If customer service is the new marketing (Part One)
(warning, long post)
If customer service is the new marketing, why do so many companies have such crappy marketing?
In recent posts, Brian Solis and Kami Huyse both argued, with slightly different but generally similar perspectives, that customer service is the new marketing. In simple terms [and without any of the great nuances they shared, so read their posts :-) ] what they are getting at is that the customer's experience with the company, with the product/brand, is what forms his decision to purchase, or not. And that experience is created by much more than exposure to a few marketing campaigns or the occasional customer service call. Blogs, online forums, word of mouth are all becoming part of this experience, and companies need to understand and respond appropriately.
Companies also have to understand that now more than ever, it is ALL about the customer. No matter how great the product, how wonderful the blog, without a customer, there is no business. Everyone in the company is in customer service. This was of course true before as well, but it is so much more obvious now. Simple things like an ill-placed blog comment or "astroturfing" positive anonymous comments on posts negative about a product create far more complications for a company than a rude customer service rep could in the "old days." We've got the proof, you see, in the email and RSS trail.
I agree with them on pretty much all counts. I have always believed in placing the customer at the center of our marketing activity. This is not an equivalent to saying "the customer is always right." She isn't. We aren't. But there are positive ways of handling negative situations, whether the company's fault or the ubiquitous "operator error." It is possible to say "no, you can't have it for free" or "not under warranty" or whatever it may be in a way that doesn't leave the customer feeling cheated.
Why is it then, that there seem to be so many instances of bad, awful, terrible, nasty customer service? Here are just some of the more recent stories I've heard or read.
Popular mom blogger Mir Kamin's websites went down in November. Her Internet provider WiredHub was unresponsive (and that's putting it mildly) even after multiple days of outage. Yes, you read that right: no information, no response. And when the response did come, it wasn't terribly comforting. Read her post for the details.
On her way back from Europe, marketing blogger Mary Schmidit got tagged with an overweight baggage charge from American Airlines. Even though the bag was an acceptable weight for international travel, because she switched carriers and had to recheck her bags, the domestic carrier AA charged her the overweight tariff. She describes the tremendous sympathy of the airline employees here.
Shel Holtz learned that the motto of bank Washington Mutual didn't extend all the way to actual practice when he tried to send money to his son, a soldier about to deploy to Iraq. The bank had closed his son's account for being overdrawn $0.98, without any notification, and refused to reactivate it so Shel could deposit funds. He could open a new account, but that would mean a new ATM card, which would not reach his son before he left for Iraq. In other words, SOL. The good news: another financial insitution came through. [Kami Huyse also posted about this.]
Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang wrote about brands that didn't respect his time. So far the only one mentioned in his post that hasn't responded to him in some fashion is Delta Airlines. Jeneane Sessum wrote about Google inexplicably losing email messages.
These are just a few examples from the blogs I read from the month of November. Imagine what I might find if I really started to dig. No, in fact, don't imagine that. It is too depressing.
I also had my own little customer service contre-temps in early November with a small specialty goods catalog company. I didn't blog about it then, and am not naming the company here because it eventually was resolved satisfactorily, but it illustrates how the intermediation effect of email escalates situations.
The details: I had ordered something more than a year ago. Manufacturer delay upon delay, they could not deliver the products. They had charged my credit card upon the order (not really good policy BTW), and when the product could not be delivered, instead of refunding the money, they issued a store credit with an expiration date.
Now, as we all know, this in itself is not legal, on two counts, but they are a small company, so I was willing to let it go and use the credit. Until I placed an order on the website, and couldn't use the credit.
So I emailed them, and learned that I had to call with my credit card number in order for the credit to be applied. They could not get the information from the web order. This seemed odd although I am certain the answer to that lies somewhere in the shopping cart they use. So I tried to call. And there was NEVER any answer.
I finally followed up with yet another email asking them to resolve the situation, and was met with amazing email hostility from one of the business owners. Rude and disrespectful doesn't even begin to cover it. It was apparently up to me to keep calling until I could reach someone, and I could not cancel the new order either. It was sounding more and more like they just didn't want to give the credit.[ Twitter friends may recall this because one Sunday morning, I asked for opinions on whether to blog about it. ]
In the end, I didn't over-react, sanity prevailed, and I got the credit. And the new merchandise I had ordered. But, just think about it -- the vendor felt perfectly justified being downright rude to a customer. How can that happen? Sure, it is easier to be rude in bits and bytes than face-to-face or even on the phone, and that certainly creates some of the negative customer service that happens these days. But not all. Mary Schmidt was at the airport. So was Jeremiah. Shel Holtz went to the bank.
If we can't get this most basic thing right, how can we possibly expect to have a mutually beneficial "conversation" with our customer? Why is courtesy so uncommon in so many customer service situations?
I haven't even touched on the issue of shoddy products. They are even more central to our experience. And just as much of a problem as poor customer service. Here's just one example. Technology blogger TDavid has had five Xboxes in the past year. All but one returned under warranty. This can't be helping the bottom line, yet wouldn't we all say that a bottom line mentality is what causes the shoddy products in the first place?
Now, of course, there are exceptions. Who hasn't heard the wonderful story of Zappos sending flowers to the woman whose mother had just died? That's exceptional customer service. In fact it is more than that. It is exceptional humanity.
But most positive customer service stories are much more mundane. Do we call them great because our expectations are so much lower, or is it truly great? For example, on two separate occasions, I had some problems with my Blackberry. Both times, Verizon call reps did a great job solving the problem, and following up with me to make sure the problem really was resolved. Do I call it great simply because cell phone providers usually get bad marks for customer support and my previous company (rhymes with singular) did a horrible job? Or was it really great?
Part Two will try to answer some of these questions, with some input from Mir and TDavid who were kind enough to share their thoughts with me.
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