Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do Your Customers See Dead People?

The Importance of Looking at Your Business with the Customer’s Eye

When your customers interact with your business, do they deal with real people? Or mindless automation? And how do you know?

Automation and the human touch clearly aren’t mutually exclusive in customer interaction. Businesses like Zappos.com have proven this. And many smaller businesses are proving it through the use of social media. Properly used, social media mixes live people with automation to help find customers and make fans.

But a lot of businesses get customer interaction wrong: dead wrong. They make easily avoidable mistakes – in spite of the millions that companies invest in automation and in software for monitoring the customer experience.

Often, it’s the little things. Consider the story of the national debt collection agency that robo-signed a dead employee’s name to thousands of affidavits in debt-collection lawsuits.

Beyond landing the company in the public eye and under regulators’ scrutiny, what sort of message does this practice send about the company? If they make this kind of mistake with legal paperwork, what else might be wrong at the company?

We’ve learned that the financial industry is a bit of a protected species, so perhaps it doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of the business world. However, other companies – including large, publicly held companies in other industries – often suffer from the same disease.

In his book Real-Time Marketing & PR: How to Instantly Engage Your Market, Connect with Customers, and Create Products that Grow Your Business Now, David Meerman Scott recounts his experiment with contacting the Fortune 100. A prominent blogger and contributing editor to publications, David contacted, via email, the media relations people at each company, with an inquiry for an article he was writing; he included his journalism credentials. He heard back from 28 of the 100. The relative response times for the companies ranged from snappy (10 minutes) to never, and a number involved inane and completely irrelevant robo-responses. (His experience in finding whom to contact is a story in itself.)

Why was this so hard? David was a customer: a journalist writing about a public company. All of these companies make a pretense of being reachable. They all have Web sites – often lavish Web sites. Many have automated forms and links on their Web sites. But the system breaks down there for many. So much for the real-time economy.

More recently, I was thwarted in reaching a firm in the information publishing business. I tried every avenue (except the US Postal Service). I navigated a confusing phonemail tree and left a detailed message in their general mailbox. I clicked on their Press Inquiry link on their Web site – and had three emails bounce back (I tried from both my email client and Webmail). I finally identified the human being who might be able to help me. But my personal email to that person was never returned, nor did I receive a response from the handy contact form that they provided on the contact’s bio on their Web site.

My recommendation: Marketers or business owners should regularly test their customers’ experience with the business. Personally. Beyond any automated testing you may do. Or secret shoppers you may employ. What’s it like to buy from your company? Return a product? Get a question answered? What does it feel like?

True, as a marketer or business owner, you can never be 100% objective about your own business. But just spending an hour in the customers’ shoes might be a revelation.

When I was working for an advertising agency many years ago, a retail client hired us to walk through a few of their locations “with the customer’s eye.” Yes, the results were subjective – and perhaps even biased, you may say – but they were very human. And the results added a dimension to the retailer's traditional research.

The good news is that small changes can often make a big difference.

Here are three obvious places to start:

Your Web Site: Test the email addresses, contact forms and links. Do they work? How quickly do you get a response? Is the response relevant? Coherent? Indecipherable? Lawyer-ese for “go away?”

Your Phone System: Make sure that your phonemail is easily navigable. Have a process and schedule for checking the general mailbox and routing or responding to the inquiries.

It’s also helpful if the automated voice on the system matches your brand. It’s disconcerting to a call a bank or brokerage firm and hear what appears to be a five-year-old girl answering. Pick the person on your staff who most represents your brand – a successful broker or financial adviser, in this case – and have that person make the recording. Or outsource this task to a firm that specializes in this type of thing.

Your Social Media Program: Have a protocol for responding to questions to your company on social media. Promptly. Most large companies – particularly those that consciously use social media for customer service (such as Comcast) – have this down pat, often using teams of people with real names and faces. For better or worse, these companies are setting the bar for all companies. Respond to queries promptly, and in the tone of your brand.

Remember that these forms of electronic media are proxies for your brand. They should reflect the personality of your brand, even though they are automation not actual people.

Or, you can continue to let your customers see dead people – and suffer the consequences.

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