Chris Brogan had an interesting post up today about “Cafe-shaped conversations” that got me thinking. The big versus the small, the mass versus the individual touch- this is a classic dichotomy we all struggle with in our lives. Are we part of a group (safety in numbers) or are we individuals, acknowledged for what makes us special and unique? And if you are trying to sell stuff to LOTS of people, how do you deal with this fundamental seesaw of mass versus customization?

In a typical day, in a typical store, my choices seem infinite. There may be plenty of options, but sometimes, none of them fit what I need, want, or imagine in my mind. Because there are so many choices, rather than just one carton of one flavor of orange juice, you can spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to figure out the price/quality/flavor differential for everything you buy- and that’s just the grocery store.

If you walk into a clothing store, or a “junior department store” like TJ Maxx or Marshall’s, the selections and choices are many, often jarring to the senses, and leave me with more questions about what I truly want, and whether any of this is truly worth while, than an ease of making a selection and beating tracks. The mere fact that the choice and selection is so wide, makes me speculate whether or not the “perfect” something is out there, just waiting for me to fnd it- there’s an illusion created that “good enough” need not be good enough any more. Ideal and perfection may be just around the corner, after all, the selection is already so wide…

One Attempt to Scale the Conversation- Education

Taking this out of the marketplace, let’s look at education. Schools are based on delivering information on the one-to-many scale, but tends to do so in smaller “cafe-sized” classrooms.  It works best when the groups are even smaller, even one to one.  But to administer and deliver the information to the maximum number of people, the institution, just like a company, has a heavy administrative burden.  It can deal most easily when everyone gets the same stuff, in standard format.  We’ve built in exceptions for students that learn differently than the middle of the curve, through special education or gifted education.  This customization of the mass information delivery model works okay, but perhaps not optimally in all cases.  This causes many consumers (ie parents) to see if they can game the system to fit their individual needs, to supplement outside the system, or to opt out altogether and send their kids to private schools or even home school them.

I’d argue that these options for education are equivalent to people taking their jeans and modifying them to suit individual taste, with embroidery, paint, “bedazzling” , rolling up cuffs, creative wear, wash and rips, etc.  We’re taking what the mass market does offer, and customizing it to meet individual needs- the one on one conversation where the mass market left off.

Customization versus The Right Neighborhood- Good Enough

When I started writing this piece, I thought it would be about the overwhelming nature of the selection currently offered in the mass market, and how small things, like better customer service, provides that one-on-one, cafe-class attention that makes all the difference.  It’s certainly one of the things that differentiates quality in my mind and makes a difference where I decide to spend my dollars.  If the people care and are engaged, that is huge to me.  But that is the retail end of things.

From the company production end, I really don’t need Prego or Progresso to have an all-hands on deck customer service team, because I don’t have or need a one on one relationship with my soup or sauce provider.  If I need something slightly different, I can customize the “good enough” product with items at home and make it m own, better than they ever can.  They can get me in the neighborhood of good enough, and my customization will make it perfect for me.

Companies who have a significant investment in service products, like banks, utilities, retail stores- these are the people that should take social media conversations and opportunities to provide great customer service to heart.  They are the people who should look for ways to better serve customer needs, rotate stock, get a better “neighborhood” of customer needs they fill every day.  Customer service and relationships matter here much more than they do for strict manufacturing of items.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, they will never be able to fill every need for customization out there, and I think they should probably stop trying.  Apple, for example, does well enough with a few models, and a few colors-they leave the etching and customization through cases and accessories to others, and have spawned additional support industries because of it.  Cafe conversations with Apple happen through their retail store- Steve Jobs doesn’t feel compelled to hug every ipod owner, and we still love him.

I think social media is a great place to engage consumers, figure out what seems to work and what doesn’t.  It’s a great way to problem solve and to generate and keep loyalty.  But it won’t work equally well for everyone, so seriously consider with whom you need to be having a conversation before you try to wrestle people into one.  No one wants to be the person who talks too loudly and won’t shut up in a cafe.  We all want those meaningful conversations that generate new ideas and make us feel engaged and enriched by the experience, and that should be enough.