We often look to “big business” for ideas on how to develop customer engagement; how Tesco use customer data to create relevant offers, or how airlines look to build loyalty through points schemes. There are several well documented examples of how the use of large volumes of data can drive customer insight and understanding.  However, this is only part of building a customer relationship. As enterprises increasingly look to build trust and loyalty by replicating elements of human interactions through social media, what else needs to be considered and what can they learn from small traders? Where better to start than lunch.

There’s a counter that many people from our offices get their lunch from that also draws in a long line of people from the local area. Like most business districts the block is crammed with competition, all essentially selling the same product at the same price. And yet this little spot, tucked away on a side street, is always consistently busier than the competition. So what’s driving people to make the extra effort to reach this small corner of the city to buy highly commoditised products; sandwiches and coffee?

The business is run by just two people, one front of house and one in the kitchen. For the front of house they apply three key principles to engaging with customers;

  1. Know who I am; know my name and what I like / don’t like.
  2. Respond appropriately; consider my current mood. Am I looking for a quick purchase, do I have time to explore new products, do I have time to engage in a more lengthy conversation.
  3. Make me feel valued; make me feel like a valued customer and reward me for my loyalty (but make this sincere by building it over time so I feel like I’ve earned it).

These are delivered through a social interaction with customers that migrates the association over time from transaction to connection and then relationship. Through this they’ve created loyalty for the outlet that transcends the product. The learning here is not so much the information they maintain about customers – CRM systems and loyalty schemes have been around for a while to achieve this – but what drives it, namely, an authentic and genuine desire to create connections with people. Clearly the targeted outcomes are repeat business and more revenue, but the objective is a real relationship with customers.

In this case the success of the business is largely down to the individual who builds a rapport with his customers face-to-face. This isn’t the exclusive realm of the small trader though. Virgin Atlantic recently won an award for Best Airline – Transatlantic (from a poll of 17.5 million people);  much of this success being down to its frontline staff. It has achieved this by translating a fun, caring brand into reality by recruiting the right people and giving them the right training. However, when we take interactions that are dominated by a person-to-person contact and transfer them into the digital realm via social media, building relationships with customers is much harder to get right (and very transparent and viral when it goes wrong).

In a recent address the Pope made an observation that; “In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.” Although he was referring to the use of social networking sites for personal use the message applies to any application of social media tools. The challenge is to define a social media strategy that’s authentic objective is the development of a relationship with customers and remains true to the attributes of the company. This is not to say the business outcomes are forgotten, they are merely shifted down the hierarchy.

This requires a movement away from thinking about social media as another outbound channel, managed by PR, marketing or a small team of Gen-Ys, to something that’s a real strategic platform that requires some thought and a measured approach. This does mean slowing down to take the time to think. Which can be tough when there’s so much pressure to implement and it’s so easy to jump into social networking by switching on a Twitter account or setting up a Facebook page. However, as Laurence Buchanan points out in his blog “The fast & easy path to social media success”;  “just because you can do something fast, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do.

So next time you’re heading out to your favourite lunch spot consider what makes the relationship authentic (or what’s missing that means it isn’t). There’s much to be learnt from the core of these and other exchanges in a business world that’s increasingly transferring highly human interactions into the digital realm.