When you hear the word ‘intimacy’, what is the first image that comes into your head? Think about it. Intimacy. Close your eyes. What comes to mind?
For some it will be intertwined candlelit naked bodies (see, I am inside your head!), for others maybe a head resting on someone’s shoulder at sunset. But most of the visuals will probably be some physical representation of intimacy, two people physically sharing a moment through physical touch.
But physical intimacy is only one kind of intimacy. Yes, it is the one we think of most, but the other layers to an intimate experience are even more valid for CX practitioners. We are going to explore them all here, building a toolkit for deeper customer connections (and more rewarding personal relationships while we are at it).
An ‘experience’, while enjoyable, can be fleeting and one-dimensional. Intimacy, on the other hand, is layered, resulting in a longer-term connection. This is why we need to begin the move from talking about Customer Experience (CX) to Customer Intimacy (CI). So let’s get into it.
What is Intimacy?
Firstly, intimacy is complex and nuanced, so writing your Customer Intimacy Strategy is going to be harder work than your Customer Experience one. The good news is that it also offers a far higher reward.
As always, there are so many possible definitions, but however you seek to define it, the words used you can recognise as the ultimate goal in terms of customer lifetime value. Intimacy is where we create a healthy authentic bond between two people. Intimacy cannot be faked or forced, to work it needs to be real. It is a 1-on-1 connection, a space where each person feels seen, heard and valued. It is where we give our undivided attention to another, a shared vulnerability, a nourishing bond. What if I told you that you could have that type of relationship with your customers and clients? A deep, meaningful connection. That would be worth an investment and effort, right?
Drop Your Guard
The opposite of intimacy is when we have our guard up, incapable of vulnerability, robbed of closeness and connection. Intimacy doesn’t work if you are on your phone while having a deep and meaningful conversation with a loved one. Most customers have their guard up around commercial messaging as historically brands self-interests have made them wary. A customer’s default setting is to avoid ‘brand intimacy’.
Intimacy is about fostering a sense of closeness. That, to me, is the simplest definition. And it is why it is the next frontier for those working in CX. We need significant and deep relationships with customers and clients if we are to build competitive advantage.
Beyond An Experience
The Customer Experience – while the first word that makes up that phrase is obvious enough, it is the second, the ‘experience’ I want to explore further. To me, an experience can be good or bad, weak or strong, predictable or delightful. Every brand wants to deliver unique and memorable experiences, but many are drifting into providing homogenised transactional ‘experience’, devoid of any real emotive connection, and often short-term in delivery.
Moving the conversation from the Customer Experience to Customer Intimacy is a game changer. So, let’s explore six different types of intimacy that your brand (and personal life) could benefit from. From Physical, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual, Crisis and Experiential, unlocking Customer Intimacy is certain to deepen connections.
The Covid 19 pandemic and accompanying lock-down and sheltering removed physical intimacy as an everyday norm for many of us. We could not hug our friends and family. Those who lived alone had it hardest, devoid of human touch for months.
The importance of touch and its role in our physical, emotional, and mental health are well scientifically documented. Those that experience frequent physical touch with others (kissing, sex, massage, hugs) are physically healthier, experiencing lower blood pressure, calmer cardiovascular stress, and have lower blood pressure. Touch also calms the parasympathetic nervous system, signals safety and belonging cues, and helps restore homeostasis. Mentally and emotionally touch helps us to calm down, to relax.
The Fading Power of Touch
But just because you may have a partner, and touch is ‘available’ to you within your relationship, most in long-term relationships often struggle with true intimacy. Sex can become functional or dutiful and daily loving touch can also quickly fade. True intimate touch is very different from functional touch (as anyone who has had a bad massage from a stressed or busy therapist knows, their touch lacking any form of connection or presence, functional and dutiful in the extreme).
But alongside the kissing and cuddling, even physical proximity can be powerful. I remember being a hormonal teen aged 12, and my little finger brushed against another girls’ little finger (ah the innocence) while playing cards. Her name was Grace and we both held our hands steady, frozen in that moment, a physical connection loaded with significance, electricity, hormones and pre-teen angst fizzing as the others continued to play the game. I fancied her, she maybe fancied me, who knows? Nothing else happened but I still remember the electricity of that brief touch 36 years later.
For brands, physical intimacy is a hard one to get your head around, but when you think about what it gives us, it is a little easier to unpack. Physical intimacy is about the giving and getting of pleasure, doing what feels good together, a closeness that feels beneficial to both parties. If we could harness those powerful feelings and have them part of a brand/customer relationship, that would be amazing.
One way to consider this is to be in your customers physical world. In an ever-increasing digital society, brands that have a physical presence can be more intimate than those that do not. It is perhaps one of many reasons Amazon bought Whole Foods, deliver with their own vans and uniformed drivers in many markets, have Amazon Go stores etc. It is why many brands are holding on to some physical stores over fully digital offerings. In the physical world, the real world, relationships are more 3D than the digital one.
Think about how you can physicalise your brand in your customers life. When BOL.COM failed to deliver a trampoline to a customer on time for a little girls’ birthday, they built an entire branded trampoline park in her back garden as a surprise. They physicalised their apology.
Seek connection in their lives by physicalising your brand.
On a side-note, ask yourself what qualities make an amazing physical lover. It is probably someone who takes the time to learn what you like, what works for you, and makes you feel amazing. Maybe we should take some time to learn what our customers like, need and make them feel amazing, as a philosophy. We don’t need to kiss them to make them feel a sense of tribal belonging (although that remains optional ?).
We have probably all had amazing physical relationships with partners, enjoyed terrific sex, only to realise later that without emotional intimacy, such a relationship isn’t very sustainable. In the beginning you think the great sex is enough, but of course it is not. Unless there is an emotional connection, such a relationship will eventually become empty or unrewarding for at least one of the people involved.
Emotional intimacy is about empathy, being vulnerable, sharing how you feel and actively listening to how they feel. It is rooted in honesty and respect. It is about being thankful and letting your partner know that you are.
Now, re-read that paragraph above and audit your brand/customer relationship (or indeed your personal relationship). Do your customers feel they have an emotional relationship with you? Brands that leverage emotion in their messaging but also live those values in their product delivery are growing deep roots of relationship. Being there for your customer, regardless of your product/process is key, showing them you care.
Take Rod Oglesby, a realtor based in Stockbridge, Georgia. On the day he hands over the keys to the buyer of every domestic property he sells, he hands them a $500 Home Depot voucher alongside a ‘Welcome to your New Home’ card. He is aware that every new owner will have many DIY tasks to make a property their own. In the giving of this unexpected gift, he shows empathy for their situation and gains their respect. And remember, the buyer isn’t even his client, that is the seller. But he knows that today’s buyer is tomorrow’s seller. Rod is playing the long game (maybe next time I play cards with Grace, I will do the same and get to hold her whole hand).
A ‘Sapiosexual’ – one who is attracted to people based on their mind and/or their intellect. I am definitely sapiosexual. There is no way I could be in a relationship with someone who did not have a curious mind, or be capable of discussing, debating, and challenging opinions and norms.
Mental intimacy is a ‘meeting of minds’, the ability to talk about common interests, an intellectual camaraderie, the ability to have stimulating conversations.
This is an interesting space for brands, as most communication that emanates from a brand is one-directional. It is a brand holding a megaphone shouting about itself. Imagine going on a date and having someone talk about themselves continuously, never asking you anything about your own life. It would be unlikely there’d be a second date. But we do this as brands every day, fail to have a conversation based around common interests.
Many B2B brands launched virtual experiences during the pandemic, some to keep the connection with its customers, others to simply survive. The Global DIY Summit, an international annual event showcasing global trends and developments for the DIY industry launched a community platform called The Global DIY Network.
They facilitated debates, discussions and built a virtual community for the DIY industry, resulting in one of the biggest live events in their history when physical meetings were once again allowed. They facilitated a mental intimacy between all their members, a sharing of minds and intellects. It created a far deeper bond than simply buying a ticket for their physical event ever would.
While the label might bring to mind rosary beads and Buddhist ashrams, the reality is that spiritual intimacy is about a shared purpose, a shared belief system, values, a shared belonging and a sense of shared joy. Personal relationships are wonderful when you share these things.
When fans pack a football or rugby stadium there is a religiosity to their shared experience. Something spiritual takes place in the shared joy of beating a visiting team on home turf. It happens at music concerts when fans writhe in large sweaty masses to their favourite band’s hits. Even two friends sharing a day out shopping, dinner and cocktails can have a spiritual essence to it, as does climbing a mountain with a friend.
The Desire to Belong
The key to a spiritual experience can often be depth and shared purpose, and these are the things we want to foster in CX. A tribal sense of belonging produces an empowered consumer, one that feels they belong to the point of selling your product/service for you.
People tattoo the Red Bull, Apple and Harley Davidson logo on their skin. They do this as they identify with the brand to the point of belonging, a blurring of the us/them line. Harley Davidson talk about the tens of thousands of sales reps they have on the road, as everyone driving a Harley is a sales rep for the brand. Harley riders feel that tribal belonging more than any other motorcycle brand.
Share your purpose and values as a brand. Make sure your customers have a chance to live them with you and make them feel that belonging that builds to create Customer Lifetime value.
Generally, those who pass through times of crisis together form strong bonds. Veterans are bonded intimately through the horrors of war they have witnessed. Passing through crisis can form lifetime bonds. Even a couple having a fight and then successfully resolving their differences often end up with a stronger relationship.
Ayrton Senna, the famous F1 driver, once famously quipped that ‘you cannot overtake 15 cars in sunny weather… but you can when it’s raining’. Crisis presents opportunity as much as it does challenge and every brand should identify opportunities to connect in deeper ways during times of crisis.
Sometimes these are global crisis moments. During the Covid-19 pandemic many brands were there for consumers above and beyond expectations. They recognised that helping customers in times of crisis put a halo over their brand. Heineken famously offered free haircuts in London, in an airstream they parked outside pubs when they re-opened.
Some insurance companies refunded premiums when claims were lower due to lockdown. But crisis can also be customer conflict caused by our own product/service failings. We need to see any conflict between our brand and our customer as an opportunity to strengthen our connection, not something to be ‘dealt with’.
Nurse Next Door, a Canadian home-help provider have what they call an ‘apple pie’ response. Whenever they receive a complaint they deliver a fresh apple pie the next day to the resident involved. In-home care and nursing has a high employee turnover, so there are always going to be issues and complaints. But in owning them, apologising and delivering a fresh apple pie, the company knows they are more likely to retain the customer. The $1,500 spent a year on apple pies translates into approximately $100,000 in retained revenue, a great return on crisis management.
Never see a customer issue as a problem, it is always an opportunity to form a deeper emotional bond with a customer. Remember compassion is a verb – a chance to do something and relieve someone’s suffering.
Lastly, we have the intimacy formed from sharing a moment or experience. While we spoke about negative ones above in ‘crisis intimacy’, here let’s focus on positive experiences. Going through a positive experience together creates a bond through the shared joy and memories formed.
A dinner date is lovely, but if two people spend time together creating something or having an experience (think zip-lining, life-drawing, a weekend holistic retreat, a crazy night clubbing in Ibiza) the sharing of the moment creates a deeper bond. Even spending time together crafting some handmade Christmas decorations will create an intimacy between the two people involved, created in the sharing of experience and reward.
Experiences Create Memories
This is why ‘experiential’ has become such an essential part of a marketeer’s toolkit. Using your brand as an experiential conduit, associating your brand with a positive experience for the customer is a short-cut to a deeper connection.
Value Retail is a business that operates luxury experiential shopping villages all over the world. They refer to their customers as ‘guests’, their employees as ‘partners’. The business focuses on the guest experience, the feeling as opposed to the ‘transaction’. You can buy product anywhere, but nowhere else in the world feels like a Value Retail experience.
So, there are six different approaches to intimacy that you can action within your CX and customer journey. For each brand it is about finding the point where each one resonates best and activating it to create a deeper connection with customers.
Remember, intimacy cannot be faked or forced and has to feel real to be of any value. It is inherently human and creative and will be the next frontier of CX competitive advantage as we enter an ever-increasing digital society.
The brands that invest heavily in Customer Intimacy, and not just continue working on CX, will gain heart and mind-share beyond the reach of their competitors.
This blog is an extract from Ken’s new keynote speech LOVE IS A VERB, a tour through human connection and how brands and business can leverage an understanding of relationship psychology to deepen customer relationships.
Connect to our team to Book Ken to speak at your next event.
Ken Hughes is now considered one of the World’s leading speakers on the subject of customer experience, consumer values, organizational change, leadership and agility. His virtual and live in-person keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought-provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery.
A blog to inspire and delight
Not yet signed up to receive the latest posts? Do it now!