In this surprising and lively exchange, Jean-Pierre Lemaire, managing director of Orange Consulting and Vincent Cespedes, a philosopher and business consultant, discuss the distinct roles of technology and human contact in brand relations today.
How are new technologies making consumer expectations towards brands evolve?
Vincent Cespedes: The consumer can now be in contact, interactively, with the brand, before, during and after the act of purchase. (S)he is no longer the unsuspecting target of communication from the company, but (s)he can now challenge it, respond to its messages, and broadcast his or her opinion. This permanent dialogue spread over time is a wonderful opportunity for brands to install a relationship of trust with its customers, because trust requires time to set in. Nowadays, beyond their products and services, companies therefore point to the values they have adopted as their own. They even go as far as talking to clients about their philosophy. We read a lot that consumers have seized the power in their relationship with brands, but the company, by expressing it values and a philosophy, also offers the consumer a particular way of life, embodied by the purchase of its products and services.
Jean-Pierre Lemaire: The issue of trust is indeed today at the heart of brand- customer relations. It’s a basic, if not to say recurring feature of customer relations, alongside simplicity and customisation. Two new demands have now joined these three recurring features: The English acronym ATAWAD; standing for Any Time, Anywhere, Any Device, which has come from the growth in new technologies; and a demand for transparency, which is also due to the rise in technology. It’s as if the “brand and its territory” have become the joint property of the company and its customers. Customer paths are unpredictable and are a mix of internet, social networks, smartphones, tablets, computers, visiting a high street store, chat forums, phone contact and dialogue with a computer generated avatar.
And in spite of this, the master of the intuitive interface and the web in all its versions, Apple, made a real hit with its Apple TV Genius Bar inside its Apple Stores. The Genius Bar has hit the mark because it is a blend of the tactile, the physical and the personal, which go hand- in-hand with all the rest.
In short, we appear to be at a time when customer relations are moving in mysterious ways but ways we can reinvent, and that’s good news.
Is there a risk that new technologies might dehumanise service?
J.-P.L.: The days of voice response systems telling us to “Press One, Press Two” will soon be in the past. Today it’s all about complementarity between media, modes, and forms of communication. And human relations have their place in this new set-up. It is interesting to see that each new technology triggers value judgements – for example, the concept of dehumanisation, which adds to people’s fears and a sinking feeling that man has something to lose through this. The technology of the printing press – a pervasive technology, you will agree – brought about value judgements and new fears such as “We are going to forget how to communicate by word of mouth”, and this actually gave rise to considerable generations of both authors and readers. Let me give you another value judgement people make today. It is the “in” thing to criticise the new generation and their difficulties in concentrating and acquiring knowledge. But in actual fact, new technology has helped these “digital natives” develop a different brain “operating system” and new, connective forms of intelligence, which do not revolve around having a stock of information in your head, but around the flow of information and an ability to intercept and decode these flows, and even to create them at the right time.
V.C.: Even before Gutenberg’s day, Plato, in a famous passage of his work Phaedrus, brought up the subject of the danger that writing represented for the practice of philosophy! It goes to show that fear of the new goes back a long way and can affect even the most brilliant minds. I think these fears are unfounded. However, it is possible that new technologies engender new forms of cerebral plasticity. The British anthropologist Jack Goody, in his book The Domestication of the Savage Mind, asks whether written thought is a particularity of its own, and looks into the cognitive processes of the development of writing. New technologies develop human beings’ ability to multi-task, a way of working which is not yet required in companies which are single task environments, and encore less in the education system. It also appears to me that the new generations develop, both thanks to new technology and as a reaction to their power, a new activity which is heuristic, fun and enjoyable. They decipher brand messages then try to distort them, represent an alternative view, all the while brandishing their desire for transparency and their clear intention not to be fooled by the hype.
In the future, how do you see the development of relations between consumers and businesses?
J.-P.L.: To create value in the eyes of their customers, companies can no longer, I believe, continue to resort each time to new waves of process optimisation or to going down well-marked paths. Generational behaviour and the centrifugal power of technologies are an invitation to abandon the dogma of the normative approach and the company-predetermined customer journey. The company will have to learn to deal with the paradox of a customer who expects to be looked after, accompanied and advised, but who also wants to do things on his own, choosing, deciding and forming his own opinion. Not an easy one to square, but extremely exciting! It’s time to experiment and to embrace the humility of being scrutinised, and the decider of this is the feeling of emotion.
V.C.: The big revolution that has yet to happen is to leave behind the model of individual intelligence, a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment, and to embrace the idea of connective intelligence, where everyone has the opportunity, either through technology or through face-to-face interaction, of co-creation. I would replace the word “complexity” with the word “complicity”, meaning that the commercial transaction will be co-created by a buyer and a seller via a wave of seduction between the two. This fecundity or fertility of the exchange requires both parties to remain true to themselves, accepting their own weaknesses, thereby allowing personalities to come through and engendering a mutually enriching encounter.