legend Peter Molyneux about the next big thing on Xbox. Then imagine the applications in business. We will always have relationships with people who we collaborate on projects with, and they’re important. But plenty of our relationships are actually very thin, and necessarily so – we don’t invest emotion or passion into them because they’re not important enough to us. These are the ones (utilities for example) that could become something else like >>>

      I’d suggest that customer service on Twitter is actually a form of PR, unless it’s buried in DMs. While there are relatively few people using Twitter for customer service, brands can manage it effectively, monitor “the conversation” and participate freely. Imagine if it became the defacto route, everyone is jabbering away and nobody can follow the multitude of threads that become a vast noise, crippling the system and sending the early adopters fleeing for the next big thing.

      Happy to be wrong, as ever…

    • Hey Tim

      Sure – you don’t want to be talking to John from Vodafone everyday. But having a relationship with him when you have an issue – then you want it.

      True twitter also would become drowning if it was de facto – hence social media is bigger than that. Companies could develop their own mobile apps, for instance.

    • alexgreen
      I hear where you are coming from but I think a lot of this will take a long time.
      I am still suspicious of ‘big’ companies that phone me up and try to be all pally & friendly as I don’t have a relationship with them and it feels really condescending of them and false.
      ‘Smaller’ companies where I know the people on a more personal basis, I don’t have the same problem becauswe as you say, we’ve built a relationship.
      The bigger companies – services, councils etc, I’m not sure whether it would be a totally good thing, because it really requires the person interacting with the customer to properly, genuinely care. I can’t see that happening in a rush because I can’t see how a salesman or technician or whatever, being paid a pittance is really going to care much about the fortunes of the big company and therefore have genuine concern and care for the customer they are interacting with. Maybe they don’t even get on with their boss, are being disciplined, want to be in a different job… Yes, the CEO might care, yes the self-employed might care and both be able to give the personal touch but I’m not so sure about the man who comes to service the boiler or cover your electricity statement review?
      Who knows? I wait in anticipation to see if your predictions ring true.
      Until then, my guests will (as ever) receive the personal, connected experience that will help them grow in trust and relationship with me in my business. It makes sense on my scale definitely.
      Grace & Peace


  • Alex this will take a very long time. But it will happen, and is already happening.

    Take Thomas Nelson – big book publishers – but their Tweeting CEO is genuine in his tweets – not fake. Yes some brands screw it up, but many aren’t.

    As for big companies having their staff acutally care – well this is the challenge – to up their game and hire better people. Let’s think about it – two companies, one offering greater customer service than the other, then who are you going to go with?