Economic Rebound = Customer Service Falloff

It’s funny how “things are better” amounts to things actually being worse when it comes to customer service.

It makes sense, though, and with a good, long look you can already see it happening in businesses of all sizes and industries.

There are some companies that are always just historically bad when it comes to customer service – AT&T, Excite, the electric company, (United Illuminating here in CT…awful), the cable company. Add in your own favorites (or un-favorites, if you will). Yet combine a rebounding economy with a make-my-losses-back mentality and a shortage of resources and people, and you have historically bad customer service across the board.

It starts at the local level, with service companies from landscapers to oil companies to snow removers. These were services that a lot of out-of-work and cost-conscious consumers eliminated or scaled back on during the tough times of the past few years. Now that things are doing better economically, some consumers are opening the wallets back up, and those companies are more than happy to take the work again. And on the surface, certainly taking on alot of customers helps these companies bounce back from revenue and sales declines of the past few years. Yet for many of them, going for quantity over quality means delivering subpar service to a wider group of customers — including those who may have stuck by them during the tough times. Ultimately that’s not good business.

These are also businesses who haven’t invested in technology or equipment or infrastructure during the down times, so now they’re taking on added customer volume without the resources in place to provide good service. The first symptom is long wait times on the phone and for service delivery. Online contact doesn’t make it easier either, as someone already stretched too thin manages the online channel. Then, when service is delivered it’s frequently subpar since stretched resources are trying to service more customers in the same amount of time. That extra care they gave you as a loyal customer during the hard times is gone. And new customers immediately have low expectations from less-than-optimal service delivery.

The same goes for big brands. Many of them outsourced customer service overseas, for example, and are now getting hammered by higher volume hitting under-trained staff. And many of them still use social media as a mouthpiece, rather than a means for engagement.

None of this leads to long-term success – customers are unhappy from Day One, so it makes your business a commodity. There’s no loyalty based on price, experience, brand…nothing.

My recommendation? As a business that depends on customers, you have to invest in things that make your business unique. And while tough economic times make it difficult to invest in capital costs – like technology – it shouldn’t prevent you from charging ahead with low-cost investments in training, creativity, and other things that make businesses succeed. And ultimately, it means delivering consistent, high-quality service and experience. If that means taking on less customers now so you can build stronger relationships in the long term, that’s a cost of doing business. You have to realize that if take on too much and deliver bad service, you’re going to spend more on sales and marketing costs in the long run trying to replace customers who leave.

Stay tuned for my next post, which outlines three things you can do to avoid these pitfalls.

I hope this post trickles down to the snow removal service that takes care of (or doesn’t) my building. If you do quick, hasty, low-quality work because you’re trying to make it to as many customers as you can, you’re only pulling a snow job on yourself.

My Fun Awards Program Assignment

Recently I had the honor of being a judge in the American Business Media’s Sales Promotion Awards. As Chair of the ABM’s Media Marketing Committee, I’m proud to say that my committtee helps the ABM frame and conduct this awards program — so I do have somewhat of an advantage when it comes time to select the judges.

I want to thank Kevin Arsham, Partner at MediaCom, for also taking time to participate as a judge in the awards program. Kevin has been a willing and consistent supporter and participant in my committee’s activities, and we’re very grateful.

Watch the video below as Kevin and I walk through the top-performing entries, as well as some general points for B2B media marketers to consider when developing promotional materials and media kits.

If you have any questions about the awards program or interest in joining my committee, leave me a comment and we’ll discuss.

Privacy Mistakes, Part 2

In my last post, I raised the question whether or not the following message was sufficient enough to rectify a boneheaded email data-sharing mistake.

I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone blind copied here for accidentally delivering a mass email earlier today with your email address visible.

Needless to say, I am deeply embarrassed my error.

If there is something I can do to rectify any inconvenience that my hastiness may have caused, please do not hesitate to let me know.”

First let’s take a good, long look at the things wrong with this situation, then we’ll get down to the correct way to manage and fix these kinds of predicaments.

This first thing wrong is that something big is missing — and it’s the root cause of the overall problem. There’s a clear lack of marketing control. The original email was sent by a sales rep (happens to be a guy), and it had all of his customer email addresses visible for all to see. The lack of marketing control at his company could’ve led to this for a few reasons. Perhaps there aren’t any marketing professionals employed here at all, and sales folks like this guy are blindly doing their own marketing as best they know how, considering they’re clearly not trained to be marketers.

The second thing wrong is there’s a clear lack of marketing control and/or involvement as it pertains to company email policy. Certainly, with the serious implications presented by CAN-SPAM laws, email should be managed by a marketing team that provides best practices in messaging and metrics, adequate tools for managing deployments and opt-outs, and clear direction on compliance with privacy and security requirements. There’s no way that in 2010, some sales guy should be randomly firing off a mass email to several dozens emails, with no regard for potential liability or consequences. I like to think that perhaps this sales rep just “went rouge” in the overzealous pursuit of sales — yet his subsequent email response shown above belies a clear lack of understanding about anything regarding effective email practice.

The last thing wrong here (that I’ll point out, anyway) is the callousness towards customers on the company’s behalf. I’d never do business with this firm, as they surely don’t consider my needs or my data privacy important. Not to mention that the sales rep’s original email was not effective at all — it was a monologue-oriented rant on the company’s products, not my needs as the customer.

Now that we have that bad stuff out of the way, let’s look at the right way to rectify mistakes when they happen:

  • 1. Don’t make the same mistake twice — If someone in the organization goes rogue and mistakenly deploys an email that discloses customer data, don’t follow up with the same damn kind of email that led to the mistake in the first place! From the same person, no less! Not too smart!
    Deploy your next emails, fully-compliant with CAN-SPAM laws, using email deployment software — that way there’s no risk of the same mistake happening again.
  • 2. Escalate the level and tone of the response — This mistake was made by a front-line person. So in the follow-up efforts asking for forgiveness, consider sending those messages from someone higher up in the management of the brand or company. This approach signifies that the company acknowledges the error at the highest levels and shows that you’re not taking it likely. Consider complementing any email messages with timely follow-up phone calls to address any customer concerns directly.
  • 3. Explain your solution to the problem — The sales guy who sent me the message above not only didn’t know enough not to make the mistake in the first place, he also clearly doesn’t have a clue what to do to fix it. Don’t tell your customers to “let you know if there’s something they can do to help you.” Tell them how you’re gonna make sure this problem doesn’t happen again! Be clear about recognizing the cause of the initial problem, and be clear about how you’re changing your processes to ensure it’s solved forever.
  • 4. Offer an olive branch — A simple gesture to make up for an inconvenience often makes the difference between losing and keeping a customer. If you shared someone’s email data by mistake, offer them a free subscription to an email privacy service. It’s a small correctional investment that proves you value the business relationship and are putting your money where your mouth is in terms of rectifying the problem.

    The moral of the story is that a commitment to effective marketing and running a customer-focused business eliminates alot of risk for these kinds of mistakes. A business that looks for dialogue with customers and uses effective marketing practice (that leverages best practices and is compliant with other requirements) has built-in process to manage communication and feedback — making these mistakes less likely. However, it also ensures that when mistakes do get made, there is appropriate process in place to deal with the clean up effectively.

    If you don’t have that kind of commitment to customers in place, don’t become the bad example of the next blog post — charge ahead and correct your process now.

Privacy Mistakes, Part 1

Mistakes are bound to happen, no matter what. In a fast-paced marketing team, details do get missed and things happen that, while ultimately preventable, are inevitable.

Certainly, how you recover and manage damaged relationships is critical in any situation. Sure, there are measured actions to take for crisis control on serious issues. Yet it doesn’t always have to be an enterprise-level problem in order to damage customer relationships, and no matter if the issue is big or small, when measures are taken to resolve the issue it can lead to backlash if not positioned or implemented correctly.

One of the most sensitive issues is the security of data. For purposes of this blog post, let’s say it’s marketing data. Specifically, let’s say it’s your email database. Your customer email addresses are valuable — priceless, even. And surely, your customers would rank the privacy of their data as a pretty high priority. What do you do when, say, one of your sales reps sends out an email to your entire customer list, yet instead of blind copying everyone he makes the email addresses visible to all? That’s what happened to me recently — although, thankfully, the sender wasn’t from my company, my email address was in his list for all to view. Here’s the message I got later in the day:

I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone blind copied here for accidentally delivering a mass email earlier today with your email address visible.

Needless to say, I am deeply embarrassed my error.

If there is something I can do to rectify any inconvenience that my hastiness may have caused, please do not hesitate to let me know.”

Is that sufficient enough a reply for you?

Ponder that question and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll answer the question myself in my next post.

What’s Your Approach to Social Already?

You’ve had ample time to learn all about social media.

Surely by now, you’ve read articles from experts, tested the waters, followed conversations, found customers, began dialogue, produced content, set up outposts on Facebook and the other places where your customers congregate, integrated social with your other channels, and set up a social listening station for your brand/company. You’re a social authority now.

Right?

Unfortunately — and unbelievably — the answer is still “Wrong!” for many marketers. More importantly, many who have make the foray into social media aren’t doing it right. I go back to the great point made in one of my earlier posts about the ways to approach social media:

Social media is like a cocktail party. Do u shout “BUY MY PRODUCT”? Ask for business cards? Or just meet people and talk?”

If I could only count how many times I get cheesy emails through LinkedIn offering nothing but a pitch, or shallow @ replies on Twitter with a salesy comment and a link. Even when used as a “sales tool” social media is no less consultative than face-to-face selling — does the ease of typing and sending email diminish my own interest as a customer in finding the right solution?!?!

Even in this salesy slide deck on using LinkedIn as a sales tool, the salient point is that you have to invest time in building a meaningful network based on knowledge and trust, not used-car-salesman-quality emails and tweets.

Please, marketers — if you haven’t yet gotten up to speed with social and how to leverage it, take the time to read a few articles, talk to some experts, and integrate it into your strategy and with your other channels.

My next post will explain exactly how.

Mass Personalization

We see it all the time, yet we don’t always do it. It’s a critical part of building relationships with customers.

I’m talking about personalization. It really makes a difference.

No, not a simple “Dear Marie” at the start of your email. I mean real personalization that creates relevance. Relevance that leads to great things — engagement, relationships, sales, upsells, etc. Some studies in retail show that as many as 77 percent of consumers report they have made additional purchases when they encountered personalized product recommendations. And there’s no arguing that a significant percentage of customers now expect to be communicated with on a personal and targeted basis, with personalized messaging based on what they’ve done, bought or told you they want.

A significant percentage of consumers not only welcome but expect…personalized experiences and product recommendations.”

Plus, we all know it’s easier and less expensive to reactivate a current customer than to acquire new ones. So why wouldn’t you leverage what you know about your customers to differentiate what you say to them? Each one of them.

To reinvigorate your email campaigns, start by either adding in a personalization element, or better yet supercharging the personalization you already use.

  • 1. Take a look at your data. What do you know about your customers, and how can you organize it to help customize your messaging to them?
  • 2. Reformat your templates to allow for simple personalization like first names in an introduction and meaningful mentions throughout the email. Make it sound genuine and not contrived, however.
  • 3. Begin to add in more relevance-based personalization like purchase history, recommendations and content. Stuff like “since you bought this item last month, you may be interested in this to complement it” or “since you clicked on this article link, you may be interested in this new content too.”

It’s easier than you think. It doesn’t take alot of time. Change your process, organize your data, and put the thought into what makes the most sense from your customer’s perspective. Then charge ahead.

In Email, Engagement is Key

I want to think that by now, most marketers are advanced in their use of email. We all test incessantly, make everything personalized and relevant, and leverage customer data to drive strategy and messaging.

Sometimes, it gets busy though. Other problems and needs take the forefront. Your email languishes. Next thing you know, a big chuck of your email list is inactive and your metrics are lower than opinion polls on the TSA.

So I’ll get right to the point — it’s critical to segment your list and message inactive customers differently from active ones. Many times, you likely segment and message based on other things like job title, location, etc. However, engagement is arguably the most powerful metric to leverage since it signifies activity, recency, endorsement and interest. Or, as it will, non-interest. There are certainly different ways to define “engaged” today — for now, start simple and define it as someone who interacts with your email (opens, clicks).

If you’re not currently segmenting your emails using this approach, stop you’re marketing machine right now and re-do it all over again. Build in the time and capacity to do the following three things:

1. Accurately define what “unengaged” means in a way that lets you meaningfully frame and solve a problem. For example, it may mean someone who didn’t spend a dime with you in 2010, or it may mean someone who didn’t open or click on one of your emails in the last 6 months.

2. Accurately define what “reengaged” means. It has to mean something achievable and realistic. For example, if a user didn’t spend a dime with you in 2010 it may be a challenge to get him/her to spend $1,000 in 2011. You may need to define an easy entry point(s) and/or multiple levels of reactivation. For someone who hasn’t shown any level of email activity, a simple first step may be to get them to open and/or click on one of your emails again.

3. Look at what you know about each customer and leverage it to create relevance. You can customize messaging based on whatever you know: purchase history, location, profession, click behavior, age. Anything you know about them. Look at what theyve done, and suggest something that has relevance as a benchmark for reengagement. For example, one approach I used in my current role was saying stuff like “We noticed you’re a primary care physician and we havent heard from you in a while, did you know we just released a new webcast that’s really relevant to challenges in primary care? Check it out.”

I guarantee that if you start to segment by level of engagement, and then leverage customer behavior to personalize and customize messaging, your campaigns in 2011 will markedly improve.