On the Internet, everyone should know you’re a dog

One of the things I hear on occasion is the maxim ‘People buy from people’. Usually what people mean when they say this is that the only real way to sell things to people is to go meet them, shake their hands, wine and dine them, play golf with them, organise trade delegations to impress them, and so on. I’m sure that’s still the way it works in some industries, especially those which are large, slow-moving and headed mainly by the over-50s who are most comfortable negotiating over walnut boardroom tables. I hear sometimes what cuff-links or school tie you wear is somehow a relevant factor in the negotiation. Curious.

Of course when it comes to more modern businesses, particularly in the digital space, the idea that you have to meet people in person to sell them things is ludicrous – take tech companies like Atlassian for example, who exceeded $100m in sales revenue without ever having a single sales person on the payroll. When barriers to communication and trade come down, if you offer a great product or service, at a price that makes sense to people, and you find good ways to tell them about it (preferably with ways for them to try it and make their own minds up), they’ll frequently come to you and hand over the money without ever meeting you. If you do a good job, they’ll tell their friends about it too and do your marketing for you, in a more influential way than you ever could (3rd party recommendations are always trusted more).

So, the days of needing travelling salesman are long gone for many businesses. However, the maxim that ‘People buy from people’ is still actually true, it just isn’t addressed in quite the same way. Customers do still care about who they’re buying from, they just don’t feel the need to shake their hands any more. While the features of the product / service are forefront in a potential customers mind, they do still care who it is that’s producing it, and what their values are, even if only subconsciously. We enjoy buying things from people we like, and companies we can relate to, and are more likely to resent buying from companies who are much larger, faceless and treat us like an account number rather than a human being – ask people who buy from Oracle about that maybe ;)

It’s not even simply a touchy-feely issue – a company that shows it cares about its customers, and has a corporate image that suggests that it’s likely to understand a customers own challenges and goals, is more likely to give great after-sales support, and to listen to customers requests for improvements, and so on. Whether or not a customer feels that the supplier ‘gets them’ is an important indicator of what the future relationship will be like, and not just a nice warm feeling.

Of course, these are the same sorts factors that a travelling sales rep would address in the ‘old’ pre-digital businesses. Achieving this relationship in the digital domain might seem far-fetched to traditionalists, but actually as customer audiences become more and more digitally savvy it’s really not a stretch. Let’s not forget that anyone born after around 1990 probably can’t remember what it was like not to communicate online, and probably do most of their day to day communication this way. To them, the golf course is probably as alien as Twitter is to most 50-something executives around those walnut boardroom tables, but it’s these people who are increasingly your audience – if you’re not getting this yet, be aware that someone is actively moving your cheeseas we speak.

So what do you do? To truly connect with people online, you have to be:

  • Highly accessible in multiple channels (e.g. all the major social networking sites)
  • Responsive to all feedback, good and bad
  • Open and transparent
  • A real person – even if you’re inside a big organisation, people want to know who you are. You can’t connect if you’re Drone A from BigCorp
  • Collaborative – you’re not controlling the community even if it’s your product, you’re a part of it. Value people as peers and not just customers.
  • Honest. Seriously, the Internet will find out if you’re not.

Big companies have a real problem building these relationships well online, in my experience, because a large bureaucracy just isn’t designed to deliver it. Small, open, agile companies have filled the void and often kicking the older guys asses here, solidifying long-term relationships with numbers of people unheard of before in the traditional traveling sales models.

It’s a new world out there. Personal relationships still matter between suppliers and customers, but increasingly they’ll be in the digital space, and you can build them with vastly more people than you ever could before, if you do it right. People like Crowd can help you with that too.

(Image (c) Peter Steiner)