Breathe new life into digital customer relationships

Steven Van Belleghem
Partner | nexxworks
22nd June 2015

Over the next 10 years many businesses face a major digital transformation, embracing new ways to connect and interact with customers.

But in a world of connected technology, automated systems and “Big Data” companies risk losing the invaluable personal connection that they have developed with their customers. 

Here we talk to marketing professor, award winning author and entrepreneur, Steven Van Bellegham, about the importance of preserving the human element when digitising the customer relationship.

How has digital technology changed the way consumers behave?

Just think about what the first thing you reached for when you woke up this morning. The reality is that for most professional people it was a mobile phone to check email, Facebook or even the weather. The last 10 years has seen digital technology become such a major part of our everyday lives that it really is like a sixth sense for many modern consumers.

Consumers have come to expect technology that is fast and intuitive, but we’re also less loyal than ever before, so companies have a challenge to really engage customers as individuals, connect with them on an emotional level and even make them feel like part of the business.


Where should a small business start when developing a digital marketing strategy?

The customer should always be put at the centre of a company’s digital ecosystem. This means small businesses should consider all the interactions between all the different channels a business controls both online and offline, the consumer and any other relevant partners such as suppliers, agents, bloggers or other media.

A good digital ecosystem links all the possible contact points and moments with each other, but most importantly, this system puts the customer in the central position of it all, recording data generated by each individual’s use of the product, visit to a retail outlet, e-mail or purchase. It might sound complicated, but building a digital ecosystem around the customer can create an extreme feeling of customer-orientation across wherever the individual comes into contact with your brand, and it can really set your business apart from competitors.


How can businesses inject creativity, empathy and passion into their marketing?

A digital customer relationship will soon become the expected standard, and quite simply, whoever fails to make the transition to digital will not survive. Even the companies that successfully make the transition will discover that it is not enough to just win the hearts and minds of the customer.

The digital transformation will force companies to transform their human relations as well. Many people see self-service, automation and robots as the answer to customer relations in future, but it is important to recognise people can (for the time being, at least) still offer something to customers that machines cannot – adding emotion into the customer relationship. For people to continue to add value in the customer relationship it is important that their focus is set on emotion – a computer cannot (yet) be creative, empathic or passionate, but people can.


How can data be used to improve relevance for customers?

Most people in business will have heard the phrase “Big Data” over the last couple of years. It is the buzz word of the moment, as leaders have woken up to the power and value of data, especially as so many companies go through their own digital transformation.

For companies looking to build a relationship with customers in the digital world, an excellent data strategy is essential. Crucially, the objective of this data strategy must focus on increasing relevancy in the customer relationship rather than aiming for short-term increases in turnover. For the modern customer, big data is all about big relevance, and they expect to receive some form of added value in return for any data they provide.

This “big relevance” can be seen as three steps in a pyramid model. The first step is the need for greater knowledge of the customer, which forms the base for everything else. The possibilities to acquire more and better information about your customers have never been so great, and I call this “big wisdom.” The second step is using the collected data to provide better service to customers, which I call “big help.” Finally, the third step is using the data to personalise products or services, or “big personalisation.”

It presents a serious challenge and a change in mindset for many modern marketers. Rather than looking at the average customer, from now on he will need to focus on the individual customer. Profiles of average customers and target groups will become almost meaningless, as working with averages also tends to produce average results. One of the classic marketing dictums that 'half of the marketing budget is always wasted; the trick is to find out which half' just goes to show that we have been guilty of failing to pay sufficient attention to the wants and needs of individual customers.


How should a business stand out from the crowd?

I coined the term heartketing on my blog in 2013. The word symbolises a new attitude in the relationship with the customer. Levels of customer loyalty have declined largely as a result of the over-rationalisation of the customer relationship. For a long time marketers thought that customer loyalty could be bought – but it can’t. A personal emotional attachment to the company is valued much more highly by customers than loyalty programmes.

Adding a human touch to the customer relationship can best be achieved by appealing to the consumer’s heart, rather than his wallet. Doing business more with your heart and less with your head can breathe new life into your customer relationships.


What should marketers be looking out for in the future?

Take a look at the new superstar companies that are transforming the digital world like Uber and AirBnB. A recent study compared the customer perception of classic hotel booking sites like with AirBnB, and while customers were satisfied with both AirBnB and the intensity and strength of the customer relationship was far higher with AirBnB. The reason: because AirBnB offered a human connection.

I strongly believe that businesses must focus on combining a digital and a human customer relationship in order to thrive in the future. We are already seeing evidence that success is achieved through linking digital perfection with human emotion and the stronger the emotional relationship, the greater the success.


What opportunities do businesses face because of digital transformation?

The development of a strong relationship between consumers and your company is one of the keys to achieving a good level of customer retention. Now, with the increasing possibilities offered by digitalisation, it is even possible to make the customer a part of the company, allowing them to play an active role in its activities and build a genuine emotional connection with each other.

Crowd sourcing can allow your customers to share their ideas for your product or service, crowdfunding can help finance your business, crowd service can allow customers to help each other and crowd commerce can even enable customers to sell to each other. Crucially, in a world where human interaction is becoming rarer all the time, facilitating a human connection between your customers can help build an invaluable emotional relationship because your company made it happen.

Just think, Twitter and Facebook generate no content of their own, but they occupy an important place in the lives of many people because they bring people together to the benefit of the people concerned. Thinking about how your customers could really create value for each other could be the final step on the road to a fantastic relationship between your customers and your business.


Steven is a Marketing Professor at Vlerick Business School and runs his own inspiration and coaching company, B-Conversational. He works with companies of all sizes, inspiring teams to become truly customer-centric in the high speed digital world, and helping them to get smarter about how they use technology in the customer relationship.

Steven is the author of the award-winning bestsellers 'The Conversation Manager' and 'The Conversation Company' and his latest book, When Digital becomes Human, explains how an invaluable human connection is crucial for success even in the digital world.

Follow Steven on twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit

Image credit: Thress girls on smartphones from Shutterstock

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