In the 1986 minor-classic film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", Matthew Broderick occasionally stops and speaks to the camera to explain to the audience his character's techniques and thoughts. This device, occasionally used in film or TV is known as "Breaking the Fourth Wall". You can see it in other films, often comedies, when the director wants to shake up the narrative and bring the audience in to the action. The characters become aware of the audience, sitting beyond the imaginary "fourth wall" of the set. We are invited to become part of the theatre. It's not new - the Greeks used it as a standard part of their comedies; Shakespeare used it extensively (all those asides to the audience).Favourites like Alfie and Up Pompeii! spring to mind.
Breaking the fourth wall is easy an technique for major businesses to exploit. And it is something that also helps them successful stand out. What do I mean? Simple: Start communicating directly with customers!
Very few of the major corporations that I work with actually bother to reply directly to customers when they take the time to complain, praise, or make suggestions. In marketing and sales (the departments one would most expect to respond to customers) a customer comment is greeted with panic, or otherwise ignored - almost as if the company wants to act out its own little drama without an audience - and that is not going to win any critics awards.
At best, a comment is directed to the "customer service department" or someone else to deal with. A few years ago I worked with a huge well known company, where customers (and real fans of the brand) would often make suggestions for better packaging, changes to the manual, software improvements and so on. These were routinely directed to the Product Managers, who did precisely nothing with the information. "Too busy on real marketing", they said. Ironically, the Product Designers back at headquarters often asked for customer feedback, and got little of value.
And when was the last time you got a personal reply from a large company? It almost never happens, to the point of making it hardly seem worthwhile writing a letter, let alone an email.
But things can be different. For example Sony Style Online make a point of answering every single customer comment, and they send the learnings to other parts of the company to action. Philips Online Store actively encourage customers to comment after each transaction. This feedback helps design new products. Small companies often are excellent at directly answering customers.
So let's make a dramatic change today, and have small revolution for big businesses. Here are three simple ideas to help break the fourth wall:
- "Talk to your Audience" - Set expectations with your staff - tell them you expect them to pick up the phone, write some emails, pen some letters to real customers and thank them for their input. Invest in a tool like CustomerGauge that can help harvest feedback in a systematic way.
- "Script your Ad-libs" - Empower your people to talk to end users. Come up with some templates they can use to answer issues quickly - often a stock "thank you" with some personalisation will go a long way. Or write a small telephone script that takes the fear out of calling - you can run some simple role-plays to make the practiced seem spontaneous.
- "The World is your Stage" - Demand your executives, managers and other non-front line workers spend some time (an hour or so) actually interacting with customers. Get them to sit in the call-centre and take calls, serve on the shop-floor, send some "thank you" letters.
Three simple ideas that can change your business today. You will delight customers, make your staff understand customers more, and with luck you can get really break through the fourth wall and engage your clientele.
Next week in pop-culture v business: TomTom - jumped the shark? ;-)