In 1978, Bob Seger topped the charts with Feel Like a Number, a lament about how large institutions often dehumanize their individual constituents. The song struck a cord (if you’ll excuse the bad pun) with fans and remained popular for years because no one likes being made to feel anonymous—like a number, a statistic, a mere name.

Feel like a number?Pamela Slim’s book Escape from Cubicle Nation contains a tragically funny example of how corporations can be guilty of such anonymization. In her opening chapter on corporate dysfunction, she writes:

“The larger organizations get, the greater their capacity for doing work that is not directly related to anything in the real world…One of my favorite examples comes from a blog reader, Laura:

“My company had actually gotten so far away from their customers (calling them ‘names,’ as in ‘we need more names’) that eventually management announced an ambitious program called ‘Customers First.’ Over the next year, countless global manpower hours were spent as bulging binders were handed out, launch meetings were called, task forces were assembled, brainstormings were held (and copious notes typed up), progress was benchmarked, etc. It all resulted in the startling recommendation that ‘we should put our phone number on the order forms in case people want to call us,’ which was quickly trumped by ‘no, that would make it easier for people to just cancel the service.’ That was eight years ago. This year, new management just announced an exciting new initiative called ‘Putting Customers First.’ They are currently in the throes of a careful year-long test of what happens if you put the website address on the order form.”

Far-fetched? An extreme example? Perhaps. But think about it—how many organizations, large or small, make it easy to actually interact with a real person through their websites? Many sites have no contact information anywhere except on the “contact us” page, and the options are commonly limited to an 800 number (which usually goes to phone maze), a generic contact form, and perhaps an enigmatic info@ email address.

Smart companies like Suburban Chevrolet and InterDyn BMI have figured out that in an increasingly crowded and commoditized marketplace, customer service is the key differentiator. That means treating customers like people, not numbers or names. And it means treating their own people as their key differentiators. In the online world, it means putting their best people forward and letting prospective buyers chose who to talk to, then engage in realtime conversations to get their questions answered.

Be different. Treat customers like people. Who knows, Bob Segar may write a song about it.