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Saturday, February 26, 2011

When customer service help is unwanted.

On Saturday mornings, before the rest of the house wakes up, I do my weekly bills. Just me, a semi-dark house, ample quiet, the first coffee of the day, no interruptions.

So I was surprised and annoyed when my bank popped a proactive customer service chat into my bill paying session with an offer of help to find the financial services solutions I need.

I don’t know what I found more bothersome – the intrusion of someone popping in on me while in the secure section of my financial management site, or that because I was in online bill pay section of the site, it would have been unlikely that they could have assisted me in my self-service. (Unless they were offering to take the gas bill off my hands for this month.)

My reaction was so viscerally negative that the options to accept the chat or close the window didn’t seem enough – I wanted a button that said, “No, and don’t ever ask again.”

I know that customer service groups engage in proactive chat to route people away from customer service lines and to drive revenue from additional service purchases. And I'm aware that my bank knows what I have in my checking account. But I view this encounter like I would my doctor asking me when I'm going to schedule a prostate exam while we're in the health club steam room – I may need the advice, but the time & place is inappropriate. I’ll ask on my own terms, thank you.

Am I overreacting here?

In a successful service encounter, the provider knows when to play their role and when to step back let the customer play theirs. In this case, I feel the provider entered into a part of the encounter where they weren’t welcome. But is this where service encounters enabled by technology are headed? Is this the new service model, and in two years I’m going to be laughing at myself for stodgily refusing someone’s help?

Related, has self-service become pervasive and have we been so well trained as customers that we now get offended when someone offers help? I can’t help but think that if someone offered to pump my gas, I might have a similar reaction.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Be dramatic, but be real.

On a date to a local French restaurant we’d been meaning to try for some time, my wife and I encountered a well-intentioned service touch that didn’t fit the experience.

Upon entering the restaurant, we were greeted by the host with a well spoken “Bon soir, Monsieur et Madame.” I thought it was a nice touch. My wife, a fluent French speaker, wondered aloud after we were seated whether she & the rest of the staff could really speak French.

When it came time to order, she followed the host’s lead, speaking only in French. The experiment didn’t last long, our server stopping her to repeat the order in English. The service miscue didn’t let either of us down - in suburban Kansas City, our expectation wasn’t of a fully authentic French dining experience - but it was an unnecessarily poor opening, given that the food was outstanding and the service was otherwise terrific.

As you craft the service experience, at some point you must decide whether that experience will be an exact representation of your vision, or the best possible experience you can consistently create.

In this example, the exact representation of the vision means that the owner would commit to finding French-speaking staff. But that decision has other implications. The market for French servers in Kansas City is relatively small. Finding and keeping an authentic French-speaking staff would likely cost more than for a comparable restaurant. They might have to increase prices to compensate for the authenticity of the experience, which then changes other strategic aspects, such as whether the location is appropriate. It is definitely more work, but if the vision is to be 100% authentic, you have to commit to it.

More frequently, service businesses take the alternate route. This one did, compromising on some elements, making the experience as close as possible to French dining as they could without taking on the additional work and cost of finding French-speaking service staff. This choice is perfectly acceptable, and strategically may be the better of the two. It’s true that people have an expectation of the experience even before they try it, but you have the opportunity to set appropriate expectations through each service encounter.

The one choice you should not make is to fake the experience you want people to perceive you will give them. Whether your vision is to be consistent in every little detail of the experience or to provide an experience that sacrifices on some touchpoints, but has a more broad appeal, always go with the reality of who you are over the falsity of who you think people may wish you were.

If the experience is good, people will forgive the little stuff that is out of place.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Alex Trebek's Service Innovation Contribution.

The IBM Jeopardy challenge is captivating technophiles and game show fans alike this week as Watson – IBM’s artificial intelligence designed to answer natural language questions – competes against two all-time Jeopardy champions. Reactions to the highly televised demo have ranged from outright wonder to outright fear – the latter based on an idea that Watson may somehow show up tomorrow to compete for a job you’re applying to. (If that is the case, I’d suggest working on your trivia skills for the interview.)

The demonstration also has drawn me in. Not because of trivia or tech inclinations - both of which I may have - but because I’m a service geek.

In the last six months, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two Senior IBMers talk about the Jeopardy Challenge, which we now know as Watson: first Nicholas Donofrio at the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Innovation Conference and then Robert Morris, keynoting at the WP Carey Compete Through Service Symposium.

Both speakers shared a vision of the Jeopardy Challenge algorithm intelligence initiating a service quality revolution similar to what we saw in product quality in the latter half of the last century.

It makes for good strategy that the world’s largest service business positions itself to lead in a global service economy that for some countries already approaches 75% of GDP.

In the IBM view, service quality refers mostly to the ability for service encounters to produce a successful outcome. It's these service consistency & reliability problems – the type for which understanding of solving problems expressed in human language is critical – that are the future for Watson.

It makes sense. Variability among front line service employees, customers and in the service environment make for results that are more difficult to replicate than in product businesses. Putting Watsn-like technology on the front line of service would help reduce variance in the experience customer interaction-to-customer interaction.

But service quality isn’t just about reliability. Successful service experiences may be based as much on the less concrete experience dimensions of responsiveness, empathy and assurance as they are on outcome reliability. Because of this, prudence needs to be used in applying the technology. It carries the risk of improving reliability of outcomes, while at the same time reducing the ability to provide the less tangible responsiveness, empathy and assurance aspects of service quality that many service encounters are ultimately judged by.

While Watson is gaining praise for its second day dismantling of a pair of Jeopardy Hall-of-Famers, I’m still more interested in what it's going to do next.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Homeaway.com wants to save me from hotel stays.

In preparation for #BZBowl, I’m experiencing as many of the SuperBowl advertisers’ products & services as possible, comparing whether my service encounter lives up to the promises they make through marketing. Today’s #BZBowl Week post involves CareerBuilder.com.

Homeaway.com is back for the SuperBowl in 2011, after last year’s ad featuring Beverly D’Angelo and Chevy Chase reprising their roles as the vacationing Griswolds. They pre-released the 2011 ad, featuring a representative of The Ministry of Detourism, a government agency committed to saving vacations.

Interesting about this ad is that Homeaway that isn’t trying to compare favorably to their category, rather trying to convert vacation travelers from a different accommodations services category to a better option.

To pull it off, the ad empathizes with the traveler, both showing and explaining how hotel stays can cramp and otherwise ruin a family’s holiday and paid off with the line, “Space! Privacy! Freedom! Why hotel when you can home away?”

The ad promises that Homeaway will provide a superior experience to what you would find in a hotel at comparable cost., explaining that the Ministry of Detourism is committed to saving vacations by preventing families from “getting swindled because hotels hate your guts.” The reliability message is continued as the family moves down a moving walkway, surrounded by flat screens showcasing the multitude of accommodations options available.

Interactive marketing users find homeaway.com consistent with the service promises made in the ad. Reliability and empathy are reinforce through claims of “The world’s most trusted vacation rental site”, “The world's largest selection of vacation homes, condos, cabins & villas” and reinforcement of the favorable comparison to the hotel experience.

The user experience reflects the same themes and carries them a step further. Browsing for a European rental property for a future vacation with my wife, HomeAway offered more than 17,000 options in Spain alone, sortable by property type, location type, and travel style.

The experience provides further assurance to the quality of the properties they represent through detailed reviews of past travelers, tons of images of the properties and videos showcasing the accommodations and their surroundings.

Homeaway isn’t competing to be the best in their category, they’re trying to redefine their category and compete against what they position as an inferior experience. For me, at least, it was effective. For vacations, I’ve always consumed hotel experience. Homeaway has me considering the vacation rental alternative for the first time. As the company that made the alternative viable, they’ve got the inside track for my business.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Why yes, Ms. Fossey, we do have a job for you"

In preparation for #BZBowl, I’m experiencing as many of the SuperBowl advertisers’ products & services as possible, comparing whether my service encounter lives up to the promises they make through marketing. Today’s #BZBowl Week post involves CareerBuilder.com.

CareerBuilder is bringing the monkeys back to the Super Bowl. It carries on the line of prior Super Bowl ads, and since simians are comedic gold, I’m sure this one will win rave reviews on Monday. But what is CareerBuilder promising with the monkey ads?

A line from a previous version exclaimed, “It’s tough working with monkeys, and we’ve had enough.” A pretty clear play on empathy with the jobseeker - that CareerBuilder understands what it is like to work in an environment where coworkers are non-supportive, disengaged, and even dumb - and that they can help match a jobseeker with a company where all ones coworkers aren't monkeys. Personally, I’ve never worked with monkeys. (Something Matthew Broderick can’t say.) Sure, there is the infrequent gorilla in my midst, but in my experience, anyone convinced that they work in an all monkey environment is usually the person displaying the ape-like behavior.

Their other tag lines promise a little more, but not much:

From the candidate side, “Want a new job? We’ve got the most.” and from the employer side, “Need better candidates? We’ve got the most”. Abundance is a clear promise, but it conflicts with the monkey theme. If you have both the most candidates and the most jobs, it seems that CareerBuilder would be the most likely congregating place for monkey candidates looking for monkey jobs.

They also add “A better job awaits” onto the line. If you buy the “I work with monkeys” theme, this is a much more meaningful promise, that using CareerBuilder services will improve the quality of your work life by reliably finding a better job fit, or at least one with less flying feces.

The interactive marketing on CareerBuilder.com continues the volume promise, claiming 1.6 million jobs on the site. After I registered, I immediately started receiving updates of positions – both on the site and emailed to me. The quality of fit for almost all would have been suspect, but the activity reinforced the promise that, “hey, there’s lots of stuff here for you to be interested in.” If I were looking for sheer volume of postings, I might be very happy with CareerBuilder. It’s possible I’d still be working with monkeys – just in a different barrel.

Empathy and assurance are key service aspects to a job seeker. So is reliability. Through advertising and interactive marketing, CareerBuilder offered little of any. What they promise, and deliver on, is volume. It’s a flexibility promise that implies because we have the most, we MUST have something for you.

You may just have to get used to monkeys.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

GoDaddy makes ads people love to hate, but how’s the service?

In preparation for #BZBowl, I’m experiencing as many of the SuperBowl advertisers’ products & services as possible, comparing whether my service encounter lives up to the promises they make through marketing. Today’s #BZBowl Week post involves GoDaddy.com.

GoDaddy.com is a Super Bowl mainstay. Every year, they prominently feature a tacky ad featuring one of the GoDaddy girls that everyone claims to dislike, yet everyone will be talking about the next day.

But are the ads effective? Before you answer, quickly name 2 other web hosting sites.

I don’t question their efficacy. When I began consuming domain registry and web hosting services, I went straight to GoDaddy without considering anyone else. They were the only provider I was aware of, and so they got my business.

Purchasing top-of-mind awareness can be an effective strategy for gaining customers, but if it isn’t accompanied by quality service, it can be an ineffective one for keeping them.

The first in the Jillian Michaels series of commercials gives some insight into the promises GoDaddy makes through advertising, placing emphasis around the purchase process, describing it as fast, easy and low priced. Only after these purchase benefit promises are made do they mention quality of their hosting services.

If the ads are a tacky way to gain eyeballs, the website is a tacky way to convert them.

Yet the promises made in the ads are consistently reinforced through the interactive marketing. The site is a mess of deals, claims, exclamation marks and asterisks, mostly messaged around the purchase process being fast, easy and inexpensive. The only departure in their interactive marketing is the promotion of a variety of GoDaddy services, which may be more by accident of trying to sell every service on the home page.

Godaddy makes few promises through their ads, and those they make are consistent with their interactive marketing and paid off in the experience. But while they make purchasing easy, my own post-purchase service experience has been less than ideal due to a confusing interface, made more confusing by near-constant up-selling of additional services. Godaddy never made any promises in that regard, so I can’t criticize the advertising for making promises the experience didn’t fulfill.

But due to the ongoing service experience I’ve, chosen an alternative provider for domain registry & hosting. Improvements in the Go Daddy service experience might increase customer retention to the point where all of that expensive customer acquisition isn’t necessary.

But then again, they may be too having fun acquiring customers to care.