Why companies have users and not friends.

Why companies have casual consumers instead of perpetual patrons.

Why companies have casual consumers instead of perpetual patrons.

Summary for short attention spans: companies operate as if customers have a rational, objective, transactional view of their interactions with businesses – when in fact those customers are experiencing the interaction as if it were human-to-human, a relationship between two people, due to the inexorable wiring of the brain. The result is failing to gain competitive advantage and loyalty, due to ignorance of psychological factors. How businesses choose to use technology often furthers customer alienation, largely due to poor implementation decisions.

How does the human mind process communications, policies, and procedures of companies they do business with?

Businesses conceptualize their interactions with customers as transactional and rooted in performance, pricing, and service. This is valid and useful to be sure. What they never really get at is how people really feel about their company. They do this as a result of a massive yet understandable mistake, they imagine the customer interacts with businesses as entities that provide products and services, some sort of human-to-business relationship. That seems like a rational assumption, but in the subjective reality of human psychology it may be woefully misguided.

Humans evolved to interact with other humans, and these are the only type of relationships our brains are calibrated to understand. Companies assume their customers interact with them as a “business” or “enterprise”, but they do not and can not process this relationship any way other than a human-to-human interaction. Superficially and rationally, we are aware of this distinction, but our feelings toward the company are driven more by the social processing of our experience.

But most companies are concerned if not obsessed with ratings of service, satisfaction, trust, engagement, ethics, and becoming social media superstars, so what are they not doing?

These are all quite valuable, but also live in the same realm. They ask how good a company is at being a company. Even social media success means more follows and likes, but not underlying feelings of being friends with a meaningful relationship. Another commonality for the entire above list is that they are mostly about avoiding performance failure. Satisfaction is just a lack of problems, and says nothing about feelings of warmth, affinity, or friendship.

In addition, as with our circle of friends, ratings of quality wouldn’t be how we approach choosing who we spend time with. Good attributes in a friend are rendered nearly irrelevant if the same person also is abusive, dismissive, or cold toward us. We choose to spend time with those that care about us, we’ve had positive interactions with, and we most enjoy being around. This is often despite their flaws.

Ok, this concept makes sense, but specifically where do companies fail?

Communication faux pas you would never try with your friends/family. No-reply emails are an easy example. One-way communication that usually generates issues or questions, with the easiest avenue for a response cut off. Users immediately know the company does not care enough to hear the response. Imagine a friend delivering news to you in person, shushing you as they leave saying “visit my website if you have questions”. The idea of a friend doing the exact same thing (sending a no-reply email) is preposterous. Hiding behind some sort of anonymous send bot so you can’t say anything in return? This would end a friendship. Other examples include hiding contact information deeply within a website to avoid contact in the first place, chat support from slow over-extended reps while the customer is quickly timed out for inactivity, and canned email replies that rarely reflect an understanding of the original communication.

Technology leveraged without concern for how it affects customers. Ever tried to login to an account, and not remember your password? Usually that depends on the password requirements. But how many companies show these requirements on the login page as a friendly reminder? A small minority! You try a password, it fails, and still some don’t tell you the requirements. The company could choose to care more, and help you, but they don’t. Your friend would. Save a secure password in a protected wallet like you should? The company likely blocks pasting so you’re typing 24 characters meticulously, or your password expired, “safety” you don’t want  and they imposed upon you without considering your convenience. This is just a small rambling example, but also how humans actually feel, even if not fully justified. I chose this one because it is justified by security experts1,2,3.

Enough complaining, what positive things should they be doing?

This is actually where the most work is needed. Assuming you haven’t offended or annoyed your customers with bad interactions, you still need to actively build a feeling of friendship. My complaints above might be trite and personal (exactly what ruins friendships), but they should be obvious versions of a simple theme: “don’t disrespect your customer or their needs”. It’s interesting that such obvious irritating failures are spoiling so many otherwise solid consumer relationships.

Show humanity. There are countless areas to implement this, let’s explore one very narrow example for a moment. In the recent necessity of GDPR compliance changes, email notifications sent to customers displayed with considerable clarity how most companies don’t “get” how to be human. Rigid and robotic “action required” emails ordered customers to make updates. Others were brutally bureaucratic such as “[Important Notice] Data processing terms for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) available for review / acceptance”. A few more savvy companies said things like “Sorry, but true” to show empathy or “Please confirm that you’re still happy to hear from us”, which has both politeness (please) and emotional content (happy). Others at least made an effort with messaging like “[Name], don’t forget to tell us if you still want our money-saving deals and tips”. These types used old tricks of inserting a name, and reminding customers of the benefits. Persuasive if not viewed as patronizing, but not particularly endearing.

Invest in UX. User experience (UX) research should easily expose the interactions and policies that are getting under the skin of your customers. Don’t forget open-ended items where they can tell you precisely what is wrong.

Hire Psychologists. Self-serving as it is, having an internal or consulting Psychologist review your messaging and policies is an obvious way to improve how it will be perceived. A good industrial/organizational Psychologist can assist you with more likeable messaging, as well as motivating customers and improving the training of representatives. If that doesn’t keep them busy, you can have them switch focus to internal issues of job satisfaction, employee selection, company culture, and more.

This post is an attempt to convey something I’ve recognized as a meta-theme in business research I’ve read and worked on. I believe it is an enormous blind spot, but one that seems obvious once revealed. I assume others have said this before, but I don’t believe the vast majority of organizations give enough weight to these considerations. Here I provide only examples and not a complete exploration of the issue.

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1. https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/blog-post/let-them-paste-passwords

2. https://www.troyhunt.com/the-cobra-effect-that-is-disabling/

3. https://www.wired.com/2015/07/websites-please-stop-blocking-password-managers-2015/