Monday, May 22, 2006

Dialogue More. Focus Deeper.

Seven years ago, in a speech at a Conference Board workshop, I said, “The age of monologue is over. The Wired World has ushered in the age of dialogue and every company needs to set up dialogue systems over the Net to stay in touch with its audiences.”

At that time, however, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the extent to which the Internet would break down the barriers between companies and their constituencies. There’s a great example in the May 15th issue of The New York Times. In his “E-Commerce Report,” Bob Tedeschi writes about how some retailers are making the multimedia on their websites more interactive.

In addition to the usual product description, price, photos, reviews, warranty information and user manual, HomeDepot.com has created an interactive demo for some of its higher-end products that enables potential customers to choose how they’d like to learn more about an item … via video or zooming in to view details with commentary provided on short audio clips. Flash animates photos, making them more exciting and engaging.

HomeDepot.com has put the customer in charge. The company is not “monologuing” … it’s “dialoguing” with its customers. It’s giving them the information they want, when they want it and the way they want it. This has relevance beyond consumer packaged goods, for those of us in the service industries.

Like our counterparts in packaged goods, service companies create products in the course of business, as well: reports, special events, surveys, etc. Those of us who are successful are adept at changing our products "on the fly," as client needs and expectations change.

A good example is Booz Allen Hamilton. The global strategy and technology consulting firm created Organizational DNA — one of Harvard Business Review’s “Breakthrough Ideas of 2005” — to give companies an easy way to identify and remedy organizational roadblocks. Visitors to OrgDNA.com can enter information to obtain a profile of their organization. They are also invited to visit the BoozAllen.com site for further information about how to resolve any negative organizational issues. In effect, Org DNA is a BoozAllen service offering and a sales lead generator, all rolled into one, and it has captured the imagination of scores of Fortune 1000 companies.

As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado said, “To engage in a dialogue, first ask a question then listen.”

But companies shouldn’t restrict their dialogues with customers only to the Web. My agency’s Quality Commitment Program, for instance, is designed to ask our clients how we’re doing and what we could do better. We solicit written client evaluations of our performance twice a year and match them with written account team evaluations. A Client Review Committee meets monthly to assess the conclusions, identify new client service opportunities and find ways to prevent budding client dissatisfactions from becoming full-blown problems. The program has resulted in an average 20% increase in client retention.

All businesses need to build deeper relationships with their clients and customers (and all of their constituencies!). But we have to engage them, emotionally and intellectually … whether online or offline. We have to ask questions, listen to the answers, really learn, and then act accordingly.

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