Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How to Become a Trusted Advisor

In competitive markets, brands wish to become trusted advisors to their customers – but looking at their behavior, one wonders if they understand what it means to be an “advisor.”   They certainly seem to wish to have authority and control over the customer – to tell the customer what to do and for the customer to do it immediately and without question – but this is not being an advisor, and does not earn them the loyalty they covet.

Becoming a trusted advisor means taking an earnest interest in helping customers solve their problem, providing them with guidance, and following up until the problem is actually solved.   It is a long-term process rather than a short-term action, and it follows a very simple and predictable pattern that begins with considering the customer’s needs and continues through ensuring those needs have been fulfilled.  For simplicity’s sake, this can be broken into four basic steps:

Step One: Consider the Customer’s Needs

A prerequisite to the ability to give good advice is having something of value to offer the person you are advising.  In commercial relationships, this means having a good or service that meets the customer’s needs: it solves a problem that is troubling them or helps them achieve a goal that they have chosen for themselves.

This sounds simple enough, but the ambition to sell as many products to as many people as possible causes companies to fail to consider whether a given person would get a benefit from their product and whether it’s genuinely worth the cost and effort of obtaining and using it.   Their advice is self-serving rather than good for the customer, and most customers recognize this and reject it.

So the first step in giving good advice is to decide whether advice is necessary at all and to be both objective and reasonable is assessing whether a given product is at all useful to the individual customer – and if not, then seek a valid market or alter the product to make it worthwhile.

Step Two: Ask Relevant Questions

Good advice is tailored to the individual.  While certain practices are good in general, “general” advice is usually regarded as aphorisms and platitudes doled out nonchalantly without concern for a person’s individual situation.  In order to know the customer’s needs, you have to ask questions to learn about them.

Doing research is not the same as asking questions, nor does it help to build trust: while people are well aware that marketing databases exist, they still express that it is “creepy” for a company to know things that they haven’t chosen to disclose.   And research often turns up highly specious connections that, in spite of their statistical significance, seem irrelevant.

The questioning process demonstrates concern, builds trust, and makes the customer mindful of the reasons that a recommendation is made.   When you ask questions before giving advice, the customer recognizes (or at least reckons) that the advice you are giving is based on the information they just gave you.

Step Three: Justify a Solution

The final step in the advice process is to provide and justify a solution, based on the information gathered during the questioning process.   It is not until a trust relationship is well established that people will accept advice without justification – and even when the trust is there, it should not be taken for granted: always justify a recommendation.

Justifying advice not only builds trust, but it increases compliance.   A serious of studies in behavioral psychology (Langer 1978) demonstrate a dramatic increase in compliance when a person who makes a request states a reason, even if the reason itself seems entirely specious.

So the ideal way to provide advice is to use “since” or “because” in a very specific pattern:
  • Since [you said this], I recommend [this action]
  • I recommend [this action] because [you said this]
But simply providing advice is not enough, there’s one step left in the process:

Step Four: Follow Up and Take Responsibility

The greatest mistake most companies make is abandoning the customer the moment the sale is made.  There is no better demonstration of insincerity than a person or organization who abandons you as soon as they have gotten what they wanted from the transaction, and no better way to destroy any trust that might have been earned.

Following up is simple enough: it’s a matter of remembering to touch base with the customer after a reasonable amount of time to ask if their problem has been solved.   Customer satisfaction surveys are becoming more common, but they are not sufficient because the results are considered in the aggregate rather than individually – and it’s arguable whether they result in any significant amount of action.

The best advisors follow up individually – to see if their advice has been followed and, if so, to ensure that the person they advised benefitted from it.   More than that, the advisor will work with the other person to help them solve their problem or achieve their goal, by providing follow-on advice and recommendations, and stay with them until the solution has been achieved.  This demonstrates genuine concern and a true commitment to service.


The value of being a trusted advisor is the long-term loyalty of customers, but this loyalty is reciprocal: it must be given in order to be received.  An advisor must be loyal to the interests of those he advises, he must consider their objectives, learn about their situation, provide a valid solution, follow up to ensure the solution was implemented, and continue to provide support until the problem is solved.   Anything less is insufficient.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Social Dimension of Brand

It’s been observed that people buy a product because of the functional value that owning and using the product provides to them, but they purchase a brand because of its meaning, which may have nothing at all to do with the purpose of the product.   But meaning exists in two dimensions – “what does this brand mean to me?” and “what does my consumption of this brand mean to others?”   The second is the social dimension of a brand.

This is most obvious with conspicuous consumerism: people associate specific qualities to a person who consumes a brand, and assume that other people will associate those same qualities to them when they consume it.   If they believe that sophisticated people consume a specific brand, then they consume it in order that they may be perceived as sophisticated by others who observe their consumption of it.   And this may override both the functional benefit and the meaning of the brand in these instances.

The social dimension of a brand thus attributes qualities to the individual, but these qualities are of secondary importance.   There are two fundamental purposes to any social action: to associate oneself to one group or distinguish oneself from another.   The person who wishes to appear sophisticated by consuming a brand is making an overture to a reference group of people whom he believes to value sophistication among their members, or to distance himself from another reference group of people who disdain sophistication.

That is to say that the consumption of a given brand leads the consumer to have a sense of belonging to a society of people who use the same brand, and a sense of being separate from (and generally superior to) the group of people who consume a different brand.   This behavior can even be seen among young children: they demand a specific brand because they wish to “fit in” with a desirable group and shun a competing brand because they want to make it clear that they are not members of a group of undesirables.

But marketing in the social dimension can be exceedingly difficult because these perceptions and associations are arbitrary: what a product “means to me” is entirely subjective, and what a product “means to other people” is both subjective and speculative.  The consumer often does not know what a brand means to others, and is merely guessing, except in instances where an influential member of the social group has directly communicated the association (and even then, it may be an individual who is not influential, but aspires to become so).

It is further complicated by the proliferation of brands: there are so many choices that there is no clear indication of which is correct.  And while the advertiser may attempt to convince the market that its brand is associated to a specific social group, it remains the decision of that social group whether to accept the advertiser’s suggestion (and often, they do not).    Moreover, the same brand may have different meanings in different social groups – the brand that is favored by the “in” crowd at one junior high school may not be the same as that favored at another, and in fact may be a stigmatized brand in that social group (particularly if the two schools are rivals).

And to complicate matters further, there is the unconscious or semi-conscious mind, which often misleads individuals into thinking that they have acted on their own judgment when, in reality, they may have been influenced by external sources of which they are unaware or against which they are practicing denial: the choice may be rationalized, but it is inherently an irrational one.

There are rather few products in which the social dimension is entirely irrelevant – those that are purchased and consumed out of public view are entirely immune, but so much consumption is social, by virtue of the manner of consumption or by open declaration of consumption, that the social dimension of brand is worthwhile to consider, and to consider it in the context of a specific individual and the reference groups they encounter.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Quackery and Ignorance

In 1832, Charles Babbage made an astute observation about technology that remains true to this day: any new development is followed by a wave of “quackery and ignorance” in which hucksters offer technology solutions to those who do not understand the technology but are eager to benefit from it.

Babbage was speaking of the most basic forms of industrial automation, as during his time there were many shady operators who offered machines and mechanisms of various kinds to industrialists, claiming the implementation of a device would boost productivity and eliminate the need for dozens or hundreds of manual laborers.   In rather few cases this was a valid claim, but in most it was not: the machines did not work at all in some cases, or when they did what they were supposed to do the promised results were not delivered.

Nearly two hundred years later, I see the very same thing happening with networked digital technologies.   The claims made of the power of knowledge management, social anything, big data, and the like are always wild and outlandish, and there are a great many companies that offer solutions, but little news that these solutions ever delivered on their promises.   Any time there is a new buzzword in the media, there’s a brief frenzy followed by a guilty silence.

My sense is it’s just history repeating, and that two centuries of repetition have not driven Babbage’s message home, nor do I have the sense it ever will.    There will always be ignorance and greed, and there will always be great profit to be made by swindling the ignorant and the greedy.  

And in the end, perhaps it’s only right that those people who are willing to hand over their budgets and the success of their operations to the latest species of snake-oil salesman are taken in.  But will the lesson ever be learned?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Informal Research: Brands in Social Media

I’ve been curious for some time about brands in the social media, but have not been able to find any good research (quantified and verifiable) into the subject – merely general claims and personal opinions that assert that brands are pervasive in the social media.   And so, I did a little informal research …


The methodology for this research was entirely casual:  I visited a site that served up random Facebook profiles ( and examined the “timeline” and “about” sections of 100 users to seek activities related to brands (any commercial product whose maker is mentioned) in various ways, as detailed in the findings.

Naturally, this means that it is a random (rather than structured) sample and I was only able to observe material that is made fully public by the individual who posted it.   So the behavior of users who are more discreet in their posting were not included (I skipped those whose newsfeeds and profiles were empty).

Another caveat is that this study was conduced in December, during the holiday season, when the mention of brands is more likely to appear in discussions (regarding gifts) than at other times of the year.


Since 100 profiles were examined, the raw numbers below can also serve as percentages:

  • 32 of the users’ newsfeeds contained a mention of a brand in the last ten posts
  • 18 profiles included brand-related content that was “liked” by the user
  • 2 of these 18 instances liked content that was published by the brand itself (as opposed to mentioned in content that was published by someone other than the brand)
  • 9 of the users’ newsfeeds displayed posts containing brand content that was shared with the user by friends
  • 0 of those 9 instances were content published by the brand itself
  • 46 of these users’ profiles contained brand-related content (which includes music, movies, books, pages, and profiles “liked” by the user)


In the broadest sense, my interpretation of this data leads me to the conclusion that brand content is not as pervasive in social media as some sources suggest.   Brand is not absent, and some of these statistics (brand mentions in newsfeeds and profile) do seem substantial, though somewhat less than a majority of users.

Ultimately, this means that social media is still quite non-commercial in nature, and the mention of brands is entirely casual and likely no more prevalent in social media than it is in face-to-face conversations of a social nature.

Suggestions for Future Research

Since this was an informal study that was very limited in scope, there is much room for refinement and validation of these results.   A more structured sample could be used, the inclusion of private (versus public) conversation might alter the findings, and a more rigid definition of “brand” would be useful (to exclude entertainment brands such as movies, which are mentioned more often than non-entertainment ones).

But for my present purposes, simply to get a feel for whether brand is “pervasive”: in the social media, this informal observational study is sufficient for me to conclude that it simply is not.