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.

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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.

The Future of Content, Part 3

I feel refreshed today.

No, it’s not because I got to the pool today after along day on the road at a conference. 😉

It’s because, for all the journalists who don’t get it, like I mentioned in my last post, there’s one who takes a good, long look and sees it like it is. And by “like it is,” I mean “the customer now dictates what constitutes content.”

The Twitter phenomenon epitimizes the kinds of technology-enabled shifts seen in the ways consumers communicate and seek information over the past few years.

And yet again, I emphasize that the opportunity is there for marketers — we have as big a role in the future of content as journalists do. Bring people together with the content they want, and you are their trusted source. It’s news they want? Tweet from a show floor (like I’ve been doing all day at this conference), an event, a concert, a press conference. Expert analysis? Create a path to experts — a CEO blog, a unique Twitter solution like ExecTweets, or a mashup of content. Personal viewpoints or reality reporting? Build a community where people can identify and network, like Facebook or Sermo in the healthcare space. The list goes on.

The beauty of Twitter is its simplicity. Of course, that’s also what some dislike about it. But that simplicity, in all it’s brevity, makes for one whole boatload of content when you add up a few hundred followers, whether it’s your sister, five cousins and grandma or it’s Ashton Kutcher, Kathy Ireland and Sanjay Gupta. When you charge ahead with your particular solution, it may end up being as simple as Twitter or it may be much more complex.

Just make sure it delivers the content your customers want and you’re golden.

The Mall — Revisited

A short time ago I wrote a post that talked about the evolution of event marketing venues and the impact that alternative venues have had on the mainstay event venue of the last several decades, the American mall.

Well, the New York Times has an insightful article that also takes a good, long look at the evolving way consumers frequent the mall. It’s part microscope into the consumer’s mind, part reality check for the status of the mall in the consumer shopping hierarchy, and part hope for marketers.

The hope lies in the opportunity that the challenging economy (recession, if you will) presents for marketers. As the article notes:

We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can’t be pinned on Wall Street — or on mortgage-related financial insanity — can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don’t spend, we don’t recover. Fiscal health isn’t possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.

In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it’s part of the cure. And once we’re cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.

What that means is that old cliche — that true market leaders keep marketing through the downtimes so that they emerge stronger than ever when good times come back — is true. Times may be tough, but if you have customers — more importantly, if you want more customers in the future — you can’t go dark right now. Improve and fine-tune your brand and value proposition, ratchet up your customer service, look deeply at your ROI and spend on what works, get up-to-speed with SEO and Google and other channels you’re currently not in, focus your message on key benefits most important to your customers — just make sure you have a message out there. Be consistent, be seen, be reliable and flexible and accomodating to your customers.

Because good times will charge ahead again at some point, and if you stay strong now you’ll be even stronger then.

More Reasons to Hone Your SEM Skills

Take a good, long look at David Carr’s article in New York Times about the continued decline of traditional media companies.

Companies from the Christian Science Monitor to the Los Angeles Times to the Tribune Company are hemmorrhaging people, dollars and advertisers. Of course, the reason is the shift of both consumers and ad dollars online.

The paradox of all these announcements is that newspapers and magazines do not have an audience problem — newspaper Web sites are a vital source of news, and growing — but they do have a consumer problem.
Stop and think about where you are reading this column. If you are one of the million or so people who are reading it in a newspaper that landed on your doorstop or that you picked up at the corner, you are in the minority. This same information is available to many more millions on this paper’s Web site, in RSS feeds, on hand-held devices, linked and summarized all over the Web.

This article, from an old media bastion like New York Times (itself losing staff due to declines), should be the only cue you need to hone up on whatever traditional online tactics, Web 2.0 technologies, mobile targeting capabilities, new Google products, and social media strategies you aren’t comfortable with right now. The shift is only growing stronger, as you know, yet when these slow-movers really focus on the online space the pace of consumer shift will pickup rapidly.

Will you be ahead of the game? Then now is the time to move.