Cluetrains, Conversations, Trust and Openness

When you’re given just 20 minutes to cover the notion of the more open business models the proliferation of social networks encourage, there’s not a great deal of time to waffle. Hopefully I didn’t the other day, when I gave this talk to close off the speaker sessions at the Technology to Drive Growth workshop at the National Growth Summit conference in Sydney.

Today’s business world suffers many problems, many of them seemingly intractable through their complexity and frequently changing scope. These problems now have a name, wicked problems.

A 2008 survey by Neutron Group and Stanford University asked 1500 executives to cite the most complex of the wicked problems they faced. Looking at just the third:

Innovating at the increasing speed of change

we can see that change is a big issue.

The increasing pervasiveness of access to the Internet and the empowerment that access places in the hands of the stakeholders of a business – staff, executives, stakeholders and especially customers – makes business innovation a key differentiator today. If we go online to look for a new fridge, or computer, or flowers for Valentine’s Day, or a holiday, there’s so much on offer that we need a better way of making a choice. Often, we’ll choose the most innovative provider of that service or product.

But what do I mean by innovative? A few year back, everyone was defining this in terms of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. I think that’s a good starting point. We do want remarkable products. But flowers are flowers, right? A fridge is a fridge? A book from Amazon is the same as the book from Borders. So it’s rarely the product itself that’s the differentiating point.

The differentiation point is, in part, reputation and customer focus. Which provider do my trusted, expert friends recommend. What is it about the provider that they recommend? Is it incredible customer service? Is it the little touches like chocolate mints in amongst my hardware orders (like one online store I shop at does)? Is it that they put a human face on an otherwise faceless company?

Let’s focus on the last of those points, because it goes very directly to the point of one of my favorite books, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and to the heart of what I’m talking about.

While Cluetrain presents us with a comprehensively argued 95 theses for better, more human business, I want to focus on just the first. Markets are conversations.

Anyone whose ever been to a fresh produce market in Australia, or open air markets anywhere in the world will understand this completely. Things get done in business in these situations because people talk to each other and act in a human way.

Market segmentation, one of the favorite tools of businesses over a certain size, divides their potential customer base into demographics they can then target their sales and marketing efforts at. I’d argue that while you might want to do this to understand what your market consists of, it gives you no insight into who your market consists of. And, in today’s connected, ever-changing world, we need to know who we’re providing our product or service to because they are so empowered by the hyperconnected world they live in that the market segments break down.

Every customer is now a market segment of one.

And you better know them. Personally. And treat them like a human being.

Because, it’s a demonstrated fact that if you don’t, it’s going to backfire on you in a big way. You could suffer irreparable brand and business damage if you fail to treat your customers like humans.

So you do you behave like a human business and treat your customers the way they frankly deserve to be treated; as humans?

Start by listening. Listen online and off. Make sure you know what people are saying about you, about your products and about your competitors.

And, when you hear something, reach out. Ask “how can we make this better?” or “how can we improve?” or, perhaps unusually, point out someone saying bad about a competitor to that competitor and let them know they need to fix it. If they don’t, then it’s your chance to get that customer. After you’ve been the good guy first.

It’s not that hard. It’s just a case of ensuring that in all things, you continue to act like a human, instead of that inhuman construct we’ve managed to create for ourselves, the business. Sometimes, that acting like a human leads to good that you can’t immediately measure in dollars but that has a profound impact (BTW, great job on this Telstra. You won a lot of friends for this).

At the core of behaving like a human in business is the notion of trust. Particularly trusting your staff, every one of them, to be a face for the business and empowering them to take action on behalf of the business to do good, to solve problems and to make sure that issues go to the person in the business who knows how to solve them.

And trust your customers. They know better than you what they want from your offering. So ask them. Not as you’re about to take something to market, but all through the process from concept to delivery. It’s like having a 24x7x365 focus group on hand. And you know what? Do something nice for the customers that helped, something human, if they made the product better by their ideas.

Business has always been about keeping secrets. About hiding your ideas. But what happens when you switch that on its head. You don’t necessarily have to go the whole radical transparency route, but what about exposing your ideas, your thinking, and the humans that work for you? Make these things your point of differentiation. Make them the things that keep you innovative as you adopt an approach that keeps you agile and razor focussed on delivering the best products and services you can.

When you hide, and keep unnecessary secrets from your customers (of course there will always be things you don’t reveal – but think about what they should be), your failures can, and will go global as disgruntled customers, some of them with mighty big soapboxes, point out your failings. You get what you deserve.

It is far better to be out there, being human, being trusting and trustworthy, being open. Wouldn’t you rather be a part of the conversation than the subject of it?

I believe by combining these factors into a formula, we can have a little fun with this, and also make some sense. So here it is.

Conversation + Trust + Openness = Delight, or more simply C + T + O = :D

Focus on that. Imagine.