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Leadership

Forget Twitter: Old-Fashioned Techniques For Making Customers Feel Connected

Does your dry cleaner implore you to like them on Facebook every time you drop off a suit? Does your mechanic beg you to friend them on Facebook? There's a better way to reach out and authentically connect with your customers.

"Like us on Facebook!" my dry cleaner implored me from the sign on their door. The cash register receipt from my haircut shop beseeches me to follow them on Twitter. On my own organization’s website we offer you no less than five ways to "join the conversation" with us. A couple weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting with co-workers when three of us received incoming text message chimes. Driven by the parental need to immediately check to make sure it wasn’t school calling with some worst-case scenario, we all surreptitiously peered at our phones. It was an advertisement for a new orthodontic treatment from the dentist we all (unknowingly) shared.

Are we to the point where organizations have to stalk us to be successful? It’s like a thousand virtual hands, tugging and snatching at my hem, frantic in their need to connect and keep me connected. It all feels so desperate—and desperate is not attractive. What did organizations do to stay connected to customers before the Internet, and what are the leadership implications for those of us trying to build relationships with our customers?

There is a McDonald’s I pass frequently that is getting a major facelift. Over the course of a couple weeks, they tore down the old building and put up a modern, sleek one in its place. The stone and wood façade is a big improvement, and knowing McDonald’s, the inside probably reflects everything they know about efficient food service. My only complaint is they took down their old sign and replaced it with a newer, lower-profile model. The old sign was the kind that kept the running tally of burgers sold (holding at a staggering 99 billion when I saw it last). I don’t know what it was that I liked so much about that simple marketing campaign. Maybe it was the strange sense of sharing the experience of watching that company grow even bigger. When the old sign was gone, I felt a weird pang of disconnection. How would I know when McDonald’s will pass the next burger milestone?

I started paying attention to other signs at McDonald’s and could not find any more of the old style. Out of curiosity, I checked the McDonald’s corporate website to see if it revealed any clues about this trend. Nothing. On their customer service webpage, I typed my question in the allotted space. Before I could submit my question, I was required to complete fields for my full name, address (maybe someone was going to come to my house with the answer) phone number, and email address—twice. I clicked submit and got an instant response—that I had not selected from the drop-down "title" box. I quickly awarded myself an honorary doctorate out of annoyance and submitted my question.

Two days later I got an email response that said, "…the information you are specifically requesting is considered proprietary business information. I'm sorry I cannot answer your specific questions." Hmm. It was obvious that the response was created by a keyword-search automated system. A bit more digging around on their website revealed a telephone number, which I called. I was quickly connected to a helpful person who politely asked me to hold while she researched my question. Less than 60 seconds later she was back, and informed me that those signs are still in use at many stores. It is, she explained, the choice of the franchise owner to use the style sign they prefer.

I don’t need to follow my dry cleaner, but I love it when the owner recognizes my car and comes out to say hello. I am incredibly impressed when I see the local branch of my mega-chain haircut salon showing up as a sponsor on the back of what seems to be every Little League shirt in town. There is nothing like hearing my dentist call my house on the night of some treatment earlier in the day just to see how I’m doing. And, I appreciate that a huge company like McDonald’s offers me a human being to talk to instead of a forced self-service option through some keypad prompted recording. These are the experiences that make me feel connected.

And it makes me wonder what other old-fashioned techniques will be the next "breakthrough" in helping clients feel connected to their product or service. For leaders, this is another example of the need to be able to look back to look forward. Be open to the new opportunities that technology and social media offer, but recognize that some of the things that worked in the past worked for a reason. What are the old-fashioned methods that work well for your organization?

—Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user Neil MacWilliams]