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Monday, September 27, 2010

Who makes your promises?

Who is responsible for the promises your business makes to customers? Marketing? Sales? Operations? Customer Service? Is it a collaboration effort? And when promises are made, are they accounting for differences in importance of each attribute to overall success of the encounter?

Two recent examples:

This week, I opened a bank account online. The website proudly claimed, “Open an account in 5 minutes.” I love a challenge, and with fingers flying, I attempted to get the account opened under the promise time. As it turned out, I cruised through the experience, but was at 11 minutes, on the final screen, when I was prompted to call customer service. (The account open activity ended up taking just over three days) But I don’t engage financial services with speed as my primary objective, and so while I was critical of what was clearly an overexaggerated promise, the failure didn’t dissatisfy me.

In another recent encounter, failure happened on a much more important attribute promise. It’s recreational hockey season again, and my skates need new blades to prevent me from falling down even more than usual. I asked the arena’s pro shop how long to get them replaced, referencing that I thought a nearby hockey shop could do it if they didn’t have the parts. “Should take no more than 5 days” was the reply, and I gladly handed my skates over for the change. That was 15 days and 4 outings on borrowed skates ago. In this case, the delivery date was a critical aspect of the promise. If the answer had been, “A little over two weeks” I would have gone somewhere else.

In too many cases, the service encounter fails before it even begins, when the business opens its proverbial mouth and makes a commitment it can’t consistently keep. The effect is compounded when the promise is made on a critical aspect of the experience

Two lessons on setting appropriate expectations from these experiences:

Know what service attributes are important to customers before making promises on them as part of your positioning. If a customer doesn’t value an attribute, consider whether you have to make a promise on it at all.

Once you understand what attributes customer value, set appropriate expectations that can lead to satisfying service encounters, rather than stretching your promise to its absolute maximum. While it is possible for skates to be done in 5 days and an account could be opened in 5 minutes, your everyday promise shouldn’t reflect your performance on your best day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Just what am I deciding on?

Self-service can be incredibly enabling for a businesses.

It can increase access to your business beyond the customers and markets you currently serve, improve your number successful outcomes by putting control in the hands of the customer, increase satisfaction through self-gratification, and decrease your service costs.

No wonder most service businesses have been quick to jump on the self-service bandwagon and continue to make self-service investments a priority. Unfortunately, cost impact is too frequently the driving force behind self-service processes and technology, and is widely attributed to much of the vehement dissatisfaction customers have with service in general.

When implementing self-service processes, the critical considerations are in providing customers sufficient knowledge, tools and empowerment to successfully serve themselves. The same service processes you consider when deploying your own labor to serve the customer are the ones that need to be considered when you are using customer labor.

I came across this imperfect execution of self-service process at the local Conoco.

It is clear that they’re giving me choices. I can select between 5 different gasolines with differing octane levels when I fill my car, and Conoco will charge me 5 different prices for them.

Unfortunately, that’s all the support I get. No decision support, no education, no sources for more information. What should I use? What is better? I assume that what costs more is better, but is something that costs less more “right”. Is 88 really better than 87? Is it 1% better, or proportionally more?

Variety is good, but in this case, they’ve left me with a choice without supporting how I would make it.

And so, in a self service situation such as this most customers will do what I did – choose the lowest price and hope for the best. Yet many times I’ve driven away wondering if I should be paying more for a different product in order to take better care of my car.

Most companies would blanche at not providing their front line enough information to make informed decisions, so why would they provide lay customers with less information to make similar decisions?

Better information in customers’ hands yields better self-service decisions, more satisfaction at having performed their role correctly, and in this case, likely more revenue & profit for Conoco.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Crowdsourced service: Not whether, but how.

A debate in the regular Tuesday #custserv chat on whether or not customer service activities should be crowdsourced spilled into the customer service blogosphere last week.

One side was enthusiastic about finding a way to enable customers to help other customers, while the other was reluctant to yield control of the experience to customers.

While it was a spirited debate with a lost of great supporting points made on both sides of the issue, I see it as an unimportant question, though it does lead to some very important questions.

Whether or not to involve customers in the provision of customer service is moot. It already happens. Companies may not be aware of it. They may not control it, may not have the resources to take advantage of it and ultimately, they may decide that they do not want to support it. But it exists, nonetheless.

Brainzooming’s Mike Brown recently told me an air travel story where a gate agent could not help a customer with a new gate assignment because they hadn’t received the information. A bystanding customer armed with a smartphone successfully retrieved the correct gate information from the airport website and provided it to the inquiring traveller. While there are several things wrong with a service environment where a customer is more enabled to provide service than an employee, in the end, a need existed and was filled.

With accessing accurate information becoming easier for customers to do themselves, variations on this encounter happen more every day.

In every service encounter – from legal defense to customer service call – the customer has a role to play. The important decisions revolve around what role you want the customer to play, and how you get customers to embrace the role, and how you support that role’s success.

The customer role absolutely can (and does) include serving other customers.

As such, the choices companies have to make are more fundamental to strategy than, “should customer-to-customer service interactions happen?”

Your customers are already making service promises, on your behalf, to other customers. Are those promises accurate and relevant? Could they be made better with your input? What would that look like?

They also help you fulfill those service promises through their own effort. Should that effort be supported? Will it lead to better outcomes for all parties? Will it lead to lower costs?

Increasingly, companies need to examine what role they will play in their customers’ tendencies to provide service to other customers.

While the answer varies from organization-to-organization, my general view is that this type of service is becoming too visible to be ignored or left alone. That companies increasingly look uncooperative or incompetent by disregarding customer-to-customer service, and would be better served by finding ways to channel the energy that already exists within their customer bases, harness it creatively, and use it to provide better service than they could relying only on their own (paid-for) resources.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Happy birthday to...who exactly?

Relationship marketing is getting better.

Well, maybe just, “more prevalent”.

Every year, my birthday provides my very own “Big Mac Index” measure of the growth of relationship marketing, as service companies use show their CRM investment by sending me a birthday card. It was novel when I received my first one more than a decade ago. Truthfully, the novelty hasn’t worn off much, though I’m getting to the point where company-initiated cards are competing with the number I receive from friends & family.

But while more companies are showing me that they are using information to monitor and respond to important events in a customer’s life (though no one has ever asked me if I consider birthday important) the use of that information for relationship-building activities – the part requiring human thought and creativity – still has a galaxy of room to improve.

Cards I recieve generally fall into one of three categories, with my utility for them decreasing below zero by the 3rd:

A card accompanied by a genuine gift. The gifts are usually token, $5 - $10, sometimes much less. But these small recognitions of the relationship without any expectation of reciprocity get my greatest response. They fit with the birthday theme of gift giving, and usually get me to engage them in a service encounter in order to “redeem” my gift, where I likely spend in excess of the gift amount.

A simple birthday greeting. These represent a majority of the cards. Not much in terms of tangible benefit, but recognition of the event representing a genuine appreciation for the business I do. Even though I know how little effort this type of program requires, the fact that any effort is taken, without the express objective of corporate gain, makes me appreciate them.

A birthday greeting including a promotional offer. These often come as a 10% / 20% / 30% off coupon – “because it’s my birthday” – on an upcoming purchase. Of course, 10% off means than I’m still likely spending hundreds in the redemption transaction, and doesn’t consider whether I need the service in the promotional timeframe. These create an almost viscerally negative reaction, and have caused me to speed ending a relationship with a company that, not surprisingly, was not a very good service provider to begin with.

Companies talk almost constantly about developing “relationships with loyal customers.” What surprises me is how many of those same companies execute their relationship communications with their own benefit as the sole objective. When I see a “birthday wish” conveying 90% of the benefit back to themselves, I am capable of little sympathy as a company grumbles about their customers being “price-driven”. When all customers have seen through the false-intentioned rhetoric, the only ones that remain are those you've conditioned to be price purchasers.

In company customer relationships, like interpersonal ones, it is wise to remember that we reap what we sow.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Encounter #2, Zappos Delivers. Early.

I wrote in a past post that my first Zappos service encounter, while good, didn’t exceed any sort of expectations I had going in. Having heard so much about their corporate culture and noting the cult-like service following they’ve developed, I engaged the initial experience with heightened expectations that would have been very difficult to surpass.

While they didn’t “wow” me, they did offer an experience that scored high on some service quality dimensions – a user-empathetic experience that was easy to interact with, name brands backed by good prices assuring the overall value, and most of all, reliably delivering on their promise.

It wasn’t enough to get me to sing their praises the way others do, but it was enough to turn me into a repeat customer and give them another chance to make me an outspoken advocate. Of course, the second service encounter began with expectations reduced at least a little by the first.

This time, they exceeded those expectations.

I made a fairly routine purchase, replacing the wallet I lost while on vacation a few weeks previous.

After receiving the usual order confirmation email, I quickly received another email from Zappos. Usually when this happens with an online retailer, someone is telling me that the item I ordered is out-of-stock and resetting expectations for when my purchase will arrive.

In this case, however, Zappos was informing me that the shipping on my product would be upgraded to expedited, free of charge.

I know that my service upgrade was an opportunistic move for them. It came at no additional charge (depending on fulfillment costs, potentially even a savings) to them. Still, the consideration that goes into evaluating the service promise and committing more than was asked is worth noting. It knowingly creates a potential dissatisfier if the commitment is unable to be kept, but also builds in the customer the sense that Zappos is empathetic to customer desires, responsive in finding and executing on opportunities to surpass their commitment and is confident in their reliability to perform.

For encounter #2, not only did Zappos retain a repeat customer, they also created someone willing to advocate their commitment to service.