Hundreds and thousands of years ago, beyond the desert sands of ancient Egypt, all around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and along the paved streets of Roman towns, itinerant merchants were well aware that much of the value of a product or service resided in what we call nowadays ‘customer relations’. This term basically refers to the supplier’s efforts to satisfy the customer, win his/her loyalty and create a long-term business relationship. If this historical comparison seems anachronistic or over-done, it nevertheless serves to highlight the fundamentally human nature of economic relations – partly rational and partly emotional. When all is said and done, commercial transactions have always been, still remain and will always be interactions between people. 

FROM SHOP TO ONLINE PLATFORM

Shop

With the appearance of the first large stores and widespread use of electric power in the early 20th century, a broader understanding of the concept of the ‘customer’ gradually arose. By this definition, a customer is someone who shows up in person at the company’s sales outlet and the service s/he receives is physically centred on the point of sale. As mass advertising really took off during the century, this notion became entrenched. The bricks-and-mortar store came to serve both as a showcase and a hub for meeting and sharing and every care was lavished on this physical space. The first mannequins posed inside enormous shop windows and extra comforts and services, such as ambient music, cafes and hair salons, were provided on the premises, which became larger and larger. Department stores thus became the main vehicle for the (over)consumption era that began in the second half of the last century. The services provided to the customer multiplied but the actual customer service remained centralised on a single point of contact, namely the shop. 

With the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s, accompanied by the first instances of digital disruption, new horizons opened up, altering the way brands interact with their customers. Amazon started doing business in 1994 and the World Wide Web came into widespread public use that same year. E-commerce really took off and the point-of-sale was computerised, redesigned, reinvented, re-scripted. The sales space was opened up, migrated outside the walls of the store. The customer could now be physically located anywhere and everywhere. The social networks and the surge in smartphone use marked a turning point towards ubiquitous shopping and the emergence of super-consumers. Meanwhile, by enabling the inexorable increase in data sharing, smartphones and social networks have gradually helped to build a commercial structure based around data. And what, after all, is data but a digital picture of the customer? 

So, what do we mean nowadays by customer relations? What impact are the new tech tools and new approaches having on the way brands interact with their customers?  While the general trend is clearly towards greater automation of the means of communication and intermediation between the supplier and the recipient of goods or services, one basic question still remains: what is customer relations all about if, at the end of the day, it isn’t about the relationship between one person and another? So isn’t there a paradox somewhere in the tendency to hand over to machines – AI, chatbots, etc – the task of engaging with and securing the loyalty of the customer? Well, there is presumably a good reason why the retail sector has decided to make massive use of new information and communication technologies in their customer relations efforts, namely: because they were seen to meet the new needs and new modes of consumption.  The tools used, whether or not they are digital, necessarily influence people’s habits, which in turn determine the company’s communication, marketing and service strategy.  Seen this way, it’s immediately obvious that instead of doing away with communication between people, the machines and intermediation platforms are actually strengthening, extending, broadening and deepening interpersonal communication and may even make that communication even more ‘human’.  

AUGMENTEd commerce: WHAT PLACE is left for the customer?

Commerce augmente

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Customer relations seen as an experience within augmented commerce

80%

of all french customers


turn their leisure time into consumption time 

While previously advertising was sufficient to attract customers and win their loyalty based on the brand image, this is today no longer really the case. Providers of goods and services therefore need to step up their efforts in order to create a unique universe and deliver a product capable of meeting all the new requirements and expectations of their target audience. A survey conducted by OpinionWay for Paris Retail Week in April 2016 indicates that the current trend in this field is towards ‘augmented commerce’, i.e. a form of consumption that is more digitally-oriented and which “is available at any moment in the daily life of the consumer, who now wants to be able to consume where s/he wants and when s/he wants.”  This approach opens up new opportunities for consumption, making use of traditionally ‘dead time’ between one activity and the next, time spent waiting or even time that used to be devoted to leisure pursuits. The exponential growth in e-commerce has brought about a revolution in the concept of time in the retail world. Nowadays any time or place is regarded as suitable for the purchasing act, with 70% of the OpinionWay survey respondents reporting that they make purchases while in bed, 19% while travelling, and 12% while in the chair at the hairdresser’s.  The survey also reveals that 80% of all French people polled had already used time set aside for leisure to make a consumer purchase. Here is proof of the enormous pulling power of retail, with shopping apparently becoming no longer a cold, calculated act but a moment of pleasure, essentially a real experience.

 " The customer experience allows brands not only to sell products or services, but to do so by creating an emotional connection with their consumers "

The concept of Customer Experience first appeared in 1982 from the pen of Marketing theorists Holbrook and Hirschman, indicating a paradigm shift in the way the purchasing act is regarded. Valentina Candeloro, Marketing Director International at Mood Media, underlines in a recent blog: “The customer experience allows brands not only to sell products or services, but to do so by creating an emotional connection with their consumers. It is an intangible asset that is gaining more and more value at a time of accelerated digitalization.” Quite apart from the actual products and services, the customer experience plays out in the field of emotions and feelings.  Clearly the new digital tools play a big part in these changes by creating new global consumption patterns. 

CUSTOMER REVOLUTION PARTLY DRIVEN BY THE NEW TOOLS  

Outils numériques

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The new digital tools are a means to an end

Over the past few years, a whole array of digital tools has appeared, enriching the customer experience and giving a new boost to brands and their products and services. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality provide lots of opportunities in this direction. More and more brands have been developing creative graphic universes that use digital resources to attract and compel the customer.  The interactive approaches provided by VR and AR enable customers to situate a given product in a particular environment, to project themselves into a new situation, to dream and have fun. In the world of augmented commerce, products and services match and complement each other, as do the senses, stimulated into what you might call a new kind of synaesthesia. Chatbots are there to help customers decide on their needs and make their choices. Artificial intelligence is harnessed to predict customer behaviour and offer them the appropriate products. In short, the customer is never alone; s/he is always being assisted, advised, steered. Meanwhile, behind the phenomenon that some have called the Customer Revolution, we find a strategic shift in Customer Relations Management.

Eric Dadian

Eric Dadian

Jean François Ledey

Jean-François Ledey

L’Atelier recently met up with Jean-François Ledey, Customer Relationship Director for Worldwide Operations at Air Liquide Healthcare, and Eric Dadian, President of AFRC, the French association for Customer Relations, who explained to us how Customer Relations, comprising “the sum total of channels of interaction between customers and brands”, has been taken to a whole new level by the “creation of a real user journey, which enables customers to test out the product based on multi-channel experiences.” 

This has led to a shift away from ‘top-down’ marketing towards a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the relationship. In other words, rather than boasting of the merits of a particular product and “advocating it to a predetermined clientele”, a strategy which has been termed ‘push marketing’, companies have been switching to ‘pull marketing’, an approach which consists of highlighting brand image and taking a broader, across-the-board view of customer relations. Jean-François Ledey points out: “Customer contact is a much more extensive field than one might think. All units of a given company can potentially come into contact – direct or indirect – with a customer. You also have to understand the role of communities, especially on the social networks. Organisations that are stuck in silos just don’t work anymore.” The watchwords are: “Know your customer; Engage your customer; and Win the loyalty of your customer,” stresses Ledey. However, among all these changes, there is still one challenge that companies still need to meet: to be able to harness digital tools to get round bureaucratic processes but at the same time avoid over-digitising the relationship and creating a cold mechanical feel.

EMOTION  IS CENTRAL TO  THE COMMERCIAL RELATIONSHIP

Human Centric

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The fundamental role of emotion in commercial relations 

While the digital revolution has enabled a more precise picture of the relationships between individuals –  in all fields of activity – to be drawn, it also creates the risk of massive automation that may actually poison the communication between brand and consumer. However, the social networks have played a decisive role in the way people communicate, obtain information and consume. In all these interactions, the customer is as central as ever. Eric Dadian’s AFRC takes the view that “it’s not enough simply to say that the world is no longer vertical, segmented and ‘Taylorised’ but has become horizontal. If you’re going to take on board the consequences that these precepts imply, then you have to incorporate them fully into the mindset of the company, its organisation, its statements and its actions. You have to realise that the customer of today will make any company which views him or her as a mere cypher – credulous and biddable – pay dearly for its presumption, while s/he’ll be grateful and place trust in anyone who regards him or her as an individual, an influencer, a potential detractor or media in his or her own right.” Moreover, companies need to embody certain values and restore to commerce or service provision their basic human character. Behind the most finely-tuned marketing strategies, notwithstanding the new communication channels and the new technologies, there are people, with their rational side and their emotional side. So they need to grasp the fact that an intelligent machine, whether we’re talking about AI or chatbots, is always just a means to an end. The end itself is a human one. 

ONLY EMOTION IS TRULY HUMAN-CENTRIC

Emotions

Jean-François Ledey agrees. “AI and chatbots are not enough in themselves, they won’t enable you to engage the customer in the longer term. No-one wants to live in a cold world where there’s no room for any mistakes. It’s emotion that makes a relationship alive and effective.”  That being so, digital tools must add something to the product, help to serve the customer, make it easier for company staff to do their jobs and transform a mere transaction into a relationship. And they must be able to do this at the right moment. “Human agents need to instil their values into the machine and not the other way round. Being natural is a fundamental value. A relationship is most often created by a look, by contact, by touch,” Ledey underlines. This is why customer relations – in terms of not only its interfaces and tools but also its design, its paradigms, its basics and its values – should be focused on the human aspects.  And it is also why, insists Eric Dadian, there is an acute need for standards and norms in this field. In fact, the AFRC has drawn up a set of guidelines on the protection of personal data with a view to ensuring that Big Data analysis is conducted in an ethical manner and that customer’s rights are properly safeguarded. Data processing should never take place without due regard for individual privacy; on the contrary, everything should be done with the customer’s best interests in mind.  Companies will never be able to maintain proper relationships with people unless they accept that before being consumers, their customers are first and foremost human beings. For all these reasons, going forward, customer relations will have to be human-centric… or nothing.

By Théo Roux
Journaliste