Customer service in the digital age – what changes?

During an exchange on Twitter earlier this year with some folks who were attending #scrmsummit we chatted about customer service and about how costs are a real focus for most customer service activity. Thus, rather than focusing on excellent customer service, most organisations focus on the cheapest and most efficient form of customer service.

But it seems to me the starting point must always be understanding what value customer service delivers to your business.

For most businesses customer service – during the purchase decision making process, during purchase, and afterwards – is critical.

Then the question that a business must answer is: how important is customer service to driving sales, and how important is it to drive repeat business? But it is also necessary to understand what form that customer service ought to take to delight customers.

Based on my experiences as a customer in the ‘real’ world many organisations see me as a bother or an annoyance that gets in the way of something more important. It certainly makes switching to an online shopping context rather easy. Mostly there’s no special customer service person with whom I have a relationship. That lack of a relationship makes switching to another supplier very easy. Especially when the main differentiator is service.

However, a personal relationship is not necessarily fundamental to excellent customer service.

There are a few notable example of this.

Sharon, at the local general store, has built up a great relationship with us. We often choose to shop with her rather than at a larger store in town, even though her prices are slightly higher. Because of the relationship we have (and that relationship might just be in my head, I might actually be just another annoying customer, but she never lets me know that). I often choose to shop there rather than buy something online or at another store.

Net-a-Porter is a great example of how to do online customer service. I have never spoken to them, I just order products online. But if there is a problem with fit the return process is so smooth and easy – usually the replacement item is in my hands within 48 hours of sending the return. No questions asked. This makes me happy.

Another example is the guys who just painted my house (for those on the Sydney north shore KMK Painters = highly recommended). They did a fantastic job. Not because they painted the house (although they did that well). It was the little things like turning up when they said they would, cleaning up really well afterwards, patting my dog when she came sniffing around, and helping me to carry stuff from my car. Those little extras were not part of their core mission – painting the house – but these little extras made them stand out from the last lot of painters. It means they’re top of mind for any more jobs.

Three quite different models of customer service. Each good. Each satisfying in their own way. Each earning and retaining my repeat custom. It seems to me that customer in the digital age does not differ much from customer service in any preceding age.

Some thinkers who have interesting ideas about customer service in the digital age include:

If bad is stronger than good what can we do about it?

I’ve been reading an old article that remains extremely interesting – it is an academic paper dating back to 2001 titled Bad Is Stronger Than Good.

The authors note that:

“The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes.

… Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. “

This has profound importance for all of our interactions with family, co-workers, customers, and just about anyone we meet. According to the article a ratio of five goods to every bad is required to minimise the effects of the bad.

From a customer service perspective this means that for every negative impression it is five times harder to make a good impression. Applying some sort of cost/benefit analysis to that idea would likely show that bad impressions are expensive to correct.

The research indicated that “positive independent variables affected positive dependent variables, whereas negative independent variables affected negative dependent variables” or “more simply, good affects good, whereas bad affects both bad and good.”

The authors were even able to put a number on the impact:

“Good can overcome bad by force of numbers. To maximize the power of good, these numbers must be increased. This can be done by creating more goods. For example, in a romantic relationship each partner can make an effort to be nice to the other consistently. Such small acts of kindness are important for combating the bads that will typically occur. Indeed, if Gottman (1994) is correct, the ratio should be at least five goods for every bad.”

This is fascinating stuff and real food for thought. When I start to put it together with some of the other ideas that came up at Social Innovation BarCamp recently there are very good grounds to change thinking, behaviour and actions.

Article reference: Bad Is Stronger Than Good by Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs; Review of General Psychology 2001. Vol. 5. No. 4. 323-370, download PDF here

Trust, customer service and customers you do not want any more

I’ve been thinking about my recent American Express experience – outlined in AMEX discovers new depths to customer service.

It is clear to me that companies have the right to choose which customers they deal with. But it seems that how they remove those customers from the books is the critical thing for brand and customer experience.

I’m not sure if American Express were really trying to get rid of me as a customer. But if that was the case, it is entirely within their rights.

However, it is not so much the “what” they did that rankles; instead it is “how” they did it.

In this case Amex abandoned a customer in a foreign town with none of the promised financial resources for which they had contracted. American Express provided little advance notice in case their customer was not at home. Thus, in this case, American Express left a woman who was traveling alone unable to rely on the card that exhorted us to “don’t leave home without it“.

So people like me – who believed in things like the claims made in all those American Express advertisements; the many years of services provided and payments made; who trusted in the credit limits offered – were left abandoned without notice in a foreign place without help or support from a brand that had made promises to us.

What does this experience of American Express customer service say to me? It says that I can’t trust any companies anymore. No matter how good their advertisements sound it does not matter. If a brand that I once respected, like American Express, can abandon me like that then I can’t trust any brands.

Any brand that does not want me as a customer has an absolute right to let me know that – I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.

But I do expect that companies will treat me in a civil manner. That they will give appropriate notice of their intentions. And that they will enable me to make an orderly exit from their embrace.

I am angry and saddened that my trust has been damaged so badly by the way that American Express treated me. It is not what they did to me (in terms of change the terms of our agreement, e.g. reducing credit limits) that is the problem. But I do have significant concerns about how they went about it (e.g. giving me no advance notice of the changes & leaving me in a foreign city unable to rely upon their promises).

What is most disturbing is the way that my trust has been destroyed, not only in the institution of American Express, but in all other similar institutions.


American Express discovers new depths to customer service

I’ve been an American Express customer for a long time.  But recently they made it apparent that they do not want my custom so I’m in the process of closing my accounts. Unless their customer service tactics are treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen something very strange is happening at that company IMHO.

It went thus …

I’ve had and used both a gold charge card and a gold credit card for many years – which I got especially because Amex is supposed to be a good card to have while traveling. Both cards are paid up and in good order, with automatic payments set up so I don’t forget to pay on time.

Last week while traveling interstate I went to pay for a taxi using the gold credit card and it was declined. I did not think much of it and just used my ANZ Visa card to pay instead. Then later I tried to use the Amex card and it declined again. Mildly cross I put the card away. It seemed weird because based on my credit limit with Amex I had over $10,000 left of my credit limit available at that point in time.

However, unbeknown to me Amex had decided reduce my credit limit by over 50% and I now had no credit limit left on that card. IT IS A VERY GOOD THING THAT I WAS NOT TRAPPED, A WOMAN ALONE IN A STRANGE CITY, WITH ONLY THAT PARTICULAR AMERICAN EXPRESS CARD ISN’T IT?

Thank heavens for my ANZ Visa card – again an account in good standing – and one that was not ripped from under me in a very hostile way.

I arrived home several days later to find a letter from Amex advising me of the change in the credit limit. Sadly that letter at my home which reduced the credit limit without notice served no good purpose for someone who was 2,000 kilometres away at the time.

The letter also advised that my card could no longer withdraw cash from ATMs; further it stated:

As your current balance is close to the revised limit stated above, please ensure you make a payment prior to using your card next….

Yours faithfully,
Adrian Janssen
Head of Credit Services
American Express Credit Card

Oh thanks Mr Adrian Janssen (who signed the letter) that really helped when your letter arrived while I was traveling. Perhaps a short notice period might have been a bit of good customer service to cover such a case?

Of course, upon arrival at home late Friday I tried to phone Amex to discuss this matter. To no avail as the credit department do not work outside of ‘business’ hours.

Up until now my relationship with Amex was settled. Even though their cards are not widely accepted in many places that I shop and merchants often add an extra several percent onto transactions to cover the higher Amex merchant acceptance fees, I still kept their cards. But no longer.

The matter is easily resolved. I simply took out my cheque book, wrote a cheque and walked to the post box and dropped my payment in the post.

I’ll be calling at a more convenient time for Amex – during the ‘business’ hours they work – to close both my accounts. My life is busy enough without rubbish like this. Voting with my feet will make me feel a whole lot better.

Here is a sample of the Twitter conversations regarding this matter.

Source:the nice folks over at Sency

Full fees mean universities owe good customer service

In recent times I had parallel customer service experiences with two different universities: Queensland University of Technology and Charles Sturt University.

It was very strange to hang up from one phone call only to have a diametrically different conversation on the next call with the other university.

Also, it seemed bizarre to be having a completely different customer service experience to the excellent one with QUT pretty much simultaneously.  My experience with Charles Sturt University was a horse of a different colour.Women_graduates_University_of_Toronto_circa_1915.jpg

Many courses in Australian universities now require students to pay full fees, in particular for post-graduate courses.  It was in one of these that I enrolled at CSU with high hopes.

But my hopes were not realised.  Everything seemed a little hard to work out and the website provided little help. These were small dissatisfiers, of the kind that can easily be dismissed until something tips the scales.

The something that tipped the scales was the online forum.  I noticed that it displayed my official full name (the one that only a cranky parent or the Australian Tax Office call me).  Usually at other universities this is something easily fixed – a quick change to display my preferred name and all would be well.

Well that’s how it was at other universities I’ve attended (University of Sydney, MGSM, Macquarie University, Queensland University of Technology) – each easily accommodated use of an official name for use on testamurs and a preferred name for everyday use.

But, after several unhelpful phone interchanges with different people, a person in the student centre at CSU simply told me (in a very rude manner) to either put up with it or change my name by deed poll.  It was at that moment that I replied that there was a third option – one could choose to withdraw from that particular institution.  And it was this last option that I selected.

Once you start charging commercial rates for educational services a commercial relationship is created.  The fundamental principles of customer service must become part of the equation.  Of course, this is not to say that academic principles should not also be upheld.  But in matters of administration the customer has rights where a commercial fee is charged.

Here I’ve voted with my feet, not willing to give my hard earned cash to a place that did not treat me with the consideration due to a paying customer. Not a very good brand experience, and thus not a good word of mouth advertisement.

So here’s my recommendations:

These are places where I’m happy to spend my hard earned cash on acquiring an education.