I'm pleased to see some folks like Brian Solis talk about intent and motivation as a consistent theme in their work. I really wish we'd all talk more about it as a foundational point upon which to build our customer relationships, because it's important on both sides of the equation, and has been since the dawn of time.
Social media hasn't changed this, but it's amplified it. Here's a (long) bit about what I mean.
Having a great business or product to sell is critical. If you haven't figured that out by now, stop reading and go start there.
But if you've truly got something of value to offer people, how and why you go about doing that is every bit as critical as the what. What's your motivation for creating this product in the first place? How do you want people to feel when they do business with you? What's the aftertaste you want to leave with someone for the longer term?
And I'm talking about more than the stuff you put in your mission and vision statement and promptly forego in favor of a meeting around reducing costs. This is the very fabric of what you're in business to do. It's one part about your passion, one part about your philosophy on how you treat people that are part of your business (that includes customers and employees and vendors), and the actions that you take to prove that out.
Everything - ultimately - comes down to this. This is part of what the social media uprising is about: trying to suss out the true intentions of the companies that we're doing business with, and understand whether or not we're comfortable with that as consumers, even happy or motivated or inspired by it.
Yes, we're all in business to earn money of some kind. We accept that as both business owners and consumers. The magic is in where that goal falls in the spectrum of human relations, and how you balance your business goals with the fact that you need the emotional investment of people - even momentarily - in order to achieve the monetary thing.
As individual people, our intentions and needs vary from moment to moment. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to focus on how we seek to interact with companies online (because I could spend endless sociological ramblings about how intent manifests in general in millions of ways, but that for another time perhaps).
As active consumers - meaning somewhere in the purchase cycle - our intentions are pretty clear-cut. We're largely seeking to connect with companies that solve the problem we're having and provide a product or service accordingly, at a price we can justify and equate with the value we perceive, and we'd like to feel like our business (and we as human beings) are valued by the company we're talking to. When all of those things come together, we're in a pretty good place.
The trickier bit is our intent in between those moments of active consumption. How and why do we care to interact with businesses when we're not on the market? Do we?
The answer here is awfully subjective and based in personal taste, but for the most part, our intent here is most likely to stay in touch with people that represent a business we care about in some way. Whether we're a fan of their product or service, interested in their industry or market, or perhaps just personally invested in the success of one of their people, all of those things help drive our desire to stay connected, even when we don't need the business itself. (Plus, it makes the path so much shorter when we DO need it, right?).
Some things are consistent here: our desire to feel like we matter to a company, even when we're not buying. That our connection and interaction matters to them when there isn't an immediate dollar sign attached, and that the company recognizes the potential of that relationship for more than a single sale.
Where the friction occurs is mostly here:
When the company intent is communicated solely in the IMMEDIATE CONTEXT of sales, and when the consumer intent is rooted and nurtured BETWEEN sales moments.
The result of that disconnect is:
- Companies focus their interactions on sales as a starting point instead of a result
- Companies attribute lackluster attention for their offer with not enough attention or awareness, so they get louder
- Content becomes myopically focused on products or sales instead of the ambient experience with the company
- Customers resent the one-track-mindset and feel pitched or exploited
- Customers perceptions of the company are based on what they can see and feel most, which is the product pitch
- Customers don't believe that the company sees any value for them other than a dollar figure, and doesn't care about them between transactions
The reality is that for many companies, their REAL intentions are good ones. They care about customers. They talk about that in meetings, they invest in customer service or leadership training, they're generally nice people, they try really hard and believe in the product or service they're selling. But they do a crappy job of showcasing those intentions through their communication, because their mindset has been that the communication pipeline has to be jammed with the highest potential transaction value in order to justify the investment in same. In other words, communication is for earning money.
But we, as customers, want to see a more multi-dimensional company that can showcase more than just the things that drop straight to the bottom line. We want to see all of the ancillary bonuses that make a company more attractive overall: their industry contributions and expertise, the uniqueness of their people, the personality of their company, the causes they care about and contribute to. We want them to communicate to enhance the experience overall, outside of the transactions we make.
And of course, all of those seemingly "soft" things are critical to communicate, because they demonstrate to a customer in between sales moments that the company has a well-rounded sense of values and interest in them. But for a company, they're having trouble figuring out how all of those dots connect, because as consumers, we really only communicate our true intent with companies when we're on the verge of needing something from them, or have just had a remarkable experience in the transaction moment (for better or worse). The rest of the time, we just rather expect them to keep guessing about what we care about.
See the issue here?
Bridging the Gap
Enter social media, and the double edged sword that is communication in the open seas.
As consumers, we need to help businesses understand what we value and why. Specifically. We must skip the generalities of "people do business with people they like", and start speaking up about what constitutes "people we like", and the detailed characteristics of what we value in a company. What kind of content would we like to see on their website or community? Do we care if they have a blog and why? What do we wish they'd do more of? Less of? How is our experience with them, and how could we help them improve it overall? Do we understand THEM as a company and what they stand for?
If we wait simply until we have a situational and specific issue to address, we're reversing the microfocus we're blaming companies for, and drawing our experiences only in the framework of our immediate transactions. I think we can do a better job in social media of not just waiting for business to find and talk to us, but instead investing our own time and effort in improving business practices through our own input in between those sales, and sharing what we know from our vantage point.
As companies, it's not enough to just "be listening" and "join the conversation". It's important to get down to brass tacks, get dirty, and sit down in the chairs that are next to your customers when they're not buying from you. It's time consuming. It's not scalable. It requires invested individuals who care about your company, but also care about understanding how to bring the customer and company closer to parallel in the intentions we talked about above. It's a willingness to invest in the moments between the sales in order to make the active moments better, even desirable on both ends. And it's an imprecise thing that requires lots of nurturing over time. Sometimes, it's as manual and analog as it comes.
Social media helps take some of the friction out of the process. It makes things easier to share, hear, read, see, react to, weigh in on, pass along. But it doesn't negate the need for the underlying intent to be in the right spot. That's nothing technology can solve, and it resides right among the very threads that connect us as members of the same species.
Together, we have to share one core intention and motivation: to make our shared experience better. And if it's friction we feel, we must be willing to dig beneath the surface actions and talk about why we're even standing next to each other in the first place.
Long before Twitter or Facebook or blogs or forums, that mutual understanding of purpose has always been what ignites enduring human affinity, and the lack of it has started more than one world war.
Intent matters. In fact, I'd argue it's everything. You?