Even the most moronic client can spot fake corporate chumminess

Opinion: businesses’ chumminess is acceptable only when not too blatantly self-interested

“‘Hello Lucy. How are you today? ;)’ Ajay typed.  ‘Fine,’ I typed back. ‘Cool! ;) I’m certain I can help you with this.’” Photograph: Getty Images

“‘Hello Lucy. How are you today? ;)’ Ajay typed. ‘Fine,’ I typed back. ‘Cool! ;) I’m certain I can help you with this.’” Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, May 26, 2014, 01:00

One day in 1995, back when the land line and the postage stamp were enjoying their last hurrah, I put in a call to directory enquiries. In those days, if you didn’t know a phone number, you dialled 192 and a human being looked it up and read it out to you.

On that particular day, the woman at the other end answered the phone with: “Directories, Michelle speaking.”

Perplexed, I asked why she had just told me her name. She said it was a new policy designed to make the service more personal. How vulgar, I thought. How gratuitously chummy. How American. I turned to the hulking cathode ray tube that sat on my desk and bashed out a column protesting that I didn’t want personal. I just wanted a phone number.

After nearly two decades spent bobbing about on the rising tide of gratuitous chumminess, I no longer especially mind when people like Michelle introduce themselves. There are bigger things to worry about.

The other day I bought a dress on eBay. When it arrived a card fell out. “We hope you had a nice and relaxing holiday break and enjoy the new dress you’ve purchased,” it said. “Have an awesome week and we look forward to serving you again in the near future. Simon and Laurie.”

Overly solicitous Things have gone rather wrong, I reflected, when Simon and Laurie, whom I have never met or heard of, are more solicitous about my happiness and wellbeing than members of my own family.

A couple of days later I was online trying to cancel my subscription to Sky Go and found myself having a “Live Chat”, which involves typing words into a bubble.

“Hello Lucy. How are you today? ;)” Ajay typed.

“Fine,” I typed back.

“Cool! ;) I’m certain I can help you with this.” After a further snowstorm of smiley faces and professions of willingness to help, it emerged that he couldn’t. “I hope that was helpful ;). Take care!” he signed off.

This exchange was relatively chilly by comparison to a live chat posted on Reddit from an Xbox user with an employee called Kelly, who at one point typed: “You’re such an understanding person. I wish I can give you a cup of coffee or cold Mountain Dew for that!”

Borderline sinister No doubt Kelly thought – like Michelle – that she was just making the service more personal. In fact, she was making it borderline sinister.

Twenty years ago, the insincerity of “have a nice day” used to rankle. But now even “have a great day” sounds lukewarm as any day less than “awesome” is not deemed worth wishing for. Equally, “no problem” (always maddening as there nearly always was a problem) became “no problem whatsoever”, or NPW – in order to avoid the problem of having to type out three whole words.

There is a rule about corporate chumminess that companies seem not to have worked out. Unless solicited by an equally matey customer, it is a bad idea.

Scripted chumminess is particularly bad, as even the most moronic client can tell the difference between real and fake. The worst sort of chumminess is when the person is either failing to solve your problem or is cold calling you. All emails from PR people hawking stories that begin “I hope this email finds you well” or “I hope you are enjoying this excellent weather we’ve been having” I instantly delete without reading on.

Chumminess is only acceptable when it feels natural and when it’s not too blatantly self-interested. Simon and Laurie’s good wishes were a little incontinent in their friendliness, but were so amateurish they felt quite sweet. For big, faceless corporations, getting the personal touch right is far harder.

Supermarket J Sainsbury has been trying to teach the people who man its social networks to be pally in just the right way. A few months ago a customer tweeted: “I tried to buy some battered fish from @sainsburys but it didn’t have a bar cod!” The company replied: “Were there no other packs in the plaice, or was that the sole one on the shelf? Floundering for an explanation! David.”

More fish puns followed and the company was so pleased with the exchange, it put out a press release.

There was another time when a woman tweeted from a Sainsbury’s car park that she was trapped with a sleeping baby and longed for coffee. The social networking team tracked her down and got someone to take her some. Another cute story. The personal touch on social networks triumphs.

Only there is a small catch. If we all asked for free coffee in car parks, we wouldn’t get it. The primary point of a business is not to befriend people on Twitter by giving stuff away. It is to sell things that people want to buy. (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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