High tech is so yesterday. Try low tech instead.

Recently, I phoned a friend of mine. He runs a small consultancy: just him, a friend and a Burmese cat. Plus a big server, and a couple of phone lines. He’s built a very successful business, based on personal service, attention to detail and the sort of creative ideas that have you saying Now why didn’t I think of that? He could grow bigger, but he likes small. Small is good. No corporate politics, no form-filling, no strategy sessions with tedious flip charts and chunky multicoloured pens. He and his partner come and go as they please, but are always reachable, available and ready to listen. Except on the day I phoned. Instead of bouncing Bill* with his jaunty telephone manner, I heard a creepy voice that sounded like Hal. “Welcome to Acme Ltd*,” it intoned. “You now have four choices.” And he/it/the machine listed them, to my mounting horror. I phoned Bill on his mobile. “What on earth have you done?” I asked. “You mean the telephone menu system?” he said, barely registering my incredulity. “Yeah, it’s so cool, isn’t it? And so simple to set up and manage. It’s got the best control panel ever.” (* Names have been changed to protect the innocent – and the not so innocent.)

I am what I am

Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to somebody trying to appear bigger than they are (corporately speaking, I mean). One-man (and one-woman) bands want to look like small businesses. Small businesses want to look like big businesses. Big businesses want to look like very big businesses. And what do very big businesses want to look like? Small businesses, of course. They want to say We’re big, but really, we’re small – small enough to care about you. Because ironically, it’s big business that understands that they really need to work hard to connect with the one person who’s watching their advert, reading their email or browsing their website. They know that they have to go the extra mile to get up close and personal. And here’s the thing: technology often gets in the way. We can blast out an e-mailshot, so we do. We can send an SMS to thousands of people simultaneously, so we do. And we can head callers off at the pass with telephone menu systems. So we do. It’s the relentless march of progress, we tell ourselves, and we’re right in the vanguard. It’s the way of the future. Except it’s not. It’s the way of the past. Because the way of future can be summed up in three words. People like personalisation.

Bzz off

Remember BzzAgent? I wrote about it a while back. They recruit people to test-run new products and services, and spread the word among their friends. Well, keen as mustard, I signed up. I ran through the online guides, and waited for something to happen. And weeks – several long weeks – later, my welcome pack arrived. And it looked like this: Isn’t that special? Just to make me feel really individual, they included my user name and my BzzAgent serial number. 52901. 52901. 52901. Kinda catchy, isn’t it? I mean, 20 years of mail merge technology, and this is the summit of personalisation? Doesn’t it make you feel all warm and fuzzy? No, me neither. (Inside, by the way, there was a recap of everything I already knew from the website, plus pages and pages – and pages – of perforated invitations I could give to friends to join BzzAgent. As you can imagine, I could barely control my enthusiasm.)

I am not a number

Nothing replaces the personal touch. Technology might make things easier and quicker, but for whom? You or your client? Do you want to feel special? Yes, me too. And so does every client you interact with. High tech lets you reach more of them, but makes every touchpoint just that more impersonal. A bit like my friend’s telephone menu system. “So,” I said to him, lacing my words with as much irony as I could muster, “what do your clients think of your new system?” “Dunno,” he said, his confidence sounding momentarily dented. “I haven’t spoken to any of them today.” I rest my case. Find out more: