Does Authentic Customer Engagement Require Mistakes?

As a new pupil of the customer engagement space, I’ve heard the word authenticity quite often recently. Within marketing, there seems to be a push for companies to be authentic in order to connect with customers, which usually means “don’t sound like a corporation”. This tends to play out in a colloquial tone focused at social-media; corporations attempting to act more human. But just like any buzzword, I found myself pondering the layers behind this gold-standard and battling my preconceived notions of what it means to be an “authentic” marketer.

After college, I waited tables at a mom and pop Italian restaurant. This was my first encounter with the significance behind the buzzword. I’d always wanted to try being a waiter because I thought it would be fun and I’d be good at it, and I was right. It was fun and I was really good at it. In turn, I was only happy when I averaged 30% a night in tips — think of the last time you tipped 30% or more. To be honest, it happened more often than not.

Authenticity — It’s about interest and honesty

How was I so successful? Authenticity. As a waiter I would: introduce myself, remember people’s names and favorite items, write thank you notes on the receipts, ask real questions to elicit real answers, play games with the kids, tell jokes, share about myself when asked, and give my honest opinion on the food. For instance, “I’m glad you asked about the fish, because our head chef is out today. You may want to preference something like the pot pie that was made yesterday instead.” Customers loved the genuine interactions.

Cracks in the façade also helped

Beyond that, the periodic accident also really helped. Surprising, right? Counter to what one might think, a blunder would somehow work in my favor. Showing that I too make mistakes, and seeing how fervently I worked to fix a mistake that wasn’t my fault engendered an immediate relationship with my customer; it fostered trust and authenticity, showing how much I cared.

Now, years later, this same concept has cropped up many times over in my role as a marketer. Currently, I see a large part of authentic relationship marketing tending to be painted as making mistakes: trying to be human. Otherwise demonstrated as showing the cracks in our façade and intentionally making it known that we’re not a corporate entity.

More and more, people are showing their human side — Flaws and all

A NY Times article from October addressed this transition to authenticity on the airwaves. Calling the new trend the ‘NPR Voice’, the author shows how looser language, long pauses, stuttering and mistakes by the host engender so-called authenticity. This technique of developing a relationship via mistakes and humanness is prevalent in TED Talks, Moth StorySLAMS, blooper reels, b-roll, and every day marketing. Even Michelle Obama’s political aspirations and speeches are referenced in the article. And, many times these tricks are intentional. Ira Glass and Michelle Obama know how they’re trying to come off as more authentic, but many accidents are unintentional and owning up to those mishaps are key to transparency and openness. Here though, we’re talking about marketers intentionally trying to achieve authenticity, and trying to gain those relationships through mistakes.

The article states, “By now, however, people trying to sell something — whether it’s a pair of jeans or a presidential candidate — know that consumers (and voters) are ever skeptical of faux sincerity. To sober our suspicions, then, these sales people reveal the ostensibly “genuine” cracks in their facades. How could I be deceiving you, the catch in the voice, the exposed seam in a sweater or the actor cracking up during an outtake asks, when I’m vulnerably baring my … flaws?”

Being human is great — Too many mistakes though is not the way to play it

Authenticity can be achieved by making mistakes and by openly wearing them like a badge. But, there’s a huge potential downside. Back to my experience as a server. On the one hand, my tips could double, triple or quadruple at times when I had the opportunity to fix a mistake. But at other times, I not only lost my tip, but the restaurant lost a long-term relationship with the customer.

Now, in my role as a business consultant, I find that our industry is based so intensely on connections that one burned bridge can end a contract or destroy a business relationship. For marketers, this means lost consumers and spoiled relationships — favoring an attempt at a quick sale over full and sincere customer engagement.

Authenticity’s building blocks — We’re in for the long haul

This is why I push back on the current trend of the “mistake” as the epitome of authenticity. For me, this buzz word has new meaning. Authenticity stands for long-term relationships with customers: real people that want to connect with other real people. Authenticity isn’t about creating mistakes or showing I’m a human with faults, instead it’s about trust, integrity, honesty and transparency as a company.

I’ve found a better definition of what this word can mean for relationship marketing: Authenticity isn’t about a singular action or program, it’s about interactions. Authenticity is the way in which relationships are made real through day-to-day interactions with customers. Authenticity is not just about transparency, trust, or longevity, it is about the dynamic way in which they all fuse together to create long-term relationships. (Source)

Celebrate Real Authenticity.