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Sunday, August 22, 2010

What should companies & customers commit to each other?

In response to “Decency is a Customer Role,” Wim Rampen introduced me to the company customer pact – an open call for companies and customers to share responsibility for building “long-term relationships that lead to trust, strong communities, and sustainable businesses.”

While it is an intriguing idea, I’m still undecided as to whether I’m in favor of this version of a company / customer pact, or any such pact for that matter.

I’m a fan of standards in the service environment as sources of performance measurement and shared expectations. This includes standards for dialogue between company and customer. But something tells me that in the service environment – the type of business the Company-Customer Pact is most intended for – there are too many heterogeneous inputs across industries & companies, among differing customers & service providers, and in highly variable environments to make it practicable.

This pact has limited scope, addressing primarily company-customer dialogue. Much attention is paid to respectfulness, responsiveness, good intentions and clarity, and provides a good foundation for mutual respect. Missing, however, is mention of pther important company commitment characteristics, such as reliability, empathy, and assurance. In fact, the pact may actually undermine loyalty, as so much of the important company-customer interaction lies in non-communication service aspects not covered by the pact.

Finally, in committing to a conservative standard, companies may actually be limiting their ability to delight customers on all attributes.

In the end the company / customer pact may just not matter much. In any company / customer relationship, companies have the short-term leverage and customers have the long term leverage – it’s a good balance. Companies that exert the short-term leverage without consideration for customers’ ability to vote with their feet eventually get what they deserve. Good companies are going to live comfortably above the minimum standards, while bad companies will live comfortably below it, which may beg the question whether such a pact is needed at all.

So how about it – am I being too hard in what is a generally agreeable initiative between companies and customers to establish a baseline for their interactions quality? Should the pact be expanded to cover a broader range of the company / customer relationship? Should it be abandoned altogether?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Time Warner Cable wants my help.

It’s renegotiation time with Disney, one of their largest suppliers of programming content, providing ESPN, Disney, & ABC family channels. Time Warner doesn’t want to pay more for content, and Disney is threatening to cut them off. So they’ve appealed to their customers to help support their renegotiation efforts through vocal opposition to their suppliers’ demands.

Using a multi-channel media campaign, they're informing customers that their options are now reduced to “roll over and raise prices to customers” or “get tough and risk losing the programming customers love.” 1 million people have visited the rolloverorgettough.com, leaving some 300,000 comments. TWC has supplemented the site with TV and radio ads, suggesting that not only will they have to raise customer prices if they lose, but that switching providers won’t help, as similar renegotiations with other cable providers are inevitable.

As member of the Customer Service Hall of Shame from 2007-2010, Time Warner playing the role of consumer advocate may seem disingenuous to some.

I'll table whether TWC has the reputational capital with its customers to ask for help for another time. My question in this is whether this represents an appropriate role for TWC to expect its customers to play.

On one hand, the personal financial benefits are obvious if Time Warner, with my help, is successful in its negotiation with Disney – or any other supplier for that matter.

On the other, supplier negotiation is about as internal to Time Warner as who gets Jeffrey Bewkes' coffee. If customer leverage can be used on a programming supplier, why not a supplier of TWC employee healthcare benefits?

Southwest Airlines built their culture around getting the customer to do more to directly support the service operation, with lower prices and better service as the perceived payoff. But a service company is involving its customers in supplier negotiations feels like we might be crossing a line.

Am I wrong? Is use of customer purchasing leverage where the company / customer relationship it going, or is this example an inappropriate solicitation of customer effort?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Decency is a customer role.

While the commentary on the Steven Slater incident is already overdone, this story has clearly captured the public attention, perhaps because and the deteriorating state of customer behavior and the customer / service provider relationship in general represents a social aspect most of us have sensed first hand if we haven’t been guilty of participating in ourselves.

I won’t offer an opinion on whether or not Slater was justified, but will cover a needed fix for the source of his actions.

It’s a paradox in service businesses that the employees most responsible for the company / customer relationship and that most personally reflect the brand are front line service employees ranking among the lowest paid in the company. We place these service professionals in front of customers and entrust the encounter, and our brands, to their care. Their success is a direct reflection of the support they receive – training, service processes, enabling technology, and management backing they perceive as they do their jobs.

Some companies are exceptional at providing the needed support for front line providers to be effective. But when you look at the worst service companies and even entire industries, their shortcomings are usually indicative of a lack of support for the roles of front line providers.

As the airline industry has cut customer value, so too has it reduced the tools available to employees to serve customers effectively. Fewer benefits & less support have created one of the most antagonistic service environments – in some cases verging on customer mutiny. In most cases what you get is a bare minimum, where FAA-required service components are retained at the expense of relationship-building opportunities.

But decency is customer role and a service provider right. While it would take time and resources, why not spend some time in every flight reminding / setting expectations with both the service provider and the flying public about the role of each in the successful encounter?

The poor-quality image above is the customer bill of rights posted in the back seat of every Chicago taxi. As a passenger, it lets me know what I can expect and reasonably ask for in any encounter. (Yes, I have invoked my rights a time or two) It also reminds me of driver / service provider rights, and what my role is in providing that environment. This could easily be done in the airlines. A seat-back card, some language inserted into the pre-flight brief that lets customers know their service rights, and what environment the service providers can reasonably expect.

It is valid to say that such an effort shouldn’t be needed, that people should know how to act in public. Perhaps, but setting role expectations in the service environment is never wasted effort. More to the point, if people need a reminder not to be a jackass to someone serving them, companies should be willing to provide that as process support to the critical teams of professionals that steward their customer relationships and their brand.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Does your service celebrate new customers or bemoan them?

On a recent trip, I unexpectedly needed to rent a car. The company I use almost exclusively was out of stock, and faced with limited options, I went with Dollar as a first-time user. As new service encounters go, I came away extremely frustrated by the experience.

I’ve been a National customer for years. Their Aisle services were truly innovative in a stagnant space, and I was an early adopter. The “skip the line” rental process is so familiar, I don’t know how the standard rental process works, with National or any company. For the occasional lost receipt, I also signed up some years ago for automatic email distribution of all receipts. I’m a high-productivity user of National services - convenient for me and lower cost for them.

The first noticeable difference with Dollar was the price – unbelievably high, no doubt driven by their dwindling stock. While a company has a right to re-price service capacity as it becomes scarce, a customer’s first experience with your brand shouldn’t invoke reverse-nickname irony.

If the price was a turn-off, the experience was worse. Already annoyed at having to re-learn the counter check-in process, I was greeted by a service agent equally annoyed to be serving me.

Because I wasn’t a returning customer, he had no prior information to use in setting up my rental. Our annoyance build together as he asked enough questions to buy a house and he entered my endless details into their system. Asked when I would be dropping off, I replied that it would be about 5:00 AM the following day. My agent replied they wouldn’t be open, and that I would have to use the overnight drop box, a process I asked for clarification on.

As he dismissively handed me the keys and motioned me to the lot, he quipped that I must not rent cars too often.

It amazes me how companies treat a new customer.

Some roll out the figurative red carpet as if to say, “Thank you for giving us a try! We’re going to make this go as well as possible in the hope that you return.”

Most, however, provide a more or less extreme version of what I encountered with Dollar. Annoyance at having to create a new relationship, a lengthened initial service process, the highest possible price because they’re not a returning customer, and an overall experience that is singularly unspectacular.

Ironically, Dollar will see the profit from my one encounter spend resources trying to determine whether they can create a loyal customer out of me. They’ll likely conclude that I’m not worth pursuing because I don’t book cars that often, not sensing that I have a biweekly relationship with the company 3 counters down.

Most of it wouldn’t be needed if they put energy & process into new customer indoctrination, rather than treating it like a new customer is the last person they’re happy to see and ensuring a first encounter memorable for the wrong reasons.