Marketers Love Conversation, Unless the Consumer Starts It

Listening Gets You More Than Complaints -- You Get Positive Brand Association and Word of Mouth

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
If the consumer voice is so important these days, why are brand feedback, or "contact us," forms so get-out-of-my-face unfriendly?

I dare you to find a feedback form that winks even a quasi-friendly smile. And if you find one that allows consumers to truly communicate in their native voices -- complete with links, photos, audio clips or videos -- I'll eat my just-published book.

When I founded, we would consistently poll consumers about the type of "person" the typical marketer-feedback form personified. Rather than picking the more service-centric personality, "concierge" (the ideal state), most consumers likened the feedback form to a government "bureaucrat" -- faceless, stiff, cold and uninterested.

And the forms haven't improved much since, even in this age of engagement and social media. While "conversation" is practically becoming a synonym for marketing, when it comes to managing consumer-initiated (vs. marketer-initiated) dialogue, we're hiding behind the couch before the consumer can even say hello.

I wonder if we're afflicted with service schizophrenia. Take a mega brand such as McDonald's, which aggressively spends billions to position itself around ease, convenience and service (e.g. "We make you smile"). The company practically hides the most basic of contact forms on its website. Further adding to the disconnect, the company's comments-rich corporate blog is called "Open for Discussion."

Welcome to the "conversational divide."

Oh, there are exceptions -- service-is-marketing-believers such as shoe retailer or health brand Kashi practically beg for feedback -- but for all intents and purposes the marketing industry welcome mat is paved with nails and broken glass. In some categories, such as health care or pharmaceuticals, you are lucky if you even see a contact-us form.

What's going on? Did anyone share the copy-training memo with the consumer-affairs department? More to the point, do media planners even see a relationship between a friendly welcome mat and consumer loyalty or word of mouth.

"The marketing department doesn't see this as part of their remit -- it involves operations, the legal department and a host of bureaucratic policies that they can't begin to tackle. It's bigger than they are," explained Carat CEO Sarah Fay. "Philosophically, brand marketers may not see the effect of consumer-feedback mechanisms as being big enough to make this a priority."
Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of the forthcoming book "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (Doubleday). He's a former co-leader of P&G interactive marketing, the founder of and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). This bi-weekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control. Pete's blogs include and

Jamie Tedford, formerly of Arnold Worldwide and now with word-of-mouth consultancy Brand Network, diagnoses the problem well, saying it comes down to budget silos. "Agencies follow the money. Assignment and focus are rarely placed on plugging the leaky bucket. Instead, we just keep filling the bucket. Agencies are paid a premium to be hunters, not gatherers."

Part of the issue, said Miami of Ohio marketing professor Tim Heath, an expert in the field of "empathetic listening," is that companies want to "signal sensitivity while hoping no one really takes them up it." Moreover, he adds, there's the a "legitimate concern about the costs of data management and responding to individual customers who might float some pretty trite questions."

Brands simply cannot endure half-open and half-closed service protocols. Either we conclude service is part of the new marketing equation, or we can do the consumer a favor and put a "still under construction" sign on our doorstep. Honesty at least buys us a bit of time to get it right. But we can't speak through two mouths.

And there are smaller prizes we can claim in the short term. We can improve feedback forms, forward "give us your opinion" invites, and even better educate call-center representatives about the relationship between satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and word of mouth. I've conducted enough studies at Nielsen to know that consumers who walk through the feedback pipe have higher overall word-of-mouth levels. So at least we have a starting point.

We can add basic search tools to our websites, diversify the way we listen (e.g., go beyond text) or even initiate corporate blogs that are grounded in listening and interaction, not broadcasting. Before we sign off on user-generated events and contests, we can require the event owners to do "quality checks" across all brand touchpoints for disconnects. As a "social media" test, we can up the ante as to how much we spend to manage a relationship any time a consumer wants to talk to us.

Lastly, we can just take the consumer affairs counterpart to lunch, or include him or her in the campaign process. Or vice versa. The key is to start internal conversations as well, a point Unilever's consumer affairs leader, Linnea Johnson, has told me on multiple occasions, often while lamenting the lack of visits to her department from marketing folks.

At the end of the day, while consumers may see two divergent personalities emerge in their brand experience, they typically reach one conclusion. This means we're as good as our last snafu or snub. So we need to fix the big picture.
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