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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are we changing how we complain, or just how often?

A New York Times article “Consumer Complaints Made Easy. Maybe Too Easy" sparked some dialogue yesterday on the nature of complaints, complainers and service recovery effort.

I joined Wim Rampen, Arie Goldshlager & several others to discuss whether social media has indeed made it too easy for customers too complain, and if this has led to “social bullying”.

My quick take: Social media hasn’t made customer complaints “too easy”. Instead, good service businesses are happy to have yet another way for a customer with a complaint to have that complaint heard and responded to. Companies suggesting that it’s too easy for customers to complain may not have the right service orientation in the first place, which leads to those scores of complaints that they’d rather not hear.

In a related post on Arie Goldshlager’s Posterous, he commented on the proliferation of easy, uncommitted complaints and “social bullying” as a potential resource drain on well-meaning service organizations that tried to serve all customers to their fullest extent.

With the rise of social as a venue for complaining, the ground may be shifting on this one. If a company responds to customers that are complaining for popularity reasons and aren't looking to engage them, they may waste valuable service resources chasing service experiences that can’t be recovered with customers that aren’t looking for resolution as much as they are a chance to use their social media bullhorn.

Pndering the issue for a few more hours, I’ve got one more issue to add to the body of work.

Complaining about failed experiences is easier with the availability of social media than it was before, no doubt. But in any service experience, customers themselves play a role in a successful outcome. When a customer with a failure complains directly to a company, the company has the ability to help fix problems that began with the customer not accepting their role or not playing it well. But when the interaction happens in full view of social media, there’s less opportunity for that type of customer coaching.

Will social media move companies toward limiting customer role in production of their own experiences, making service more servant-like & less collaborative?

I sure hope not. The customer, because of their unique knowledge of their needs, has the potential to be the most productive resource in the service experience, if & when we make good use of the shared effort. It would be a shame for businesses worried about the complaints that could be best fixed through better company-customer interface to design the customer out of the fulfillment process completely.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Old School CRM.

For those skeptical whether a company wants or can have true relationships with its customers, here is the bulletin board of a Starbucks I happened upon in my travels:

A simple note, handwritten cards with customers' names, favorite drinks & details. The odd customer photo. How long do you think that it took to construct this mural? 30 minutes? 60?

The answer is on the blackboard. 4 years of investment in customer relationships, made 30 seconds at a time.

ANY company can have this kind of relationship with its customers. Only those willing to invest 4 years do.

(No, it’s not lost on me that it is really people that create and maintain the relationships. Service businesses are about people, and front line staff in particular. Front line people are the are “product”, the marketers and the customer service staff. Customers’ feelings about them are transferred to the company. Customers’ feelings about the company are likewise transferred to them.)

(One other note from this: Want to be the Mercedes of your industry? The Ogilvy of your local market? The Zappos of your niche? In service businesses, all three are represented by your front line providers. 3 functions in 1. Don’t tell me service businesses are inefficient.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saturday Night, Alive.

I’ve been holding onto this one for a few days because I didn’t quite know how I felt about it.

On Saturday evening, we heard tornado sirens sound in our neighborhood, as they do anytime a tornado is sighted in our rather large county in northeastern Kansas.

It was late, and not wanting to wake the kids up unnecessarily, we quickly tuned in to the local television broadcast to quickly see what exactly we were faced with and whether we would have to beat a hasty retreat to the basement.

It turned out that the tornadoes were as far away and as small as they could be and still cause the alarm, but in our minds – as always with these things – better safe than sorry.

But here’s where the service encounter comes in. To broadcast the emergency, the Kansas City area NBC affiliate broke in on Saturday Night Live. Specifically, the season finale featuring Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga.

As they did so, the meteorologist almost continuously apologized for preempting SNL, which to me seemed a bit unnecessary, in that I couldn’t imagine anyone who would be willing to forego their own safety or that of their neighbors for a rehashed version of dick-in-a-box.

At that point, I did a quick twitter search on “SNL Tornado”, and saw the vitriolic reaction that the weather alert was generating towards NBC.

At first, I didn’t consider this a service failure, so much as a group of irates voicing their displeasure at a very sensible action on the part of the network. But the idea stuck with me. I wrote a post about situations when one service experience (National Weather Service) interferes with another and another about cases where the customer isn’t right, taking the position that the Meteorologist shouldn’t have to apologize for keeping viewers safe by the best means available.

What I came back to, though, was that as much as I didn’t agree with their positions, this was a service failure in the eyes of the customers that were complaining. Their service outcome – namely experiencing the finale of SNL – was not fulfilled by NBC, regardless of how good the reason. The local NBC meteorologist was right to apologize. Better, their service recovery of pointing watchers to the broadcast streamed over the internet kept with a key element of good service recovery, providing successful delivery – either through the streaming video or a later rebroadcast – as a fair outcome.

NBC prioritized the service needs of its customers appropriately. Serving some caused an unavoidable service failure for others. But in recognizing it and offering an alternative, they provided each customer group a fair outcome in the service they wanted or needed in the first place.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lessons in customer role, from a chainsaw company.

In the summer months, I'll often throw my local Kansas City Royals baseball game on the TV to serve as background noise as I settle into my evening routine.

One of the advertisers on the local broadcast – Stihl – a chainsaw manufacturer, gets experience and customer role well enough to mention, even though I don’t own a Stihl chainsaw, nor am I likely to anytime soon.

The ad is for a dealership promotional period, but doesn’t offer a price discount. It doesn’t even offer suggestions on where they can be found beyond, "your local Stihl dealer".

Instead, it talks about the quality of the product, reinforces the quality of the product, and closes with the quality of the product. Somewhere in the middle, they mention that if a customer purchases a 6-pack of oil with the chainsaw, Stihl will double the warranty period.

Tremendous service marketing from a product company.

The logic is simple: If a customer buys the oil, they’ll either use it or they won’t.

Most people that buy a six pack of oil will likely use some, if not all of it. Doing so inherently lengthens the life of the chainsaw. So for those that use it, they get a customer who spends additional money upfront on a maintenance product and understands and accepts his or her role in maintaining the product.

The life of the chainsaw is extended by a well-maintained machine, the likelihood of needed repair decreases, and the customer’s perception of Stihl as a brand of high quality, (or at least long-lasting) chainsaws increases.

For those that don’t use it, the purchase of the oil at least partially offsets the warranty costs for repairs to the chainsaws that aren’t maintained.

As a side benefit – call it the Chris Zane corollary – any competitor that tries to match warranty terms without the added benefit of customer-provided maintenance may find themselves with a money-losing warranty.

The warranty is a service aspect of a product purchase. The customer role of maintenance is part of the product experience. Stihl may not be Zappos, but they know their service marketing. It’s a good promise. You do your part in maintaining the product, and we’ll guarantee that it will stay running for years.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I unfollowed @PV_at_SAP today.

Along with @outdoorrussia, @CarinaAllen and 20 others. At least, so said a tweet from @PV_at_SAP caught by my mentions column yesterday afternoon:

“@Reaburn , @outdoorrussia , @CarinaAllen and 20 others unfollowed me today ... checked by http://fllwrs.com”

An interesting way to mention someone. Of course, it was entirely possible. I do unfollow people from time to time. So I checked, and actually, I had unfollowed @PV_at_SAP the day prior, making the mention ever so slightly inaccurate.

It's not the first time I’ve unfollowed someone. But it is the first time I’ve been called out for it, and I’m not quite sure of the purpose. My guess is that “PV” wants to alert the twitterverse that someone isn’t playing by the implied reciprocity rules.

Interesting take on the purpose & use for twitter. Yes, building one's self-perceived popularity through masses of followers is one potential source of value for Twitter, though it’s not where I find value, and in all fairness, I doubt PV does either.

For me, Twitter’s value is in engaging experts, leaders & interesting people on subjects I want to learn more about, contributing to the collaborative dialogue where I can, while creating a shortcut to exceptional content for which the search cost would be too high for me to ever obtain it on my own.

Right now, I’m near the magical 2,000 twitter followers, so Twitter demands that I watch my balance of follows to followers. I’m trying to break through that mark, not because I want access to legions of potential pseudofans, but because I’m pretty certain there are more than 2,000 people out there that I’m going to find interesting, and I want to be able to find & follow them with fewer restrictions.

PV isn’t following me, and so he’s limiting my Twitter experience by hampering that objective. I also don’t find much value in his content – nothing personal, it’s just not for me.

Any customer-customer interaction can change behavior in the service environment. In this case, unfollowing PV was my way of improving my own experience, since PV wasn’t contributing to it, and actually was limiting its effectiveness.

I’m sure PV would understand. After all, his bio reads “Its all about the Customer and the Experience at SAP.” It’s a sentiment I share (it was likely a reason I chose to follow PV in the first place), and exactly what I was practicing when I unfollowed him.

Homeaway.com (Pt II): Don't take a customer's need for assurance lightly.

After reviewing their Super Bowl advertising as part of this year’s #BZBowl, I was intrigued enough by the Homeaway.com service model to give them a try, using their marketplace for vacation rental properties to book a condo for a future family vacation in an area of the world I've never spent much time.

I was blown away by the front-end, but there were some execution inconsistencies and assurance misses that could be improved to make the booking experience as tight as the search & engagement process.

Once I had potential locations down to a short list, I contacted the property managers to check specific dates, availability and to inquire further about the properties themselves. Not all of them replied, and of those that did, I had response times from a few hours to almost a week. It's difficult to manage any network of intermediaries responsible for fulfilling your service experience. A network of small business owners / property managers that spans the globe has to be one of the most complex intermediary networks I’ve ever encountered. Still, the variance between responses was a bit extreme. While I was down on the hotel experience in part one, I’ve never had a hotel not respond to my inquiry as to room availability.

Once the short list was narrowed down, I began an engagement with the manager of the property I was most interested in. The manager seemed extremely nice, wrote back to me in my first language even though it wasn’t his, provided detailed information on the property and included references – all great stuff. But it was when he - a service intermediary that I’ve never met, whom I know isn’t employed by Homeaway and operates out of another country - asked for my credit card information that my service encounter needed some assurance that this was a normal part of the experience, and that I could trust in the intermediary network.

To get that assurance, I checked with Homeaway, asking if this was common practice or if I should look elsewhere. In this case, Homeaway didn’t respond for 3 days. That may be acceptable for routine questions (or not) but certainly not for what was to me an urgent inquiry about information security.

Marketplaces like Homeaway, where networks of service intermediaries gather to compete for the aggregated demand of a mass market, are growing in number and breadth of the markets they serve. But they are fundamentally difficult service models to manage with consistency. Service quality basics such as reliability, empathy and expecially assurance have to be considered at every step of not only the engagement experience, but the purchase, service experience and post-experience as well.

Homeaway had me with the engagement, but a small fail at a critical point just about lost me at the exact moment I was willing to put my money down.

Homeaway: A refreshing un-hotel encounter.

After reviewing their Super Bowl advertising as part of this year’s #BZBowl, I was intrigued enough by the Homeaway.com service model to give them a try, using their marketplace for vacation rental properties to book a condo for a future family vacation in an area of the world I've never spent much time.

The Homeaway accommodations marketplace provided a service encounter far superior to the hundreds of hotel and hotel aggregator sites I’ve used in the past.

With thousands of properties spanning the globe, individual property managers compete with each other for travelers' vacation accomodations experiences. They’re motivated to position their properties in the most compelling possible way – making their best promises as to the experience a vacationer would have. Users see extremely detailed information on the properties, surrounding neighborhoods - often including an insider’s information on local events. Property managers usually include property layout diagrams, a full suite of pictures, including video walkthroughs for prospective renters. Those promises are kept honest through user reviews, with past renters posting reviews of the amenities and the service for the properties where they’ve stayed.

By comparison, direct hotel sites typically give a generalized room category with some vague images of the accommodations style, and a price. Aggregators of hotel accommodations (like hotels.com and priceline) may offer even less, narrowing down to a neighborhood (not a specific property) a nebulous star rating for the property and a price.

With more space, more variety, and more decision information at every bit as competitive a price, the homeaway.com search and engagement experience is so much better than traditional hotels and site aggregators, it makes me wonder if the hospitality industry isn’t undergoing every bit the business model change that happened when the demand aggregators first arrived on the scene.

But while the experience of finding potential vacation sites was an exceptional experience, there are a few service experience missteps and inconsistencies that took place in part two of my service encounter, once I committed to using a property.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

AT&T broadband cap gets a consumer wag-of-the-finger

AT&T made news this week by announcing a cap on broadband for personal internet use. Based on my own (purely unscientific) review of the comments circulating through social media sites, the move wasn’t favored by consumers.

From Twitter:

JD_Wright: Broadband cap? I think our days with AT&T for internet service are very limited.

Joel_Turnipseed: @att added a cap and didn’t lower price, this is why I have moved internet providers "att capping broadband http://t.co/u9YrKmi"

kevinlam14: AT&T cap broadband usage! 150gig for DSL and if you go over, $10 is charge for another 50gig
http://ow.ly/4NAAs This is a load of crap!

beermonkey: Time to switch providers out of principle alone. RT @News4WOAI: AT&T putting cap on broadband

But before committing to indignation about how this is a money extracting move by an evil cable company who doesn’t want to provide the service it’s loyal customers, consider this as a move that potentially protects the service experience.

According to AT&T, the top 2% of customers – those for whom the cap will apply – use a full 20% of broadband.

When one customer’s service experience adversely impacts the service experience of other customers, the company has a decision to make – protect the experience for the customer whose use is negatively impacting others, or intervene to protect the experience of the many.

In some cases, the decision is easier than others.

If the customer is improperly using a company’s service experience – think of a severely intoxicated passenger on an airplane – the difficult but appropriate response is often to remove them from the service environment, to be served in another way or not at all.

On the other hand, if a customer simply uses “more than their fair share” of the company’s service capacity, the company has the option to charge for the capacity-draining use to either modify the behavior and bring capacity use back into balance or ensure any continued extreme usage of the service is compensatory.

The AT&T cap on broadband (which isn’t a cap, as much as a charge for excess use) isn’t without precedent. In fact, it is somewhat similar to the intelligent traffic system IBM implemented in Stockholm, which concurrently solved a major congestion problem while increasing municipal revenue and was ultimately seen as a creative solution to a difficult problem.

What is interesting to me is that while both organizations made changes to preserve scarce service capacity to serve more customers more effectively (and make more money doing it), one is met with case studies while the other is met with catcalls.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Rating "Rate Our Chicken."

Successful service encounters start off with well executed marketing as the process of making relevant promises that set the expectations of what will be delivered through the experience.

The Domino’s ad “Rate Our Chicken” is an effective one not just for the promises it makes but also for how it personalizes promise fulfillment for customers.

The ad makes that simple promise that is easy to evaluate - specifically that we’re going to like their new chicken product. But while most advertisements stop here, Domino’s challenges customers to evaluate their delivery of the promise by asking every customer to rate their chicken with a survey on the box the chicken is delivered in. If you’re a fan of Chip & Dan Heath's SUCCES formula for evaluating marketing, there aren’t many promises you’ll see that are more concrete than this one.

But because service encounters are about more than the tangible goods associated with them, and successful service marketing finds a way to express the intangibles of the offering. Featuring the people who make and fulfill the service promise in marketing is a usually a strong execution of the message and the brand.

In this case, Domino’s personalizes the promise by literally giving it a name. I don’t know if Tate Dillow is really the man behind Domino’s chicken, but putting him in front personalizes it as one person making a promise to customers. There’s a good chance customers will feel sympathy when Tate’s boss asks customers to rate the job he’s doing with the new chicken by putting a survey on the box.

As a service ad, “Rate Our Chicken” works because it is a simple quality promise well executed by making it easy to evaluate and including the people responsible for performing it in the service encounter.