The River that Runs Through it

The authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto have introduced into our lexicon a great new bumper-sticker phrase: “Business is Conversation.”

As high metaphors go, it’s a pretty good one. The gist of the message is that the human factor of two people talking is what makes the world go ’round. Steve Pappas, President of KGain, who wrote the essay following this one has another way of saying it: The “touch” that adds value to a relationship requires human dialog.

It’s comforting that the new business literature has come full circle, retreating from the tyranny of “process improvement” and returning to the cracker-barrel homespun of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. But the problem with the “conversation” metaphor is that it doesn’t scale. Individually, conversations (or collaborations, or dialogs or whatever you call them) are easy to understand ... two parties, two sets of expectations, a little song, a little dance. But the reality is that at any given moment, we are having multiple conversations with multiple parties, each of whom is a moving target of self-interest, earnestness and disregard. “What I care about, you don’t. What I cared about this morning, I no longer care about. But now, I DO care about...” It’s Babel all over again.

And that’s just in one dimension. As Jim Pflaging, CEO of Intraspect correctly points out, work is done not within silos or domains of interest, nor is it carried out in a linear, orderly fashion. Work is somehow accomplished in complex and messy webs of salespeople, engineers, marketers, support staff and customers, usually talking with another messy web of process specialists in another company in another time zone. How anything gets done at all is one of the great mysteries of the early 21st century.

“It’s true,” says Rian Gorey, Practice Executive, Knowledge & Content Management for IBM Global Services. “Companies have disaggregated and focused on their core-competencies, requiring increased nimbleness in working with buyers, suppliers, competitors in increased volumes and intensity.” But despite this Babel of biblical proportions, we manage to chug along. We find ways to exchange enough information, agree on enough terms and get ourselves heard above the din. “There’s a common denominator that cuts across all these many processes and people ... a river runs through it,” says Intraspect’s Pflaging. And the river that runs through business right now is called collaboration. Conversation. Touch.

Regaining the Touch

That’s the way it’s supposed to be, anyway. But face it, the depersonalization of the relationship between your customers and you is deeply ingrained. We have deployed tons of expensive and complicated systems to address the Babel-problem. And each time we deploy a solution, we add yet another layer that prevents actual touch, actual human contact. Over time these layers have accumulated, silting up the river so badly that we hardly know it’s there.

The temptation is to blow up the dam, somehow undo the damage that all those systems have inflicted on our ability to touch our customers and partners. But that really wouldn’t work, would it? The volume, haste and dispersion of markets require the technology support. So, we’re stuck.

KGain’s Steve Pappas doesn’t see it as an unsolvable problem. He suggest that we simply become more sensitive to the “touch” requirement, and take the steps necessary to, as the song says, “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” and by all means, don’t mess with Mr. In Between.

“We have to amplify high touch where we are currently using it,” explains Pappas. “Wherever there’s human interaction, we need to amplify the quality of it.” This is accomplished, says Pappas, through cost-effective and high-quality training of those members of your team who are customer-facing. At the same time, steps should taken to “dampen the perception of coldness and the impersonal image of technology where it is being used,” adds Pappas. Systems need to be better at mimicking high touch by being sensitive to customer frustrations with things like endless voice-mail loops and “all our agents are currently helping other customers...” “There’s also an education process that needs to take place,” says Pappas. “We need to let customers know that the technology is in place to help them, and not us.” IBM Global Services’ Rian Gorey takes it a step further: “Customers will be expecting it,” he predicts. “The bar rises (for customer expectations) with every new innovation your competitors do.”

“Get as close to your customers as you can, otherwise your competitors will, and put you out of business. But don’t put the burden on your customers; it is a cost of doing business for the company,’ says Gorey. “If you want to know what your customers want, Ask! But also keep innovating in ways to understand what customers WILL WANT and don’t know that they want it today.”

But innovate smartly. As Gorey reminds us, “Companies have ignored many of the human components of making the ‘people systems’ work. ‘If you build it, they will come,’ doesn’t work! What investments have been made to increase the human capabilities, collaboration and interactions that make the content flow over that infrastructure? If these systems and people need to work better together and integrate, what has been done to make that happen? What human-capital investments have been made? The companies that realize this in a holistic manner will get the payback. The others will have wasted their investments.”

All of which sounds great, but is much easier to say than to do. The trick of it (and the everyday focus of the companies in the White Paper) is to create and implement solutions that replace the cracker barrel with a seamless replacement.

What Works? What Doesn’t?

“People are busy. They don’t have time to learn new things,” cautions Intraspect’s Pflaging. “Employees will learn, maybe, one new technology per year. A lot of applications take a big gulp—in time and in cost to implement and own.” Pflaging argues that totally new solutions are expensive, disruptive and aren’t embraced by the users anyway. “You need tools that work the way people work,” he says. Well, how DO people work? Usually not very well. You call a supplier and get his voice mail. You leave a message ... “What’d you think of the proposal?” Then you wait, and later you send an e-mail with the same question. The supplier gets back to you the next day, maybe, with an e-mail, and then he calls, “Did you get my e-mail? Here’s what it said...” Then the reply cycle starts again.

Like I said, it’s a wonder anything gets done at all. But there are at least two important underlying messages here: 1. Most commerce gets done over the old standbys—phone and e-mail, and 2. Most commerce happens over time between two people who like each other. And increasingly, it happens in a shared collaborative environment of some kind ... kinda like a cracker barrel.

There’s a naïve view that all the value is derived from the transaction, the final mile. But the truth is that value accumulates over time from the relationship. It’s not the “what;” it’s the “how” that counts. As noted in the Intraspect essay in this White Paper, Harvard Business Review says a mere 5% increase in customer retention yields a 25% to 95% increase in profits from that relationship.

But isn’t it faddish to say that the disintermediation of the Internet allows customers and businesses to be fickle? I mean, you can buy consumer and business products at auction now. Where’s the relationship loyalty in that? “Conversion to a new supplier or switching partners is very painful,” says Intraspect’s Pflaging. “For every transaction, there are 20 little steps that lead to it. The continuity of what goes through it is what counts.”

“How do you bring value to your suppliers?” asks Pflaging, noting that the supply chain runs in both directions. “Face it, sometimes the value of my individual transaction just isn’t that important to them. But there is value in being easy to work with. There are lots of definitions of value.” So, being easy to work with ... providing great service ... communicating freely ... knowing your customer ... isn’t this just common sense??

“Yes! Exactly! It IS common sense!” says KGain’s Pappas enthusiastically. “It’s like, the winner is the guy with the most keen gasp of the bloody obvious! The problem is, the volume has spread out the complexity, and this volume dynamic has diminished that human interaction that people prefer.” The next several pages may or may not strike you as bloody obvious. But it’s clear that a return to at least the sense of human touch in business is on the minds of the visionaries. Breaking down the barriers that prevent that most basic of relationships—the Conversation—is the key challenge for succeeding in today’s overwhelmingly abstract economy.

Here’s your homework: Today, have a conversation. A good, long conversation.

Andy Moore has often been a well-known presence in the emergence of new technologies, from independent telecommunications through networking and information management. Most recently, Moore has been pleased to witness first-hand the decade’s most significant business and organizational revolution: the drive to leverage organizational knowledge assets (documents, records, information and object repositories) and the expertise and skill of the organizations’ knowledge workers in order to create true learning organizations. He can be reached at andy_moore@verizon.net and welcomes feedback and conversation.

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