March 2, 2008

Why do small businesses so often pretend to be bigger than they are?

By this I mean the voice they use when talking to customers.

So many manufacture a fake corporate persona.

They assume, I suppose, that they need to do this to be taken seriously.

I remember doing an interview shortly after Flathunt launched and at the end the journalist asked me what my job title was. I thought this was a slightly odd question as I was a company of one. I said something dumb like “CEO” or “Managing Director”. After the article ran I got a phone call from somebody asking to speak to the head of marketing and had to explain that I was that person too. Very embarrassing!

What’s more the assumption that corporate = good doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

Consider this -

We are all conditioned to expect terrible customer service from large companies and great customer service from little companies.

— Eric Sink in “Absurd Customer Service”

That’s definitely true. But why?

I think it’s because little companies tend to just use their own voice. They talk with us rather than at us. In other words they don’t try and pretend to be something that they’re not.

People like it when companies have personalities. It makes us feel like there are actual people on the other side of the communication. It’s fun to be the customer of a company with a personality. This seems totally obvious, and yet you too rarely see companies with distinct personalities really grab your attention in the marketplace. Why is this? It’s actually hard to remove personality and character from communications. So, instead of saying that companies don’t take the time to have personalities, it’s probably more accurate to state that companies don’t allow themselves to show their personalities.

— Dick Costolo in “Have a company voice”

An excellent example of a company not scared to show their personality is Flickr. They seem to enjoy the fact that talking in a real voice brings them closer to their customers.

Here is a simple technique you can use to help with this:

Try looking somebody in the eyes and reading your words out loud.

It doesn’t have to be a real customer, just the person sitting next to you will do.

I defy anybody to keep a straight face while saying “Thank you for submitting a feature suggestion. I have passed this on to our Feature Prioritisation Committee to review at their next monthly meeting.” (or whatever your standard response to somebody who has made a suggestion about your product is).

Do this for everything you write for your customers to read – emails, help, web content, etc.

Whatever you do don’t worry too much about looking small. Especially if you actually are small. Just talk straight and be yourself.

People won’t care as much as you think.