OPINION23 May 2016

Personal relationships in a digital world

Opinion UK

Beware of using online relationships to replace real-world interactions, instead see them as a useful addition says Paul Tredwell.

Relationships will never be the same again. The internet has seen to that. Liaisons – personal and professional – have been transformed by the digital revolution.

Dating, flirting, courtship and even dumping now take place through online exchanges and a suite of apps designed both to intensify the experience and, when the day comes, erase the evidence. In a 2014 US survey by the Pew Center, 41% of 18- to 29-year-olds in a serious relationship said that they have felt closer to their partner because of online or text message conversations.

Unsurprisingly, an equal number said that their partner had been distracted (annoyingly so, was my inference) by their mobile device when they were together. Overall, however, there can be no doubting the impact upon relationships of this kind of technology. All personal relationships are digital now.

In the business arena too, brands are striving effectively to incorporate digital relationship management into their existing customer service model. It’s all about a ‘new type of conversation’. The goal is more frequent, better quality dialogue with customers, providing richer data, leading to a clearer understanding of their needs, enabling targeted and timely messaging relating to support and offers which are more personalised and immediate.

In their book, Return on Relationship, Ted Rubin and Kathryn Rose describe commercial relationships as the “new currency”, with more than a hint of ‘back to the future’, the digital revolution having brought marketing back to its roots.   The winning behaviours, identified by the authors, are listening, taking time to engage, prioritising customer needs, placing your ego on the back seat and focusing on people ahead of profit.

Successful digital relationships, therefore, require the same basic skills as the best offline relationships (or relationships, as we used to call them!). The clue is in the name, social media.

This makes perfect sense and we all know of businesses large and small which are flourishing in no small part due to the distinctive, rewarding, digitally- enabled conversations they are having with their key audiences.

There is a minor theme in Rubin and Rose’s book that I specifically want to flag, however. And that is the positive influence on business relationships of actual personal contact – yes, picking up the phone and/or arranging to meet. As they say: “If you want to add value to your relationships, resist the urge to take social shortcuts…”

Within all client/agency relationships these days it is all too easy, and commercially tempting, to rely upon email and similar tools. In my work as a business relationship consultant, I am still amazed at how often the parties to important relationships know relatively little about each other. They are connected but, in my view, this can be faux connectedness.

Fully functioning relationships are essential in an era where all business levers are measured and need to be optimised. Such relationships are founded on rapport, trust and mutual understanding which are only established through the investment of personal time and identification of shared interest.

It has been said that we live in a world of ‘and’. We no longer want to choose A or B, we want both. We want it all, now. Digital innovation has contributed massively to this belief in endless possibility and changed for all time how we manage our relationships, private, public and professional.

But let’s not allow the momentum of digital communication to replace or even diminish face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction. In a complex, challenging, relentless business environment, personal contact is more important than ever.

The ‘new type of conversation’ is an ‘and’ not an alternative. There is still a massive difference between a virtual assistant and a trusted advisor, between humanising the internet and being human.

Paul Tredwell is director at Bigfoot Consulting

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