Customer Bonding

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Customer Bonding
Customer Bonding

The vocabulary of social marketing can be both a game changer and a deal breaker. Sometimes because it's new; other times because it uses common words in new ways that can make more conservative marketers pause. Take bonding for example. One of the chief uses of social media in business is to develop and maintain bonds between customers and a vendor. But bonding also evokes images of a dental procedure or summer camp.

However, in the context of the social customer lifecycle, bonding makes a great deal of sense. As I think of the lifecycle, it has about six parts; some people would say more, some less. The six I come up with are discovery, evaluation, purchase, use and experience, bonding, and last, advocacy.

Most companies don't have problems with the first three phases. A reasonably well-compensated sales force (and your marketing efforts) will see to that. But things start to get sticky around use and experience. Today we know that a customer's first use and early experience with a product will determine the rest of the relationship. Some vendors tell me they can predict with reasonable accuracy that if it takes too long for a customer to become an active and productive user of their widget, it's a telltale sign that the customer won't stick. That's why so many companies take extra care and attention with use and experience. I think that's great, but it's not enough.

Taking care of the squeaky wheel at use and experience simply moves the customer down the line to bonding, and companies are discovering that they can have issues there, as well. Heck, you can have issues in the first three phases too, but if the customer doesn't buy, it's a moot point and really the subject of another column.

But back to bonding. Bonding is the customer's reaction to how the vendor handles adversity. As they write in tiny type in all too many contracts, there is no warranty that the product will be free of defects or that use will be uninterrupted. We all know this and smart customers expect it but a vendor can do a lot to either burnish or kill its reputation by how it handles inevitable adversity. Customers love it (who wouldn't?) when someone on the vendor side takes their problem or issue seriously and works efficiently to achieve a satisfactory outcome. That's one way that bonds get made. They can be broken in the same process, too.

In most markets today, customers expect that they are buying a whole product defined as the thing itself plus the warranties, service, support, goodwill, and pleasant disposition of the service staff. They're also buying into what they anticipate will be a community of other customers who can provide help and advice, a kind word, or real insight. In fact, a more advanced concept of the bond is that it's not between the customer and the vendor at all—or, at best, that's only part of it. The bond is also between like-minded customers using the same vendor's products and services. If the customer community helps you out, most people would want to repay the favor at some point. Wouldn't you?

All this is to say two things: First, if you aren't marketing your bonding elements as part of your product, you might be missing out on scoring better ROI for your marketing programs. Second, marketing has a special place in what, to an untrained eye, looks like service because marketing is, in many companies, the leading user of social media and the group that, at the moment, can do the most to help other departments realize the benefits of social.

While our social antennae might be especially attuned to how our marketing messages are received and responded to, many marketers receive, unsolicited, a lot of feedback from the marketplace. Interspersed with the raves and kudos, sales opportunities and feature requests, there might be things that are not good or nice and that defy categorization. Actually, the category is the service and support bucket, but how effective is the marketing organization at handing off that valuable data to the relevant department? Is the company doing all it can to solicit and collect customer input relevant to bonding?

If no one has taken the lead in establishing social media in all parts of your company yet, you might discover an opportunity is lurking for marketing to take the lead. Take that opportunity now.

  Denis Pombriant is founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group LLC. His research on such topics as social CRM and social responsibility is widely read in North America and in Europe.
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