A sea change is taking place in consumer attitudes during the recession. Consumers no longer want to be simply consumers; they want to be given the opportunity to become activists.
They also want to feel a greater sense of personal connectedness with the companies they deal with in everyday life.
Recently, I was invited to offer radio, TV and press comment on a survey undertaken by one of Britain's leading healthcare providers. The UK-wide study highlighted the dissatisfaction many customers feel with the level of attention they're receiving – especially from banks, utilities and health and other service providers.
The study, conducted by the Benenden Healthcare Society, showed that almost 14 million people have either changed or considered changing their bank, healthcare or utility provider in the past year because they didn't feel they were ‘getting anything back’ from the relationship. Among other things, it also found that one in 10 people in Britain are about to terminate supplier agreements due to a lack of trust or respect.
Overall, the study has important implications not just for service providers, but for all companies and organizations. Whether you lead a corporation, small business, government body, charity, club or faith community, there are lessons for us all.
The first lesson is straightforward: people want services that add real value to their lives over the long-term, rather than those that simply provide immediate convenience. This is perhaps a predictable reaction to the short-term thinking that many feel led us into recession in the first place, especially on the part of finance and banking industries and government bodies charged with regulating them.
From here on, any enterprise that wants to enlist public support will need to ensure that it does more than meet a basic material or economic need. Companies and organizations will need to offer ideas and projects that are value-adding – that is, ideas that help people achieve the things they aspire to most, such as respect, significance and meaning. This may seem a little too fuzzy for some hard-headed company directors, but there will be no escaping the consequences for groups that fail to deliver at this level.
Secondly, the study's findings revealed a major shift toward what ‘old fashioned’ values. It seems consumers are now looking for the same values in both their professional and personal relationships – particularly trust, mutual respect and loyalty.
This, I think, has arisen not just because of recession. It is also a response to globalisation, the pace of change and the high levels of mobility in society today. As globalism grows – as barriers to trade, commerce and communication are torn down – so does a form, mostly a benevolent form, of tribalism. People appreciate the benefits of global markets and multicultural communities, but they also want to seek out other people who share their particular background, experiences, values and ideals. Meanwhile, as mobility in society increases many people feel that their sense of community is under threat. More than a few feel the need to form new ‘families’ and ‘neighbourhoods’ - even with companies from whom they buy goods and services.
As consumers, we're no longer interested in just the traditional customer-supplier relationship. We want a sense of respectful familiarity, of shared destiny, and the kind of trust that produces a win-win situation. Any enterprise that wants to enlist public support will need to offer clear opportunities for this kind of connection.
If you're in corporate leadership or management, this is the time to make those personal calls to the individuals you've not spoken with for a long time (if at all). Now is the time to dismantle your reliance on customer relations management, which has turned personal interaction into a software-driven function rather than a human relationship.
It's not just connection with the provider that consumers want, though. They're seeking connection with each other. This is the time to create opportunities for people to be part of a community – and in particular a community that actively brings change. This is the age of what one writer has called the ‘hive mentality’. This is expressed in the catchphrase of one of Europe’s biggest telecoms providers: ‘We're better, connected.’
The ongoing digital media revolution has ushered in an age of interconnectedness the like of which the world has never seen. Wikipedia is not just a cause, it is a community. Meanwhile, fast-growing web-based organisations like Kiva thrive because they allow people to connect with each other, while doing good for the local or even global community.
This brings us to the third significant lesson from the Benenden study – and I touched on it at the beginning of this article. Consumers no longer want to be consumers alone. They're looking for alliances through which they can become activists. In this downturn, people are increasingly drawn to companies that allow them the opportunity to affect change in the wider world while having their own needs met. People want to feel that they're directly or indirectly making a difference to the lives of others and the health of the community as a whole.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an often belittled term in corporate circles. It is also a term that has many definitions. I like the one offered by Mallen Baker of the UK's Business in the Community group. CSR, he said, is about ‘how companies manage the business processes to product an overall positive impact on society.’ This kind of social responsibility, even social welfare, is going to become increasingly important for companies and organizations that want to emerge from the downturn with renewed public trust and customer loyalty.
One thing has become abundantly clear in this recession. When material security declines, moral altruism goes through the roof. When people feel they can no longer define themselves according to their income, job status or mortgage - these things become very shaky in a recession – they start to look for other ways to declare their values and their place in the world. They seek out causes and projects that will enrich their personal stories.
Late last year, in the midst of the worst economic downturn Britain has faced in 30 years, its people gave a record sum to Red Nose Day, the nation's most famous fund-raising event. At the present time, volunteerism is on the rise, in Britain and throughout much of the developed world. As part of this trend, more and more top-echelon corporate figures are investing large swathes of their time and money in support of charities and philanthropic ventures. Meanwhile, ethical buying is increasing as more commercial enterprises commit to ecological responsibility and making a stand against such crimes as people trafficking.
These are reflections of a growing taste for altruistic behaviour. Martin Luther King Jnr. once said that a human being hasn't begun to live until he or she can look above their own concerns and see those of the broader humanity. Recession has brought that kind of thinking to the fore.
Mal Fletcher discusses the consumer study on WebChatTV, a consumer affairs programme - Click here to view.
Do you want to head a project or organization that attracts gifted, resourceful and energetic people? Start looking beyond your bottom line profit; look for ways to produce positive, pragmatic and realistic change on some important local, regional or global issue. And be prepared to be totally transparent and accountable for any promises you make.
The Benenden study gives leaders of all stripes much food for thought. One thing is certain: business as usual is no longer going to be enough to engage public trust and loyalty.