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As an industry analyst, I use the Twitter microblogging service daily to perform work tasks: to keep up with news and trends from the technology vendors I advise and write about, and to stay in touch with other analysts and their opinions, as well as with journalists and others. I also use the service to market my “personal brand” (as Orwellian-sounding a term as I have ever uttered). But my favorite application of Twitter is purely personal: I use it to track San Francisco’s burgeoning street-food vendor scene.
In the City by the Bay, one can get Thai curries, Chambord-flavored crème brulee, handheld fruit pies, and snickerdoodle strawberry ice cream sandwiches—all sold by street vendors. To find out where the vendors are going to pop up next, you simply follow their Twitter streams.
In a recent online review of some of these vendors, one patron said that she liked the food a lot, but she just liked hanging out with them because they were fun.
Fun. That word struck me as an odd choice to describe a business relationship, at least when it comes to large companies. For sole proprietors, though, fun can be a huge selling point. I’m not talking about the half-forced zaniness of Virgin America or Zappos.com. I mean fun: a joy to interact with and putting-a-big-smile-on-your-face fun. Larger companies can learn many lessons from sole proprietors—and remembering to bring the fun is just one of them.
What else can street vendors teach companies that have, y’know, actual employees? Well, here’s one thing that will seem familiar to any reader of CRM magazine who has been a customer of a one-man-band operation: In those cases, the customer knows exactly where to go for sales, marketing, or support—each of these crucial functions has a face, and those faces are all the same, because the company is one person. The customer always knows her point of contact; by definition, sole proprietors cannot have functional silos—at least not without a multiple personality disorder.
The ability to present a single face to the customer has always been the goal for larger enterprises, but if they want to see a model of how it works in the real world, they need look no further than the streets of San Francisco. These street-food vendors do their version of marketing via Twitter; their sales face-to-face; and their customer support, such as it is, either via Twitter or face-to-face. And all of those tasks are conducted in the same voice. No transferring to another department. No repeating of information to another employee. No redundant data entry. No conflicting messages. Simple and straightforward, these single-person operations.
Obviously, larger companies are inherently more complex and I recognize that functional specialization inside such organizations is actually to the customer’s benefit. But, as the popularity of the Magic Curry Kart and its ilk makes abundantly clear, customers don’t want to know about the inner workings of an organization—they want good curry, good service, good value, and some fun. They want to deal with a company that has some personality and with which they intuitively know how to interact. That may sound like Business 101, but if you ask your customers what they think of your corporate personality you’re not likely to hear responses like “fun” and “easy to do business with” unless you put a lot of effort into making those things true.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, the cookie vendor just twittered that he was going to be setting up on a blanket in the park near my house with double-chocolate cookies….
Ian Jacobs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior analyst at Ovum. He can be reached on Twitter as @iangjacobs.
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