The secret to a good customer relationship…

Above all else, customers want brands to listen and respond to them, according to new research. Brands that engage customers in mutually beneficial relationships stand to gain most, says Lou Cooper

Are your customers a fan of your brand onon Facebook? Or do they use Twitter to communicate their thoughts about your brand? The majority of consumers (68%) still do not feel engaged with the brands they buy into, according to a study carried out this summer by direct agency Targetbase Claydon Heeley (TBCH) and research firm fast.MAP.

TBCH account planner Lisa Gulley explains that brands benefit financially if they build long-lasting relationships with customers. She says: “We discovered last year when we carried out similar research that engagement really did have an upside in terms of value. If you could drive more customers to be more engaged, you would receive more in the way of support. They would recommend you, or purchase a product or service again – all the things that brands are looking to secure.”

Consumers are willing to show general support to the brand they consider their “favourite”. Of the 1,300 people surveyed, more than two-thirds reward their favourite brand through positive word of mouth, buying more of the product or service or by persuading a friend or family member to become a customer.

However, only 4% use social media to show support for their favourite brand by becoming a fan on Facebook or a follower on Twitter. For brands not considered favourites but used on a regular basis, those statistics are even lower – none interacts with their bank and just 1% will interact with their telecommunications provider or supermarket using online social networks.

“What’s really interesting is the untapped potential for social media within engagement,” says Gulley at TBCH. “Even for their favourite brand, consumers are doing very little in terms of following brands on Facebook and particularly following the brands of which they are regular customers.”

To build better relationships with the public, 41% of consumers state that brands need to “listen to what customers have to say – and act on it”.

This view is shared uniformly across the age and gender spectrum.

“We are much more empowered as a bunch of consumers now,” says Gulley. “Customers know what they want and they are more empowered than ever to act on it. The role of brands in customer relationships is to better deliver on that – to respond when customers put their hands up,when they have something to comment on or suggest.”

The desire for brands to listen to what customers have to say and act on it rates higher than a wish for brands to “sell their products at the cheapest price” or “give you special customer offers and deals” (see chart, p26).

“We are really surprised by this finding, particularly in a recession when consumers are hunting down deals and price reductions. Special customer offers and deals are much weaker contenders,” says Gulley.

Steve Grout, chief executive of TBCH, agrees that rewards and loyalty schemes are not always at the top of people’s agendas. “Sometimes they just want the basic thing done correctly. It supports the principles of good relationship marketing, which has always been about understanding the customer, listening to them and then using that insight.”

The survey has identified six key values that consumers hold dear in brands. They want to feel respected, worry-free, informed, confident, understood and organised. Customers are less interested in brands that try to make them feel clever, loved, stylish, up-to-the-minute, empowered, exclusive and excited.

Yet brands rarely meet this brief in their social media strategies, says Gulley. “There are few examples of brands using social media as a place to intervene and solve problems for customers, to invite and respond to opinions; or of brands using social media to deliver information in a more personal and relevant way.”

To test how well the six key values mentioned above are delivered in the real world, the survey asked consumers specifically how their bank, supermarket and telecommunications company performed in this respect.

For banks, keeping a customer “informed” is the key reason for a good relationship, and for encouraging people to engage and show support for the brand. According to the research, Smile, First Direct and Nationwide are the banking brands that are best at making customers feel informed.

For telecommunications brands, customers want a “worry-free” relationship, and O2 and Virgin do best at achieving this. However, although mobile network Three is below average for the category in terms of its relationship score, it is above average in terms of customers showing their support for the brand.

“It could be that Three is particularly good for the customers that are engaged, getting them to tell someone else to recommend, to buy more of their products. Perhaps it is particularly seen as good value and a good purchase,” says Gulley.

Supermarkets that make customers feel “respected” are most likely to have better relationships with them. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose do best in this regard. “Tesco is a big success story, but in our survey it is below average in terms of customers who feel good about the relationship, and customers who are willing to show their engagement,” says Gulley.

All brands stand to see improvements in engagement by listening to their customers – seeking out their views and making it easy for them to raise their concerns. Brands will benefit from reacting to customer suggestions, perhaps using platforms such as social media to track conversations and provide solutions. By identifying specific drivers for a good relationship and exploiting them, brands can prompt customers to show their support.

the frontline


Alan Oliver, Head of member engagement, Nationwide

We think that social media is an emerging area in terms of member engagement. We are using it proactively, particularly in the Members’ Zone, an area of our website dedicated to society members. There are a number of special features on there, including news stories, videos, podcasts and discussion boards, where we encourage a two-way conversation and interaction between ourselves and our members.

We are increasingly finding that a wider demographic of our membership is willing to engage with online social media. As they open themselves up to that, we are opening up channels to fulfil that need. There is a lot of hype, but I think social media will increasingly become the way that people interact with organisations they do business with.

There is still a distinction between personal social media and a willingness to engage corporately. Organisations have got to tread carefully and be aware that Facebook and Twitter are quite important personal interaction spaces. You don’t want to be overly corporate in that area. You have to choose your territory carefully and engage in ways that your members want you to.

I’m not surprised that customers want to feel informed by their bank. During the height of the credit crunch, people wanted to be sure that their money was safe. Much as we all want to be exciting, people want to know that they are with a safe, secure, responsible organisation.

Chris Bibby, Direct marketing and CRM director, Virgin Media

The figures for engagement via Twitter and Facebook don’t really surprise me. Those sites are ultimately set up for people to engage with other people. There is still an early adoption curve of people actually using them to engage with brands, but it is a growing area.

The area where social media has had most success is looking through a customer service lens, rather than the pure marketing lens. We have invested quite a bit to build a customer service capability across both media and mobile, whereby we can respond to people’s comments around customer service, directly through Twitter or Facebook.

We find those comments, go back to people directly and solve those particular customers’ issues. That has an amazing impact. You can turn a bad experience into a very good one, and clearly you are in a channel where people will rebroadcast that.

We have been conducting our Net Promoter Survey [on customer advocacy] for the past three years and that gives us a wealth of information on which to drive a range of different activities, which bring us closer to the customer. We capture something like 750,000 pieces of customer feedback every year, which goes directly into our operations and strategy planning, in terms of how we can best deliver back to our customers.

Natalie Cowen, Head of brand, First Direct

Last September, we launched a microsite called First Direct Live. It was acknowledging that people were having conversations about First Direct online and what they were saying was going to have an impact on the brand.

It’s an aggregation of the comments that are made online. We scrape 8 million blogs and forums for mentions of First Direct and display it as visual data. We’ve got positive and negative sentiments, as well as the words that people are using to talk about the brand.

We also launched a customer forum called Talking Point on our website. There’s a good mix of comments. If the conversation gets too negative, customers who don’t have that same opinion will get involved and try to correct it.

At the start we weren’t engaged in the conversation, but that’s the next important step – to have that two-way conversation. We get suggestions from customers. There are quite a few things that have been suggested that we’ve fed back into the business.

I’m not surprised that people don’t use Twitter and Facebook to interact with banks. Traditionally, the way that banks have engaged with their consumers is quite transactional – they go there to do their banking and that’s it. There’s no real reason for you to engage with them and follow them on Twitter.

68% of consumers do not feel engaged with the brands they buy into.

4% of consumers use social media to show support for their favourite brand by becoming a fan on Facebook or a follower on Twitter.

41% of consumers said the best way for brands to build good customer relationships is to “listen to what customers have to say and act on it”.

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