Customer Relationships in the Digital World

Chris Farrance

Chris Farrance

29 August 2014

I was reading an article in September’s Management Today where Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT was being interviewed.

His marketing pedigree is impressive – ex P & G with its strong marketing heritage. He talks about creating a ‘genuinely customer orientated business’ and key to his strategy is to ‘broaden and deepen our customer relationships’.

I don’t know, but does anybody actually want a ‘relationship’ with BT? An underlying theme is that the much heralded move into sports, and football in particular, is part of this ‘relationship’ building’ strategy. Football is quintessentially tribal, but the passion is to do with the team and its followers not the medium of delivery.

Fundamentally BT is a utility. Many would probably feel that it needs to get its core offering right before emoting about relationships. And how does this desire for a ‘warm glow’ fit with the recently announced above inflation price rises? This confluence may just be unfortunate timing – but that’s life!

All the evidence suggests that in the Digital Age, relationships, however they are defined, are determined by the customers not by the business. Power, such as it is, has seismically shifted from the brand to the consumers who form their own views incremented by their social networks too. Just look at the multiplicity of influences on today’s customer buying journey.
And, as we know, these views now circulate at the speed of bits!

So one wonders if BT is really a social business – probably not – and whether it could realistically aspire to be one – being positive – the opportunity is there! Engaging digital brands have gone a whole lot further and the challenge for BT as a ‘digital immigrant’ is far more substantive. It’s more than just smarter marketing tools as P & G themselves have recognised.

Current best practice suggests that part of the journey to authentic brand engagement is to do – partly, not wholly – with people like BT’s CEO having a visible social persona in which he positions himself as a ‘thought leader’ (as well as a man of the people with the Liverpool shirts in his office). Maybe I’m missing his stuff, but in this respect his LinkedIn profile speaks volumes.

This isn’t just about BT, of course, I’m using it as a kind of Trojan Horse. Born digital companies and their people have an immense advantage and they can shape their culture to match. Just look at how Netflix did it – it’s a bit dated but still very powerful. Digital start-ups don’t have to deal with the weeds of a legacy business and the drag of marginal thinking which are probably exacerbated in BT given its public sector heritage and engineering bias.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, the article in Management Today was about ‘management speak’, using rhetoric to hypothesise a facsimile ‘relationship’ with customers. Worthy, but far from engaging and still somewhat distant – in my view – from a best practice customer centric digital business.