Dialogue Over Monologue – The Key to Customer Relationships

To build a relationship with a customer, a brand has to engage with him/ her through various means and one way of doing so is to interact with them. But one of the better ways is to let them talk back to you. An essential component of a brand-customer relationship is the ‘humanness’ of the relationship and the interaction they have through communications.

The old paradigms have changed. To build a relationship with a customer, a brand has to engage with him/ her through various means and one way of doing so is to interact with them. But one of the better ways is to let them talk back to you. An essential component of a brand-customer relationship is the ‘humanness’ of the relationship and the interaction they have through communications. 

In simple words – ‘Enter into a Dialogue’.

A dialogue by its very definition is an attitude or orientation towards communication wherein each participant possesses genuine concern for the other and it is this concern that drives interaction. At least on the face of it, dialogue is free from any ulterior motive like financial gain (there is a thin red line though!). Dialogue is based on factors like care, trust, sensitiveness, sincerity, openness, empathy among others. This is devoid of manipulations of untruths, coercion, exploitation etc. In effect, the more transparent and honest interaction is, the more the dialogue it is.

Martin Buber, the renowned philosopher based interactions on relationships or concepts called I-Thou and I-It

I-Thou relationships are dialogic, while I-It relationships are monologic in which one is more interested in self than in the relationship. While people will indulge in both it is without a doubt, better to indulge in a dialogue in the present-day market dynamics. 

Dialogic communication and I-Thou relationships are characterized by:

1. Mutual Openness:  Open-heartedness, directness, honesty, spontaneity, frankness, lack of pretence and care in the sense of responsibility of one human for another.

2. Non-manipulative: One’s belief is not forced on another. 

3. Recognition of Uniqueness: Each person is unique and hence should be treated differently. This is accepted in a dialogue. This implies that all persons in the dialogue are treated as equals.

4. Mutual Confirmation: Each person in the dialogue is treated with respect and acknowledgement by the other (and is not treated as an insignificant bystander).

5. Turning Towards: Each person will reach out to the other in a symbolic sense.

6. Non-evaluative: There is an attempt to see the other’s point of view even if it is opposed to one’s own. 

On the contrary, monologues involve manipulation and control which is typical of the way an inanimate object would be treated:

1. Conquer – A person employing monologue seeks to command, coerce, manipulate, conquer, dazzle, deceive, or exploit. The other persons are taken to be viewed as “things” and not persons (with opinions) to be exploited solely for the communicator’s self-serving purpose. 

2. Focus on Self – Focus is on the message of the communicator, not on everyone’s actual needs. 

3. Misused Feedback – Feedback is used only for the convenience of the person employing the monologue to further his /her purpose. An honest response from a receiver is not wanted and if at all it is given it is ignored if it is contrarian.

4. Impose Belief -Monologic communicators like to impose their truth/belief on others. They suffer from a superiority complex and expect that others should follow them in thoughts and action. 

In the years gone by communication traditionally followed the one-way traffic method. Any communication was designed only with the perspective of the brand or organization thereby making the audience mere receivers of the information and thereby superimposing their beliefs on the audience. Even if the brand does try not to be deceitful or manipulative, by nature of the interaction it ignores rational decision-making. There is also no insistence on relationship building. Given the nature of the media and the orientation of their thinking, the brands view their audience and relationships with them simply as the means to an end while actually, the objective should be to build long and time enduring relationships.

The very nature of evolution and the resultant dynamics is the entry and usage of means which will help democratize information and interaction. The Internet is one such powerful tool that banks more on the power of dialogue and hence personalizes relationships.

The ability to leverage the ‘power of one has personalized marketing. In combination with the interactive possibilities, the Internet has provided a platform for brands and customers to talk to each other. While brands can be selective in their communication, customers are not and hence from a perspective of past vs. future, there seems to be an increased amount of interaction. 

As customers get more conversational and word of mouth gets more and more relevant, communication has also changed. There is more emphasis on one-on-one conversations, and it is not surprising that direct marketing, experiential marketing and even mass media messaging have taken a personalised note. This paradigm shift can be seen in the simple contact numbers or helpline which in effect is a step in the right direction. In a sense even mobile telephony has hastened this process as phones are available anywhere, hence the customers can pick up the phone anytime and talk.

However, despite all the advantages, there seems to be diffidence from marketers to engage in a dialogue. They have made poor efforts to engage in what is supposedly a dialogue but borders more on a monologue. These monologic conversations attempt at representing or simulating relationships rather than establishing ongoing, dialogic relationships. They rather stick with the tried and tested formulas. In certain cases, there seems to be apprehension on the marketer’s side. Communication through advertising still follows the traditional image creation formula with a semblance of an effort of creating a relationship and showing that each individual is different. 

Fundamentally marketers need to understand that no relationship can prosper with only a monologue (in the short term it could work). Mass media at best can inform the people of the actions of a brand/ organisation’s. The fact is that all mass media is impersonal and no matter how hard we try it will only reduce the impersonal aspect but never can we remove it. To establish closer relational ties, there is no substitute for the actual establishment and maintenance of relationships with individuals. Regular advertising can be treated as a monologic conversation as they are only moving images. The only way it can be salvaged is when they are backed up with concrete actions. The “talk the talk” needs to be backed by “walking the walk” to establish credibility. Generation of images and “saying the right things” or “telling them what they want to hear” is not enough to establish stable, long-term relationships. Words and actions must be congruent if credibility and trust are to be built in a relationship with dialogue.

Listening – One of the oft-repeated phrases in B School and also in the corporate world is listening to your customer. But this fundamental is often ignored. While listening to your customer can give you a deep and better understanding of the psyche of the customer, it is often given lip service – quite literally! One can hear executives talking about how they listened to their customers but somehow these companies seem to do a poor job of it. With particular reference to marketing, I have noticed communication that has been designed in offices and catered primary to the tastes of the executives and not to the target audiences. Listening is a basic component of interpersonal communication and the heart of dialogue. Listening skills and awareness will inevitably be a vital component of “relationalizing” brand-customer relationships.

Historically the shortsightedness of organizations of not attending to the interests and needs of their publics has resulted in dire consequences. Examples of effective and sensitive, dialogic listening are less abundant but there is a growing number. For instance, listening to the need for parents of seriously ill children to have affordable housing near treatment centres led directly to the establishment of Ronald McDonald Houses. 

Perhaps equally serious is the short term quarter-to-quarter view taken by businesses more dictated by the equity analysts and stock market prices. The need for quick gains has negated efforts on dialogue-based relationships. Such relationships take time but that is the strength on which a rock-solid business can be built. Starbucks was among the few who decided to focus on what the customer wanted and listened to them. It also decided not to quote the same stores sales growth to pre-empt any compromise on their relationships with customers.

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