We reminisce about our childhoods and the corner store. The owners knew you and your parents. They knew your favorite candy, soda, sandwich - whatever you liked to snack on. They didn't give you a hard time about anything - well, unless you did something to upset the store owners (not like I would know...I was a little goody-two-shoes). And you didn't need to always buy anything - sometimes they just liked it when you stopped in to say "hi." There was a balance between shopping, buying and relationship building.
(Unlocking the Mysteries of Your Customer Relationships at HBR addresses raises this point as well).
The town where I grew up had a small grocery store, Angelo's. It was a small chain store, but the charm of it was that the employees talked to the customers. I remember my mom talking to the Store Manager, Assistant Store Manager, Cashiers and stock boys all the time. I remember being very sad when the Assistant Store Manager, Joanie, left - I was only a little kid, but I used to admire everything about her. And yes, she even worked her way up from being a cashier to a manager - and was getting her own store to manage.
As time marched on, supermarkets and big stores just weren't the same. Being a customer meant you were an anonymous being in the store only with the purpose to buy something. Rarely did anyone there know who you are, never mind your parents. I don't think some of the people working in the stores cared to know you. But you got a great price and there was a lot more variety to choose from, so what could you really complain about, right?
Let's start with lousy service.
When a store - or any company - encourages its employees not to get to know its customers, a silent, transparent yet very thick wall is built. This wall creates an us/them relationship between company and customers. The company provides "things" to the customers and the customers provide money to the company.
But how do you know what "things" the customers really want if you don't talk to them?
The only narrative, the only thing in the whole universe that truly matters is the product we build for our users.
--The Problem with Founders, TechCrunch
For a store, the product isn't a tangible item - it's the experience of buying that item. Some shoppers want to find what they are looking for right away. Others want a discovery process - where they find something "by accident" or they are introduced to something new. Some want to get a great deal. Some want to find the best quality. Some want a story. Some are simply researching what's out there to buy. Some like the experience of shopping - with no intention of buying. And the list goes on...
With online shopping, we want the best of both worlds. We want the anonymity to explore a store without someone helping us, but we want built in guidance to lead us to what we want. We want tools to search inventory. We want sites to recommend what we may want. We want email notifications to tell us about sales, bargains, and inventory updates.
We want the online store to know us based on the data we enter into the browser, but not know us THAT well. We don't want to feel like someone is following us. We don't want them to remember sensitive information.
Basically, we want to avoid being stalked. And just looking to "convert" a customer as a lead or a sale without building that relationship is stalking.
There is a boundary between friendly, relationship building behavior and stalker, in the same way there is a boundary between making recommendations and showing new items "just because" and only looking to "convert" someone to purchase. We miss the charm of the corner store, where the owners knew that balance and lived it. We almost need to go back to those stores, watch what happens, and find a way to recreate that experience - or rebuild it from our memories. We don't need to always be selling; sometimes we need to just get to know our customers.