17 November 2007

For Whom the Bell Tolls... or Doesn't , As the Case May Be

Leigh relates her tale of woe concerning her last hurrah with Bell Mobility. Very short version: Leigh is a long-term, high-spending Bell Mobility customer. She dropped her phone. Phone broke. Goes to Bell Store, but is not ready to make a long-term decision about her next phone. "Will you do something to retain me as a customer (i.e., with a temporary phone) until I decide on my next permanent phone?" "No, because if we do we'll lose money (potentially $70 in the short term, ignoring the fact that Leigh typically spends about $300 a month)." Upshot: Goodbye Bell, hello Telus.

Leigh spends some time on her blog talking about "co-investment" - the idea that companies and customers "co-invest" in each other over time, thereby solidifying a long-term relationship. She quite reasonably asks,
If companies are not willing to invest in me then why should I be willing to invest in them? It’s not short term thinking. It’s not the old world of command control and creation…..but a new model of symbiotic marketing (or what I call Green Man marketing) that sees customers as part of the ecosystem. Similar to James Locklock's Gaia Theory blowing the philosophical door open on the way we viewed ourselves as controllers of the planet, new approaches that view our relationships in terms of our mutual contribution, our mutual roles and our mutual investments and gains, becomes a new basis for an changing business, management and marketing landscape.
In relationship marketing terms, they speak about customer loyalty that suggests trust, that leads to advocacy, the holy grail of RM.

I see Leigh's point, and I think she's taking a slice through one aspect of what I would call Valence Marketing, that derives from the foundation of my Valence Theory of Organization. Traditional marketing practice, even all gussied up with relationship talk, and vocabulary like "co-investment" and "symbiosis," still has a predominant focus on manipulating consumers to spend money for goods and services. In critical marketing discourse, such as that suggested in Gee, Hull, and Lankshear's 1996 book, The New Work Order: Behind the language of the new capitalism, companies sell a lifestyle, and then provide the goods and services to create that lifestyle. It's all about the manipulation, and control of the customer, whether it is expressed in terms of "mind-share," "share of wallet," or "owning the living room." In my conversations with organizations, there seems to be the sinking feeling among some executives that this sort of mentality is becoming less effective when implemented in campaigns.

In Valence terms, customers become part of the organizations with which they do business not only through economic relationships, but equally important, through relationships of identity, knowledge, socio-psychology, and ecology. In the case of Leigh and the Bouncing Bell, Leigh had a strong(-ish) identity relationship with Bell as a Bell customer, particularly through the economic (i.e., value) exchange that she enjoys every month (and Bell probably enjoys even more). Had Bell realized the importance of both the knowledge valence (their mutual knowledge of Leigh's spending and long-term Bell experience), and the socio-psychological valence (bad word-of-mouth is a bitch; bad word-of-mouse is a persistent bitch), not to mention Bell happily rending asunder her identity relationship as a Bell customer, the potential loss of $70 is a pretty darn cheap bet.

To me, this isn't just a simple matter of how decisions are made. Rather it is a question of how the organization self-conceives, and on that basis, how decisions are able to be made, all the way down to the retail clerk.

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