Can Conglomerates Speak in the First Person?

In my last article, I discussed how the use of the first person can bring you closer to connecting with your customers — and drive more sales. I also promised to talk about how to introduce some of the benefits of “I” and “we” for larger companies.

Can big companies really talk to their customers and prospects in the first person? Well, yes and no.

A reader of that last article, Robert Sullivan, was quick to email me with some concerns. I try to imagine getting an email from Microsoft or Amazon that uses “I” and “we,” and somehow it seems pretty insincere, at least in a marketing context. These companies have thousands of employees — if you use “we” as in “We at Microsoft are really concerned about the usability of our software,” how can the writer presume to be speaking for thousands of people? If Microsoft uses the “I” word, it doesn’t seem much more credible to me — I can’t see “I” opinions as very meaningful in a company that size.

I both agree and disagree with Robert.

Yes, most “I” and “we” communications from large companies feel insincere. If Ford Motors or your local power utility said “I,” their efforts would be greeted with a healthy dose of cynicism.

The problem is not that employees of large companies are incapable of representing their employers in the first person, it’s that often they are not allowed to or don’t have the skills or training to do it well.

Here are the closing lines of a recent, extremely frustrating live-chat customer service “event” between myself and Sony. I was moved to sarcasm — not an attractive trait… Nick: Let me get this right — are you saying that you will make no further effort to help me get a replacement for a defective Sony product that I purchased less than three weeks ago?

Ken: The only alternative you have is to ship the product back to Sony for a replacement. For that, please call our customer service at 1-800-222-7669.

Nick: Ah, how kind of you to send me the 1-800 # that I have already told you is not accessible from Canada. I have copied this entire session. Bye.

Ken: Thank you, Nick, for visiting SonyStyle.com. Please feel free to contact us for further assistance.

— Ken Has Disconnected —

Possibly, Ken didn’t give a damn. More likely, he is not empowered to give a damn. He is probably trained to drag and drop prewritten, preapproved responses. When people are trained to communicate in that fashion, it makes it hard for them to care about the people with whom they interact. Ken would have done much better if he had dropped the automation and communicated one on one. And, the Sony brand wouldn’t have taken a severe beating in the mind of this one disgruntled customer.

The lack of genuine first-person communication in online customer service is a significant issue. But customer service isn’t the only opportunity for a large company to say “I.”

I frequently receive catalogs from Micro Warehouse. On each page is a toll-free number and a photograph of a different person. “I” and “we” aren’t written as words, but the promise of being looked after by an individual is implicit in the photos.

“I” and “we” can and should work in email, too. When someone registers at your site, she probably receives an incredibly bland, impersonal welcome email. Far better to use more personal language and sign the message with the name of a real individual within your company.

The same applies to newsletters. Ford and Sony run the risk of being met with skepticism if they use the word “I” on their home pages. They could introduce a personal approach in their newsletters, however.

The voice of an individual, the character of an editor, can add tremendous value to any newsletter. Without a sign of an individual at the helm, newsletters are just data dumps.

The Web is, by its very nature, intensely personal.

To connect with customers and prospects, large companies would do well to become a little more personal in their communications.

Using “I” and “we” sincerely is a good idea. Even for the big guys.

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