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Turn Off the Phones and Leave the Customers Alone

Turn Off the Phones and Leave the Customers AloneThere are some real advantages to having children. An excuse to see movies you would otherwise be too embarrassed to watch. Classic holiday photos, especially if you add a dog to the mix. An ongoing, intimate connection to pop culture that makes you seem (sorta) cool, long after your own coolness has been swept away by those hot winds of time. 

In fairness, I'm jaded. My own kids are grown — long past that puppy stage when everything inappropriate was not only acceptable but cute. A puppy drinking from the kitchen sink may seem adorable. But it's not quite as endearing when it’s a full-grown Rottweiler.

As the parent of borderline adult children, you have to look harder and longer to find things to make you smile, or at least make you feel like there's a real payback for putting a metaphorical monkey on your back for years and years.   

So it was with absolute delight, after my 23-year-old put her two-month old iPhone 5 in the washing machine that I discovered something of likely professional value. And anyone with a connection to marketing or technology may likely think that's true, too.

The fact is, the whole thing about the  "always on, always connected customer" may be a myth … or at least less inevitable than we seem to think.

'I Put it in a Bag of Rice'

A few days after the iPhone met the washing machine, I asked my daughter what she planned to do about the phone. "I put it in a bag of uncooked rice to see if it dries out. But the thing is, I really don't feel like having a phone right now." 

Her words surprised me, not because I thought it was naive to put a severely waterlogged phone in uncooked rice, but because she wasn't the first millennial that I'd heard express disdain for a phone. Just a week before, my 22-year-old son — a Linux programmer and arguable geek — told me how much he hated his phone. 

Was this just some parentally induced phone phobia or did it underscore a broader pattern among young adults? To find out, I traveled to Grand Central Terminal in New York City, where I informally polled a dozen 20-somethings. The question: How lost would you feel without your phone?

And a third of those questioned said not at all.

One noted, "Over the summer I was without a phone for extended periods once or twice, and it didn't particularly bother me. The major problem was actually other people. Everybody else is so connected that once I was without a phone it become that much more difficult to coordinate with friends."

But beyond that, he said, it was refreshing.

Granted, this was not a scientific study. The sample was too small to be statistically significant and it was only as random as the geography of the travelers. But every study starts with a theory. And here is mine: Maybe the allure of universal, round-the-clock connectivity will fade as quickly as boom boxes, VCRs and tiny cupcakes.

A Symbol of What?

As early as 1994, the New York Times ran an article about the mobile phone becoming a status symbol. And it was: back then, only the wealthiest, most successful people could make calls on the run — and it would be years before the Blackberry made doing things like checking email equally as easy. 

But it has been duly noted that in less than three decades, the mobile phone has gone from being a status symbol to being a ubiquitous technology that facilitates almost every interaction in our daily lives.

You can still find plenty of studies that claim mobile phones are status symbols. But why? Almost everyone has one, without regard to wealth or success. And consider this: Teens and 20-somethings are already changing the definition of status to include phones with cracked screens.

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of 2008 book "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future," said a cracked phone that still works can be meaningful. "In a way, a cracked cell phone that still works means, 'Hey, my phone may have hit the ground, but it's a survivor.' And by extension the phone's owner is a survivor, too, because it's a reflection of them."

Status symbols are transient. As Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s resident futurist who tracks global consumer trends for the automaker, said, "There was a time when cars were the quintessential status symbols" — signs of freedom and independence. Now they're just something we use to get from place to place. A necessity, if you will … like a cell phone. 

The A-List

Brian Solis, a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology, as well as an author and blogger, has a vision of the future that involves shared experiences – the tweets, blogs, posts, comments, photos and reviews that customers share in this age of connectivity.

But when asked whether he foresees a possibility that some people will simply reach the point of too much connectivity, he replied thoughtfully, "Maybe. This one is hard — it gets into the psychology of why you use technology and what in it you value." 

One of the great buzzwords of our time is authenticity. Everyone claims to want it. But can you find that on social media? Or are the "authentic" selves we represent simply personas of the people we dream of being? A little funnier, smarter, sexier, more interesting …

 

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