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.

Earn Clout with Social Influencers

Do you current acquisition campaigns include social influencers? They should.

Social media is lauded for its high engagement value, yet many marketers are struggling with how to measure it, never mind how to use it to move the needle on sales. Hell, many marketers and companies have yet to commit the time or the resources to leverage SoMe effectively for engagement — despite the benefits.

That’s why I love the great examples out there like this article on how the Sacramento Kings used Klout to tap into the power of social influencers. There are tons of articles out there that discuss all the reasons you have to use social — this blog alone offers up a bunch. Yet this article touches on the true viral power of brands tapping into social influencers who are capable of shaping behavior across their whole social networks.

Nothing like other people doing your job for you.

Think this approach has merits? Take a good, long look at it’s application on the micro-local level, where community-based doctors, restaurants and other local business could reach out to prominent local influencers — perhaps members of social programs, sports leagues or PTA boards. Give them a good experience or an offer, and the word spreads fast and drives local business as soon as those influencers tell their social networks about it via Facebook, Twitter or other means.

Think of it’s application to healthcare, where innovative academic centers and community practices could reach out to prominent patient advocates and community leaders. Work with those influencers to create events in the facilities and practices or host Twitter chats, and the social impact spreads to core consumers of healthcare services in those networks. Recent studies show a “graying” of social networks due to the huge number of older Americans flocking to them, and one of their most popular online activities is searching for and sharing healthcare information. One of my blog posts for Oncology Times discuss this phenomenon. So the opportunity is definitely there to make an impact among healthcare consumers with the right outreach to social influencers.

How do you identify and reach social influencers? Well, you can work with experts like Klout, or you can set up an effective social listening station of your own and begin to closely monitor and filter the conversation in your markets or areas of interest. Many tools out there set up those powerful filters that can be as granular as you need, and you can build your own dashboard to analyze and rank influencers. Radian6 and Alterian are two of the better products available, and the cost is not significant.

Need another example? During an online demo of Radian6, I tweeted about it. Less than 10 minutes later, I had a tweet back from Alterian acknowledging my interest in social listening software, with an offer to access information about their product. Now here I sit, virally spreading that experience and education. It’s a whole different and more meaningful way to influence customer behavior.

We’ll discuss more about social listening in an upcoming post, yet in the meantime I recommend you charge ahead and become more familiar with it starting right now.

Brands Use Content as a Marketing Tool

But you already know that brands use content as a marketing tool, because I’ve been talking about it since April 2009.

Kudos to David Carr and the New York Times for finally arriving to the party.

Carr just wrote this excellent article in the Times about luxury brands publishing content and downright getting into the media business. And it’s true, brands are creating content and using it to drive engagement across a variety of vertical markets, both B2C and B2B. They’re shifting dollars of out publishing ad spend to do it, and they’re delivering content in the form of print magazines, digital mags, blogs, content-rich websites, and more. Plus, they get better tangible metrics than publishers offer, because they drive traffic to their own content, URLs and places where they can track and analyze deeper.

Yet Carr’s article comes almost a full two years after I wrote a series of blog posts that described how marketers have a role in the future of content (the other two posts in the series are here and here…the second one even takes a journalist to task for not seeing the shift).

I think the mainstream media are finally starting to notice since, as Carr’s article highlights, some high-level journalists and content experts are making the leap to direct content on the brand side.

Andrea Linett, the former creative director of Lucky, has gone on to become eBay’s fashion creative director, while Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founding editor of Town and Country Travel for Hearst, is now the chief executive at the travel site Indagare. And many journalists who were pushed aside as publishing withered are now finding that brands in search of an audience are still interested in what they do.”

Well now that the Times says it, it must be true, right? So take a good, long look at what kind of content your customers consume, and charge ahead in terms of providing it to them in a way that creates engagement with your brands and products. I’m not saying you have to hire editors and build a media empire under your roof — but hired experts are clearly an effective way to do it. You also have other ways to create and provide content, like social media, whitepapers and even Twitter.

Once you make the leap to content provide and educator, you gain trust and credibility, and you gain an incredible amount of context that you can use to market your products/brands.

Implications of the “Do Not Track” Movement

Just when you were starting to figure it out online, leave it to potential legislation to ruin it.

Well, maybe not totally ruin it, but at least make it harder. That’s my take on the potential for FTC policy and future legislation on an Internet “Do Not Track” list. While I agree that consumers should have every right to raise their hand for privacy whenever they desire, I think it also raises the bar alot higher for marketers who don’t want to be covered by their customers’ “Do Not Track” blankets.

I’m hoping that policymakers take a good, long look at arguments like David Greene’s post on why the Do Not Track line of thinking may be misguided. While I like and agree with that line of thinking, the Do Not Track movement may have too much momentum to be stopped — Microsoft already announced that when Internet Explorer 9 is released in 2011 it will have a feature included that allows users to restrict sites from tracking them. In reality it’s just an enhancement to features already present in IE 8 and it requires some user effort to take full advantage of the feature, yet the big announcement by Microsoft (which some argue is just posturing to gain an edge) certainly added fuel to the fire.

Essentially, here’s what this functionality means for you as a marketer: Want to be able to track customer data? Then earn their trust with top-notch messaging, content and experience. Then maybe they’ll let you in.

The one sure thing is that if you don’t make an effort to earn trust, you certainly won’t be let in. So my recommendation is to address the issue now.

  • Start improving the quality of your messaging so it’s personalized and relevance-based.
  • Engage customers in dialogue that builds trust.
  • Set high standards for process integrity and data security.
  • Explain to customers what you do with their data and why it helps you help them.

Those proactive steps will help you charge ahead and become an oasis for customers in the desert of online trust.

Reduce Volume, Reinvest in Relevance

The following post is a re-post of an article recently published on Directmag.com, and you can read the original article on that website — which, by the way, is a great source for insights to improve your campaigns.

Rx for Ailing Email Response: Reduce Frequency

Certainly email is still one of the most productive and powerful tools in the marketer’s arsenal of tactics. Recent research shows there’s no falloff in usage even with the shift toward social networks; in fact, studies from Nielsen and others show an enhanced level of email usage among those with high participation in social media.

That said, some of the main challenges we face with email—volume, relevance, and engagement—become more problematic when people use email more. When a user is in his inbox all the time, it’s easy to get tired of senders, even trusted ones, who send too frequently. And marketers need to be diligent to ensure that their email messages and offers remain riveting and relevant in order to create engagement.

As a marketing director at Reed Medical Education, where I promote continuing education programs to healthcare professionals, I have the typical email issues to account for and test against: inbox clutter, frequency, deliverability, optimal send time, etc. There’s also an additional challenge: My recipients also receive a lot of messages that rank higher than mine—emails about patients, medications, procedures, new research, and countless other things that are critical to making people better.

This fall, when rolling out a campaign for our largest conference, focusing on mental health on behalf of Massachusetts General Hospital, I decided that less is more.

For the 2009 conference, during a six-month campaign we sent out 12 marketing emails plus four transactional emails based on actions, such as purchase confirmations. Most of the messages were in a standard HTML template we have for the brand, and two were text-only, personalized emails. Open rates were down to less than 5% across the board, and we barely hit our attendee goal.

In 2010 the goal was not only to exceed our attendee target but also to markedly improve our email metrics. A better campaign should deliver a better overall result, right? I decided to cut the number of emails we’d send for the campaign by 50%, down to six. In cluttered inboxes, I bet that fewer total messages from us would actually stand out more and give us more opens—and I knew that if we put extra time into developing a better message, the clicks would follow.

First we redesigned our HTML email template into a cleaner layout with shorter, punchier copy and highly visible calls to actions. For three of the emails, we focused on key deadlines to deliver time-sensitive, action-oriented messages.

For the other three emails, we crafted personal, text-only messages from key speakers and leaders of the conference. We segmented the campaign to our internal database based on purchase history (2009 attendees, pre-2009 attendees, never attended, etc.), and we customized the message based on that history. For last year’s attendees, we emphasized what was new in 2010. For those who had attended prior to 2009, we focused on why it was critical for them to come them back. And for those who had never attended, we highlighted key unique selling propositions and benefit-oriented messaging. And again, all versions were sent as a personal message from a key figure.

Also in these text emails, we linked to a five-minute video recorded with the chief of psychiatry at Mass General. He directly addressed some of the cost, time, and other objections we frequently hear from attendees and tied it all back into the positive impact to their clinical practice they’d gain from attending the conference. He said it much it better in the video than we ever could have said it in an email, and it provided a deeper level of content that users could access with just one click.

The results of these changes were exactly what the doctor ordered. Campaign-wide open rates more than tripled over the previous year’s to 15.4%, and average clickthrough rates were up over 2.6%, with some segments having rates as high as 9.7%. The personal emails had the best performance, as expected, with open rates all over 16%, yet year-over-year the HTML emails did considerably better as well. And the ultimate win was in our performance against our attendee goals: We converted far more registrations via email than in 2009, and we exceeded both attendee and revenue goals by 15%.

In summary, here’s my prescription for your email woes:

· Worry less about how many emails you send. Less is more when the message is right.

· Put the extra time into developing better quality messaging. Relevance and personalization matter.

· Segment, segment, segment — and leverage the information you have about your customers.

· Make your emails interactive. Link to video, integrate with social media, and provide compelling content or offers that make the click worth the time.

· Sanitize your data. We scrubbed out some long-inactive records that depressed metrics and messaged those users separately to reactivate them.

More than anything, don’t settle for the same old thing. Just as a doctor does with a sick patient, if one approach doesn’t work, try another to get better results. And remember, relevance trumps frequency to win engagement.

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.