Back in ancient times (let’s go with 1970s or 1980s) when mainframes ruled the world and “friends” were people you actually knew, the rules of engagement were very different. Companies and customers met when a transaction was taking place. Otherwise, everyone went their separate ways and did their own thing. Well, that kind of cut-and-dried, disconnected relationship truly is a thing of the past – at least for brands that want to succeed in the future.
Things (and leaders we hope) are much more personal now.
The computer, one of the most significant developments in human history, has changed everything. It’s brought us all into the (virtual) town square together 24/7/365. That means leaders of companies and their employees can reach customers (current and potential) in ways our distant ancestors back in the day could only dream of.
Our social media culture takes this truth to the next level by allowing brands to build emotional connections with their customers, to become a part of their lives, both in their homes and — done right — in their hearts. The heart of this is ongoing, online dialogue. Both parties benefit. The customer’s idiosyncratic (and sometimes maddening) needs and wants can be met. The company gets increased sales, of course, but also instant feedback on its products — every online chat has the potential to yield an actionable nugget of knowledge.
The result of this new intimacy: your brand is humanized, customer loyalty skyrockets, performance and team morale is boosted.
Humanizing your brand does take some thought – don’t rush into it. These five basic steps can guide you:
1) Have a plan.
At its best, brand humanization is a seamless blend of personal brand, company values, workpace culture and social community. It takes leadership to make this happen. Spend some time understanding what brand humanization would look like for your company. How does it fit with your current culture? How will your culture need to change? Do you have the social media talent to set up both the IT mechanics and the “soft” side of humanization (in their dialogue with customers, employees must be given freedom, not carte blanche). If you don’t have the talent, hire it! I cannot overstate the importance of this. Once you have a plan (spend days or weeks on this, not months — no committees or study groups allowed) get cracking on putting it into action.
2) Know thyself.
Brand humanization means opening up your company and culture, and inviting customers in. So you have to know who you are, you have to a brand identity that is consistent yet allows employees room to express themselves. Southwest Airlines is a venerable master of brand humanization — its flight attendants have always been encouraged to bring their personalities to work, to crack jokes, to be warm and friendly with customers. It is one of the lynchpins of the company’s sustained success. Know your company’s personality (and it doesn’t have be relentlessly upbeat) and how to express it through social media.
3) Create brand ambassadors and evangelists.
Humanization is about turning employees into goodwill ambassadors, even evangelists, for your brand. To do this, they need the freedom mentioned above. This can be tricky, though. Their personal message has to align with the company’s practices and image. Otherwise, customers can get confused. So limits have to be set on what are acceptable topics (politics is the most obvious off-limits subject). Think of it as putting up guardrails to everyone on track. Training, of course, is crucial to achieve this sometimes delicate balance of employee freedom and brand protection. Better to err on the side of freedom. We’ve all posted (and deleted when we came to our senses) things we probably shouldn’t have. The dangers of over-managing humanization are greater than those of letting people be themselves.
4) Don’t forget your netiquette.
Just like with our flesh-and-blood friends and acquaintances, there are rules of engagement in social media. Humanization does not mean intrusion. It does not mean one-way e-mail blasts. It does not mean oversharing, or too much curiosity. There are boundary issues here — make sure everyone understands that and knows how to respect them. And never forget – in the end, it’s about making the customer and your employees happy.
5) Hire for humanization.
You can talk about training forever, but the fact remains that there is no substitute for talent. And some people have a talent for humanization, for establishing relationships with customers that are mutually fulfilling. No doubt you already have some of these naturals in your organization. When you hire, especially for the frontline, look for traits like humor, warmth, and emotional intelligence, you want people who are articulate, passionate, comfortable in their own skin and naturally extroverted and generous.
Hire right and humanization will a lot easier and more successful.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes.com
Image credit: Gratisography