The Risks of Customer Intimacy

Too much familiarity with customers can backfire, but engaging them in multisided conversations, or "polylogues," can manage the risks and get better results.

In the past several years, marketers have become enthusiastic about the possibility of establishing personal relationships with their customers. They long for the return to an idealized past, when most transactions were conducted face to face and were closed with a simple handshake. Hoping to recreate this type of customer intimacy — and to capture the loyalty that helped cement many a deal in bygone days — giant firms today talk about engaging customers in dialogue, or having “conversations” with them. To some extent, such thinking is reasonable. Broadcast advertising and take-it-or-leave-it selling propositions — the hallmarks of mass marketing — are losing their power, while technology is making it easier for even very large companies to listen effectively to their customers, to target ever smaller segments and to tailor their offerings.

But let’s face it: Communicating through a Web site with an online retailer is not the same thing as talking with the attentive owner of a local store. Nor is a phone conversation with an unseen customer service rep half a world away conducive to building loyalty, even if “Joe” or “Maria” is on the line trying to explain why your printer won’t print or your cable TV bill this month is larger than your mortgage.

Does that mean companies should give up on “conversing” with the people who buy their products? No, but they do have to beware of deluding themselves about what new technologies can actually deliver. Too much intimacy with too many people can have its downside — that’s as true for organizations as it is for individuals, and thoughtful discretion is important for both. Companies should also avoid hogging the conversation like a clueless guest at a cocktail party. To make customer relationships more fruitful, they should instead endeavor to create “polylogues” by bringing other parties into the conversation — including other customers, business partners, employees and sometimes even competitors.

For at least six reasons, companies should be wary of seeking one-on-one customer relationships that can disappoint both sides:

Without obvious benefits, a relationship is just a hassle.

To some extent, consumers welcome and even seek out relationships with companies. They may have an affinity for an automobile brand or electronics firm or clothing boutique, and may spend a fair amount of time browsing on company Web sites or chatting with friendly salespeople.

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Acknowledgments

The author thanks David A. Light of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business for his contributions to this article.