Tuesday, March 10

Understanding Adoption: The Case Against Telephones

"Mr. Watson -- come here -- I want to see you."

And so were the first words uttered by Alexander Graham Bell on March 10, 1876, on his first successful experiment with the telephone. While most people take the innovation for granted today, the initial adoption was relatively slow and plodding.

Why wouldn't it be? According to America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 by Claude S. Fischer, even the telephone companies didn't really understand how to sell the service, primarily because adoption meant so many different things to different people.

Some people wanted a telephone for job-related reasons. Some people wanted it for social reasons. And most people, simply wanted it for emergencies, even if that was rare. Of course, that assumes they even wanted it. Most people didn't.

In fact, even as late as 1926, The Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee conducted a study to determine whether the telephone weakened character, made people lazy, broke up home life, and reduced visiting among friends. And, by the Great Depression, many people dropped the service all together, either for financial reasons or simply because they considered it a bad habit. Do you see any similarities?

"Mr. Watson -- whatever you do -- don't call back."

As hard as it might be to believe, the same case being made against online communication is the same case that was being made against telephones almost 100 years ago.

Granted, Mike Trap, who authored a post at Scalable Intimacy, was only conveying the argument against social marketing as he was told by others. He's right in that social media advocates might listen to the complaints, concerns, and cynicism. However, it still makes for an amusing assessment if we apply these arguments as they might have been applied in the 1920s.

1. Telephones don’t make sense for 'our' business.

If your business is intensely regulated, requires personal presence, or targets a defined niche, then telephones aren't really for you.

After all, a regulated company requires only a select few who actually speak for the company; a personal service provider like a tailor obviously cannot serve customers over a telephone; and a proximity-based businesses (those serving people within a five-mile radius), clearly do not need a telephone when customers merely have to walk a few blocks to have their questions answered.

Furthermore, telephones are especially ridiculous because it allows someone to call and learn more about a company whenever they want. It's a distraction at best.

2. Telephone calls are “hard to measure,” meaning there’s no proof it works.

A savvy detractor could quickly dismiss the notion of having telephones, citing that not every call results in a sale. Besides, if people buy a product in a store, what else is there to talk about after the sale? Or, even more perplexing, why call the manufacturer when they can ask questions in the store with the product right in front of them.

While they may be interesting, the telephone presents no compelling logic to alter the status quo. Oh sure, there are anecdotes, but they always revolve around those few companies that already have telephones. Baloney.

3. Telephones lack reach to move numbers we care about.

Telephones are generally one-to-one communication. So how many people would you have to call in order to convince them to run out to your store for a sales bump?

That's so not scalable and it's almost silly. Obviously, having a telephone is a nice-to-have, not a must-have.

4. It's labor intensive, and excess capacity is hard to come by these days.

Let's put this in perspective. To use a telephone, you have it physically installed, join a service, hang around for awhile, give people an idea of what they might have to say, ANSWER the darn thing when customers call, talk to them, answer their questions, etc. Add it up and you'll quickly see that nobody will get any work done doing all that.

Next thing you know, you might even have to hire a receptionist to answer the phone or outsource part of the service to someone else. What a joke.

5. Brand development requires consistency of voice, not cacophony of “participation.”

Imagine the disaster that could be the result allowing just anyone who isn't the brand manager to answer the phone? One rogue employee having a bad day could destroy an entire customer experience. Bam, they are gone, just like that.

Nope, it's much better to have select people visit customers in person. It's much more controlled to interrupt them with a sale item in hand then it is to let them learn about our company whenever they want.

"Mr. Watson -- stay there -- and I'll put up a post for you."

You know, I'm fairly certain that given the comparatively slow adoption rate, many companies resisted buying a telephone for all the same reasons that some companies refuse to adopt social media on any level today. So rather than ask what holds them back, it might be more worthwhile to ask them where all those companies without telephones are today?

Perhaps we can hazard a guess. Those companies might be in the same place that 10 percent of all companies went when they told their customers to either visit in person or send telegrams. They became part of history.


Anonymous said...

I was very interested to learn that before people railed against the social and environmental evils of the automobile, they railed against horses.

Rich on 3/16/09, 10:04 AM said...


Technology has a way of creeping up on people. Imagine if the government or someone stepped in to stop the automobile because they were concerned about stable owners and horse ranchers.

Imagine how different the world would be today?

We live in exponential times, with very rapid adoptions of technology. While we can temper it, there is no way we can stop it. People who ignore social media as a proven communication tactic today will pay for it tomorrow much like any company that resisted using the telephone.

It won't take nearly as long though. By the end of this year, companies that are not engaged at some level will begin to suffer brand damage or, equally disruptive, the lack of any real presence. For consumers, even B2B, they simply will not exist.



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