IE Focus | By Enrique Dans, Professor at IE Business School

It’s time to put an end to deliberations. If there is anything that really is changing as a direct result of the popularisation of the net and the so-called social web, it is undoubtedly relations between businesses and their customers.

Open your account on Twitter (Sorry? You’re an executive and you still don´t have Twitter or you don´t know what it is?) And write something about well-known large business organizations with millions of customers, such as Telefonica or Iberia, often criticised for their customer service. In a matter of minutes, if what you have said about the company merits a reply, you will quite possibly find it on Twitter. Have a look at the Twitter accounts of Movistar or Iberia… What can you see? Businesses talking directly with their customers and offering to solve their problems. Businesses that listen to the small fry.

It might be a question about items on a bill, explanations about an incident or about an offer: the question is that, after many years of inflexible single-direction trading and contacting customers only to harass them by throwing new products and services in their faces, many businesses are finally starting to use bidirectional communication channels to maintain real relations with their customers. Such relations are much more genuine and make it worthwhile to manage exceptions or speak with a human voice if a problem can be solved and a customer can be satisfied. Trivial? At the moment, more or less testimonial. But undoubtedly a sign of the times. Times in which technology, far from isolating individuals, makes it possible to humanize relations and bring together those who are on both sides of the screen. How can invest millions in expensive CRM systems if our customers then speak about us in public and we pay them no attention?Have you ever stopped to think how your business communicates with its customers? Why and how does it usually address them? Review your most recent communications: corporate report, press releases, commercial messages… Put them in chronological order and try to imagine one of your friends talking to you with the same attitude, the same tone and the same type of message. Would you think that his attitude was in any way tolerable? Or would you simply think that he was a megalomaniac, self-interested, hypocritical or someone who did not deserve the right to communicate with you directly? Indeed, how often do your attempts at communicating with your customers through advertising campaigns or telemarketing campaigns receive silence as a response? Or even worse, anger? Do you think it reasonable for many of your customers to reply with “leave me alone!” When you try to contact them? Think about it: as the wonderful Hugh Macleod once said, “if we spoke to people in the same way advertising speaks to people, they would punch us in the face”.

Do not hide behind the lack of scale or ignorance. If businesses with millions of customers can allocate resources to speak with them, an SME needs very little to do the same. Instead of wasting so much effort on “pursuing”, try to respond, think about having “someone at the other end of the line”. Someone who pays attention to what people say about their company, who thinks that a complaint can often be an opportunity for improvement. Someone who has felt good at some time when another person from another company did what the North Americans refer to as “walking the extra mile”, doing more than what is strictly necessary to solve a problem. It requires work and learning, but it can be done. It is an attitude. Try it: you will get closer to your customers, become aware of their problems and get ideas to solve them. You will also have more satisfied customers. Your customers are not stupid or undesirable and they do not complain for the sake of it. Listen to them. Technology lets you do so. That´s what real CRM is.

Customers are like cats. After years of throwing stones at them, whenever they come across a man, they usually run away. It will take us years to change our attitude towards businesses that have harassed and pursued us for many years. But for your own good and that of your company, try to understand the change: listen to the small fry.