eBay: biassed, incompetent, indifferent or all three?

Fairness and a transparent, responsive, timely process for getting justice matter to us

There are a number of situations, events, processes that are guaranteed to generate contempt, anger, rage.  One such situation is when we perceive that we have been punished when we should not have been.  Yet, this anger arising out of our strong sense of justice, is likely to melt away if there is access to an easy to use, impartial, transparent process for dealing with complaints.  Yesterday, the UK consumer affairs tv program singled out the DVLA and  Microsoft (Xbox 360) for their tyrant like behaviour towards their customers.  Fo example Microsoft disconnected customers in mid August. Why?  Microsoft asserted that the customers had violated the terms of usage. When customers complained (including mums and their young children) what did Microsoft Customer Service say?  Something like “We are right, you are wrong. And we never make mistakes.  If you want to carry on playing XBox 360 you have to get a new console!” Does this remind you of the behaviour that Dave Carroll was subjected to by United? Then when Watchdog got involved Microsoft recanted: we made a mistake due to a software fault!  Today, I want to look at eBay and share a more personal story withyou.

eBay: biassed, incompetent, indifferent? – I’d say all three!

Imagine that you trade on eBay, it is the early part of September and you list an item (headphones) for sale.  You describe the details of the item and you set out the price.  Because you do not want to create any problems for anyone including youself  you go further on your listing: you clearly state in a large font size that the headphones will be shipped out by 24th September 2011.  Before you know it people start buying these headphones.  You are on holiday and when you can access the internet you (the seller) remind the buyers that the headphones will not be shipped out until 24th September as you are on holiday. As it happens you get back a little earlier and start posting out the headphones on the 21st September and complete the task by 23rd September – you have to pack and post some 50 packages.  And you have a proof of postage from the local post office to show exactly when and to whom you have posted the headphones.  At this point you might be feel happy as you are shipping the goods out to your customers earlier than you had promised.

Well the story did not have that happy ending because the seller did not take into account the whims of some his customers and the bias of eBay towards buyers.  Around the 21st September some of the buyers started filing complaints against the seller stating that they had not received the headphones.  You, the seller, get on the email and remind the buyers that the listing clearly stated that the headphones would not be shipped out until 24th September.  And that you have now posted the headphones – they are on the way to the buyer.  At this point you might think that everything will work out fine – you are wrong.

Whislt some of your buyers get that that you have kept your word, other buyers are not happy.  And you find yoursef unable to resolve the issue with these buyers.  How can you?  You have shipped out the headphones and you have proof of postage.  The case escalates to eBay and eBay sends you an email to let you know that they have judged in favour of the buyer.  So you appeal.  You ask eBay to look at the listing (and they will see that it clearly states the goods will not be shipped until the 24th Sept) and you spell out that you sent the goods before the 24th.  And you offer to send a copy of the proof of postage.  You might think that eBay would ask for the proof of postage, look at the eBay listing and then rule in your favour.  You would be wrong, instead you get this:

If you take a look at this notice you will find that no rationale is give for why eBay has ruled in favour of the buyer.  There is absolutely no response to your assertion that the listing clearly stated that the headphones would be shipped by the 24th Sept, the buyer bought knowing that, you shipped as promised on the listing and you are happy to send the proof of postage to eBay.  And there is no contact number – there is nobody that you can speak to.

I’d love to share the listing with you so that you can see it for yourself.  Unfortunately, eBay has suspended the sellers account and so no-one can see the listing:

One final piece of the story: you the eBay seller have contacted both eBay and PayPal to understand what is going on, to put your case forward, to provide the documentation.  What is your experience?  The eBay folks tell you that you have to contact PayPal and get this sorted out.  The PayPal folks tell you that you have to contact eBay folks and get this sorted out!  No-one at eBay or PayPal wants to stand up and work with you to sort this out.  And they cannot or will not tell you what rules you have broken!  Just that you must have broken some rules.  Does this remind you of Microsoft’s treatment of its XBox360 customers?

What can we learn?

You cannot count on your customers to read what you have written even if ask them to read it and/or display in large size fonts right there on the screen.  This is one of the issues that plagues the insurance industry, for example, people buy insurance without reading the policies to find out what is and is not covered under what circumstances.

Many customers do live up to their side of the bargain including acknowledging their mistakes (if these are pointed out gently) and apologising.

A small number of customers cannot be reasoned with as they are convinced that they are always right and if something is not working out as they’d like then it has to be your fault.

In the West we live in a world of instant gratification if you are selling online then it is best to assume that the customer is expecting delivery within the next day or so.

If you are a seller then you cannot count on eBay to treat you fairly because eBay can get away with treating you unfairly.  Buyers are more important by the simple fact that if you are not selling then someone else will happily take your place.

Power leads us to dehumanise others.  Which is why the bigger and more powerful the organisation (eBay, DVLA, Microsoft) the more likely it is to treat customers, employees, suppliers etc badly.  I wrote a post on that about a year ago.

A final word

The eBay seller is related to me which is why I know this story so intimately.

If you from eBay or PayPal: I issue you a challenge lets make the facts of the case (publish the listing, the emails, the proof of postge) clear to the world.  And let the world at large judge who is in the right and who is in the wrong.  If you are convinced of your justness then you should have no issue in taking up my challenge.

Why do only a handful of companies excel at cultivating customer loyalty?

The story state of Customer Experience

Dave Brocks latest post (selling disguised as relationship management) and Beyond Philosophy’s Global Customer Experience Management Survey (2011) which made the point that a lot of stuff that is not Customer Experience is being badged as Customer experience got me thinking about this sorry state: lots of talk, lots of people with the right titles, lots of spend on technology and yet the same old organisational behaviour.   Which begs the question: why it is that only a few companies truly excel at Customer Experience and customer-centricity?  Now I can list all the usual candidates: spaghetti like systems, silos, channel proliferation, organisational design, conflicting agendas & metrics and so forth.  That is exactly what I am not going to do because I believe that these are red herrings that are used to paper over what is so.  So let’s take a skeptical look at business and see if this sheds any light.

The smuggler, the border guard and the wheelbarrow

Every day a man turns up at the border with a wheelbarrow and some stuff in it.  Every day the border guard examines the stuff in the wheelbarrow convinced that the man is smuggling something.  Some days the stuff is clothes, other days footwear, sometime watches, sometime blankets yet none of the stuff in the wheelbarrow is contraband and so the border guard reluctantly allows the man across the border.  This goes on and on until the border guard retires.  Shortly after that the border guard and the man meet accidentally and the border guard asks him to say what he was smuggling.  The man replies “Wheelbarrows!”

Let’s stop for a moment and look at the whole customer stuff: customer satisfaction, customer focus, customer loyalty, customer relationship management, customer experience and customer-centricity. And ask the question: what is right in front of us that we are missing?  What is our ‘wheelbarrow’?

The name of the game is neither Customer Experience nor customer-centricity

Is it easy to do well in a truly competitive industry?  No, it is hard work.  What is the ideal scenario for every company in a competitive space?  To become the monopoly supplier.  Why is this appealing?  Because, you can dictate terms to the customers and they have to play ball.  When you are in that position you do not have to bother with all this nonsense about customer focus: customers are difficult, being customer focussed is hard work and besides it stops you from making monopolistic rents.  If you cannot have a pure monopoly then you can get something like it – and oligopoly.  This is where a small bunch of companies control the market: they sell similar products, at similar prices, in similar ways and have the same business models.  In effect, they ‘agree’ to carve up the market and the profits.  Often these industries have high barriers to entry and so there is no real competition: think banks, utilities, telecoms…….The last thing that any CEO, Board of Directors or shareholders want is a truly competitive market.  Why? Because you have to fight for customers and their wallet.  Which brings us to an important point.

What has changed is that the traditional means of attaining this outcome no longer work as well as they used to.   Originally there was control over valuable natural resources and distribution channels. Later, control of intellectual property and shaping the mind of the consumer through advertising, branding and PR. Since the rise of the internet the traditional means (resources, distribution, IP, advertising..) have not been working that well.  Just think of the disruptive power of the internet: you no longer need stores and all the capital that goes with that; your market is the whole world and you do not even have to setup a website – you can pitch your tent at ebay and sell to the whole world; and customers are awash with useful information that makes them better informed, smarter decision makers and more discriminating buyers.  This is why we have heard and read so much talk about targeted marketing, relationship marketing, permission marketing, personalisation, customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.

Does that mean that there has been a wholesale transformation of the heart (love of the customer) or of the head (change in worldview)?  I am think that there has been no such change.  The game is still the same: to orchestrate the levers of power to become monopolistic suppliers and thus extract monopolistic rents.   And if that is not possible then many businesses do the utmost to get the better of customers (too many option, complicated pricing, misleading advertising, dumbing down customer service etc) to maximise short term profits.  If it is the ‘age of the customer’ (IBM says it is) then we are talking about many businesses being dragged kicking and screaming into the ‘age of the customer’.  Many if not almost all would prefer the good old times when customers had no voice, no power and simply put up with what they were given.  Take a good look at the laggards (you know who they are) and you will notice that they still hold monopoly type positions, accrue monopolistic rents and continue to pay lip service to customer service and ‘the customer is king’.

If you see this then you can see the ‘wheelbarrow’ that is right in front of us and which we may have been missing: the vast majority of businesses want and strive to become monopolistic suppliers so that they can monopolistic rents without the hard work of being customer-centred.   If you accept this then you can understand that whilst the titles of changed from “Sales” to “Relationship Manager” the hidden objective is the same: sell more, increase “share of wallet”.   You can also understand why business process management, lean, cost-cutting via self-service technology, customer service, marketing etc  have all been rebadged as Customer Experience – changing labels is the easy part and Drayton Bird has an excellent/witty post on this.   Put differently, all the talk of customer focus, customer service, CRM, Social CRM, customer experience and customer-centricity is simply the bric-a-brac in the ‘wheelbarrow’ that prevents us from seeing the ‘wheelbarrow’ for what it is.   Any real form of customer-centricity (as opposed to the talk) is being brought on by new entrants to the battleground.  And by the power wielded by customers who now have the technologies and platforms to be better informed, make smarter decisions and make their voices heard

To excel at customer-centricity, Customer Experience and customer loyalty you have travel along the road less travelled

Which bring me back to my original question: why do only a handful of companies excel at cultivating customer loyalty?  Because by design or by accident the people who started these companies  operate from a customer centred paradigm and have built customer-centred business models, cultures and organisations.  And the leaders of these companies were willing to play the long term game.  How long did it take for Amazon to become profitable?  What about Zappos?   Is USAA simply a vehicle for churning out profits for shareholders or an organisation with a mission to service members of the armed forces?  Starbucks is a great example of a company that made it fortune by understanding customers human needs and delivering them (“the third place”)  and then got itself into trouble by forgetting this mission (and associated values, operating practices) and chasing growth and profitability targets set by the analysts.  Starbucks had to go back to the basics to connect with their customers and win them bac

Perhaps this handful of companies (Amazon, Starbucks, USAA, Zane Cycles, Zappos..) will provide the inspiration for authentic customer-centricity:  O2 (UK mobile telecoms operator who does not think of itself as that) is a company that has embraced customer-centricity with a fervour that is necessary to be an experience services brand and organisation.  In the process it has become the leader in the UK telecoms industry: brand, revenues, subscribers, profits. The recent Ofcom results show that “The least complained about mobile provider….was O2, with 0.02 complaints for every 1000 customers compared to 0.14 in the case of 3UK.”  This is remarkable when you consider that O2 was spun off from a former state monopoly BT in 2001.  And birth O2 was viewed as a second rate player in the telecoms market and some doubted its future prospects.  Maybe more executives will follow the lead of O2 and genuinely orient their companies around customer, customer experience and customer-centricity.

A final word

To excel at Customer Experience and customer-centricity you have to have an affinity for people as human beings.  I will go further and say that you have to connect with and care about your customers as human beings first and wallets second.  Going even further I’d say you have to love your customers and show them that you love them.  In my view this is and has always been the great (hidden) strength of Steve Jobs and Apple:  a deep affinity for the misfits, the rebels, the people out to create a more beautiful world.  If you can see merit in what I am saying then I recommend that you read the following insightful post by Pete Abilla: How to be human

What do you think?

How to excel at Customer Experience and customer-centricity: 3 tips

Shift your perspective, embrace being wrong and practice radical empathy

Businesses can cut costs, keep more customers and win new customers (through word of mouth/mouse) if they focus on the customer experience.  That means designing customer experiences that fit customer needs and expectations and which make their lives easier and richer (not just in the money sense).  To do that all the people in the organisation (Tops, Middles, Bottoms) have to shift their perspective, embrace bring wrong and practice radical empathy.  What am I talking about?  All is explained/demonstrated beautifully in the following three TED talks: the first is about shifting your perspective; the second on embracing being wrong; and third on radical empathy.  I hope you enjoy and learn from them.

RavKK:  Shake up your story

Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong

Sam Richards: A radical experiment in empathy

You may be wondering why these practices are necessary and if I am correct in asserting that customer experience design can cut operating costs and protect revenues by keeping customers coming back.  Allow me to share two recent experience with you and give life to what I am saying.

Software4Students.co.uk – they made me work and created work for themselves

On the 10th of Sept I finally gave in and decided to update the software on my children’s computers so that it was the same as what they are using in school.  I placed the order with SoftwareForStudents.co.uk and was happy to do so because the price is reasonable and they promise to despatch it within 24 hours.  I received a package this Wednesday and on opening it I found only Office 2010 discs. That was a both a concern and a disappointment because I had placed an order for Windows 7 and Office 2010: one order, two items.

I emailed the company straight away – pointing out that the issue.  Immediately I got an automated email that told me that the issue would be looked into.  Four days later I received the following email:

“Hi,

Thank you for contacting Software4Students!   Please note the products you have ordered have been dispatched separately.

The status dispatched applies to orders that have been validated and approved as per software manufacturers requirements. Orders are dispatched the following working day. Most customers receive their orders within 3 to 5 working days. However, due to varying factors out of our control, there may be occasions when deliveries are delayed. We are confident that delivery will be made shortly and appreciate your patience.

Should your software not arrive after 21 days from the order date please notify us by email.

If you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards,

Customer Support Team “

Lets just take a look at what has happened here and the consequences:

  • I place one order for two items and they despatch them separately – the company has doubled its postage costs.
  • Because I was not informed that they were sent separately I became worried.  And  hunted around for the contact number (on their website) and then emailed the support team.  There is just work and concern that I can do without – it is simply a ‘cost’ that the company has put on to me.
  • Software4Students.co.uk incurred costs in dealing with failure demand (demand the company brings upon itself by failing to do right by the customer) because someone in the Customer Support Team had to read my email and then write a response back.

Now look at the email response itself because it is a window into the mind/culture of the company:

  • They have my name and they do not use it to address me even though research shows that your names are dear to us.
  • The email provides only one piece of useful information – that the products have been despatched separately;
  • There are absolutely no commitments on when I will get my order – just vague words around what might happen – and what I can count on them for;
  • It ends with the line that says if your order does not arrive after 21 days then contact us by email.

It is all about the company – about Software4Students.  They simply do not care about me – the customer – and my situation, my needs, my perspective.  Will I continue buying from them?  That depends on what alternatives are open to me and the cost of those alternatives.

Memorybits.co.uk – they make me put in extra work and increase their costs

I placed an order for 4 memory cards (for cameras) and 4 USB flash drives handed over my credit card details including putting in my pin (‘Verified by Visa’) and received a confirmation of my order on Sunday 11th Sept.  So all they had to do was to deliver the goods right?  I thought the same.  The next day I received the following email:

“Dear Customer

We have received your order, unfortunately due to our security procedures we require confirmation of your details before we can dispatch your order.

Please email our verification help desk on sales@memorybits.co.uk to verify your details.

Department opening hours are 09.00 to 17.30 Monday to Friday

Kind Regards

The MemoryBits Customer Service Team”

This email did not create value for me so I sent the following email: “I have received an email from you stating that you need me to confirm my details for security reasons.  Here is the order I placed – please fulfil it or cancel it and refund my money.  Thank you.”  Almost immediately I got an email response back: “Thank you for your email we can confirm that you order is being processed”.  Which left me wondering: “Why did they write the email in the first email?  If there was a genuine security issue then how was it cleared by me writing and telling the company to fulfil the order or refund my money?” Why did they waste my time?  And why did they create work for themselves.

And the next day (Wednesday) I got two emails (received at the same time) confirming that my order had been despatched and was on its way to me via first class post.  The following day, I got the same two emails again which left me wondering what is happening here?  It did not inspire confidence in MemoryBits.

When the order arrived I was expecting to issues a flash drive to each of my children for their schoolwork.  Yet, the tiny package contained only one USB flash drive.  Which left me wondering: “Where is the rest of my order?  And why did they just send me this one flash drive?  Have they made a mistake / misread my order?”  As I had been through the Software4Students experience I decided to check my email confirmation and this is what I found: “Please note that for our own processing reasons, your order may be split into more than one package. If this happens you will not have to pay any additional shipping charges, and you will receive a dispatch email for each package.”

What can we learn here:

  • MemoryBits has a process in place that can and does result in multiple deliveries for a single order – thus increasing picking and postage costs.
  • I suspect it then invites emails and telephone calls from customers wanting to know where the rest of the order is.
  • It fails customer expectations because when we order multiple items – especially small ones – on one order many of us expect to get them in one delivery.
  • Furthermore, multiple deliveries set up multiple failures – what if no-one had been at home?  Then I would have had to make multiple trips to the local post office depot to collect my stuff.
  • You can lose customers by creating work / hassle for your customers – I will not be buying from MemoryBits again.

And finally

One practice I have failed to mention is that of Gratitude – not taking people (and circumstances) for granted.  Let me practice gratitude right now.  I thank you for reading what I write.  I thank you for writing to me and encouraging me to continue writing.  I thank you for educating me.  And I thank you for letting me into your world by commenting on what I write and thus entering into a conversation with me.  I wish you well and look forward to our next conversation.

Brand values and the customer experience – a perfect match?

There is value in marketing, advertising and brand values

Unlike many, I totally get the value of great marketing and advertising: it activates the Elephant (emotions) bypasses/speaks to the Rider (reason) and shapes behaviour.

I can see the value of brand values.  They can be used to guide and, where necessary, constrain the actions of the people developing products and conducting marketing activities.  They also help to give put clothes on ordinary products and services and thus give them personality and appeal.  I can also see the value of going further and having all the front line people live those values so that they are not simply marketing slogans.

Yet most organisations struggle to live the brand values

Anyone who has an interest in organisational behaviour will understand the distinction between espoused values and lived values.  If you look into the mirror you will probably see that our company and most companies struggle to live their brand values in their day to day behaviour.  It does not help if the brand values have been cooked up in the marketing dept.  My experience is that many in the organisation listen to marketers in a certain way; I have heard the marketing folks described as “the department of coloured pencils” or “the spend spend spend folks” or “the folks that lie for a living” or the “party people” and so forth.   So is it a surprise that few people in the organisation actually live brand values cooked up the marketing folks?

So the first challenge is coming up with values that speak to the hearts and minds of the people that work in your organisation.  The second challenge is translating those brand values into specific behaviours that everyone in the organisation is expected to embody.  The third challenge?  Getting the Tops to model these behaviours on a daily basis so that the Middles model these behaviours and onwards to the Bottoms.  Fourth, to implement the values within the organisation whilst honouring those values!  If one of your values is “innovation” then living your values means coming up with an innovative way of infecting hearts and minds with that value.  If one of your values is collaboration then taking a ‘command and control’ approach and telling people they have to collaborate is probably not the right way to foster collaboration.

If you want to use brand values in designing the customer experience then you have to translate them

I, the customer don’t care about your brand values – honestly I don’t.  I do care about what others  (the journalists, influential bodies, my social circle) say about you.  I care about how you treat me, my family, my friends, my social network.  And I have a strong interest on what to expect from you?  Put differently, what can I count on from you?

So if you accept the line that goes something like “design the customer experience” around your brand values then you have some work to do.  You have to take values (that are general) and translate them into specifics – what can your customer expect and count on from you when she is interacting with you and using your products and services?   And you have a potential problem – your brand values may not reflect the totality of customer needs.  Lets make this real by briefly looking at Virgin’s brand values: Fun, Value for Money, Quality, Innovation, Competitive Challenge, Brilliant Customer Service.

  • As a Virgin customer what can I expect from your online presence?  What does fun, value for money, quality, innovation, competitive challenge and brilliant customer service mean to me?
  • Brilliant customer service – does that mean I can quickly, easily contact you at any time, any day, through any channel and get an instant, insightful, relevant and quick response?  Does that mean that you assure me of 100% satisfaction?
  • How about your ‘product’ – what can I count on here?  By the way, I like products that are simple to understand and easy to use.  Oops it looks like your brand values don’t cater for all my needs and expectations – there is no mention of simplicity in your stated brand values.  What are you going to do about that?  Are you going to change your brand values or simply factor in my need/expectation and design the customer experience to take that into account?

I hope you get the point that I am making:  a lot of work has to go into designing the customer experience and you cannot automatically assume that you can use your brand values as a shortcut.  Brand values have to be translated into specifics: specific customers, specific customer scenarios, specific customer touchpoints…….

How about converting brand values into specific promises to customers?

Too much of business is littered with buzzwords and abstract concepts and this is a problem as the devil is in the detail.  One way I have found of translating brand values into customer terms is to start with promises. Lets imagine that you are creating a customer charter.  What will you put in this customer charter?  What are the truths that should be self-evident to you, your organisation and your customers?  What are the promises that you are making to your customers?  And what specifically do you expect from your customers?   This is hard work primarily because buzzwords and brand values lose their appeal when they have to be translated into publicly visible commitments to customers.  Yet there are organisations that go beyond the fear and make meaningful promises to customers.

Take John Lewis as an example.  John Lewis has made a commitment to customers – the John Lewis Price Pledge – and recently that has hurt profits.  This is what the chief executive says “Absolutely it’s costing us money, but it is really important we stick to it.”  Is it any surprise that John Lewis regularly comes towards the top for customer satisfaction and loyalty?

The missing piece of the customer experience puzzle

What is the missing piece of the Customer Experience puzzle?

Is it customer service?  Hardly, it seems that it is rather old-fashioned to say customer service when the speaker is talking about customer service.  No, the in-term is customer experience.  Is it marketing?  No, whilst it has taken a back seat many authors do recognise the importance of marketing communications (brand, advertising, direct marketing….) on the customer experience.  Is it the website? No, many of us get the need to design websites so that they are attractive, usable and useful and thus contribute to the Customer Experience. So what is the missing piece of the Customer Experience puzzle?

The ‘product’ is the missing piece

Just imagine that you head to the hairdresser and everything is perfect: the name, the location, the ‘store’, the welcome that you receive, the pricing, the staff that serve you….Yet your hair does not turn out the way that you expected?  What impact does that have on your entire Customer Experience?  Turns it negative right?  In this case the ‘product’ has failed to meet your expectations and that one failure has turned what had been a positive experience into a negative.

The product is the missing piece.  Nintendo turned around its fortunes and claimed the number 1 slot when it launched the Nintendo Wii.  Dyson did the same thing for vacuum cleaners.  And of course Apple with the ipod, the iphone and now the ipad.   The product is the reason that the buyer searches you out and becomes a customer.  If you have the right product then the customer will put up with all kinds of interaction hassles to buy that product of you – and come back to buy accessories.

Why do I say that the product is the missing piece of the Customer Experience puzzle?  Because it simply is not mentioned in Customer Experience speeches, articles and conversations.  The assumption seems to be that Customer Experience = Interaction Assessment and Design.  The need to pay attention to the product was brought home to me this week because two products failed to meet my expectations in a big way.  Allow me to share those with you.

A headset that is uncomfortable on the head

I needed a headset and was in a hurry to buy one so I did not do any research.  Instead I popped into a store and picked the first one that looked like it would do the job at a reasonable price.  The headset was well presented.  And I was delighted that some thought had gone into the packaging – making it easy for me to open up the packaging without having to get a chainsaw to cut through the plastic packaging that is all too common for some electronic products.

The surprise came when I put on the headset – it simply is not comfortable and does not fit around my head.  After about ten minutes of using it I took the headset off because it pinched by head – I could feel it pressing into my skull.  I would call that a major design flaw: a headset that cannot be worn because it is uncomfortable. Being scientifically trained I decided to see what other users had to say about the product.  I found it on Amazon and sure enough there were people complaining about the fit/comfort about the headphone.  Will I buy any other product from Creative?  Unlikely.

Twinings Earl Grey tea – new coke / classic coke?

I am a tea drinker and the tea that I drink the most is Earl Grey and as my wife is the one that does the shopping she buys Twinings Earl Grey tea.  I have got used to it and I like it.  Except that now I don’t like it at all.  Let me explain.

Twinings have changed the Earl Grey formula – to my palate it simply does not taste the same.  So I did some research and found that I am not the only one: “Twinings changes its Earl Grey tea formula and customers revolt”.  Digging into it deeper it appears that Twinings have changed the formula for the UK but will stick with the “classic” formula for all export markets.  And due to the customer reaction Twinings will allow customers to buy directly from them via their website.  Here is the Twinings statement and customer comments on that statement – worth reading the customer comments to see how much the product matters.  Personally, I have asked my wife not to buy Twinings Earl Grey anymore – I will give other brands a go.

Conclusion

The product is the centre-piece of the customer experience in the sense that if you get this wrong then it does not matter what else you get right.  You can add all the customer experience wrapping that you want but if the product is weak then you are fighting a losing battle because the flaws in the product noticed and shared with the world – like I am doing right now. I will never buy a Creative product again: if they can’t make a simple headset what can they make?

If you have a winning product with a loyal customer base then think twice before changing that product.   In the customer age ‘products’ belong as much to customers as they do to the companies that make them.  Changing these products without involving the customer base (co-creation, new product development) is asking for trouble.  Customers like to be in control and they do not like to have things taken away from them.  I wonder how many letters, emails and calls Twinings is receiving from customers?

Make sure that you think deeply about the ‘product’ and your customer’s experience around the product.  There is no surer way to build an empire than to create a ‘must-have’ product and then promote this through the right marketing and advertising.

Bad customer experience: power to the people?

This is a guest post from Karl Indigne – a marketing professional that specialises in services marketing.

We have a choice, we can do something to effect change

Thanks to social media, you and I, can have an impact on bad customer service.  I agree, it can take a while, before things actually change in a structural way. But we have a choice, we don’t have to stay indifferent, we can do something to effect change.  We all know, it is not always the people that “help” us that are the problem. It is more like the procedures of the company and lack of good alternatives. But sometimes, somebody stands up and than it is not just a company that responds, but a society. Youp van’t Hek is a well known Dutch comedian and he almost, accidentally,  initiated a crusade against bad customer service.  The story starts in Holland in October 2010.

T-Mobile angers the wrong person

van’t Hek Junior (“vKJunior”) the son of Youp, has his mobile phone stolen. So he goes out and buys a new phone signing up to a new long term contract with T-Mobile. This new phone breaks and he sends it to be repaired; he was paying an additional monthly insurance to cover these kind of events.  vKJunior does not get his phone back.  So after a few weeks vKJunior rings the T-Mobile call centre to find out when he is likely to get his phone back.  After a long wait (several hours) he learns that T-Mobile couldn’t repair it and they will not replace it nor pay for vKJunior to buy a replacement.   Why?  Because the mobile phone they have on the system is vKJ’s old phone – the one that had been stolen.  He goes to the store (where he bought the phone) and asks for help – they say they cannot help.  He rings the call centre (again)….  At some point the call centre agent tells him to write into the company and make a complaint if he is not happy with the situation.   All of this takes place over a period of several months and is rather messy – I have given you the simple version.

Eventually, the son calls his dad (Youp) and asks for his help.  Youp, who is preparing for a show in Flanders, calls T-Mobile in an angry mood and asks to speak to the manager in charge of the call centre. They call centre agent refuses – the company policy states that they can’t put through angry customers . In a rage, Youp tweets: “The terror of T-Mobile is funny. For every mistake they apologize and they refer you to the customer service. Wait time 4 hours…” Minutes after his tweet he gets a call by a guy from T-Mobile, with a melodious voice, who wants to settle the matter. This manager tells Youp that vKJ (the son) can get a replacement phone, immediately, from the store. The son flies to the store, gets his replacement and thanks his dad.

The T-Mobile voice calls Youp back to ask if everything is ok now. Youp is furious. “Why can’t you treat all of your customers like this? Why is it that I, who happens to be famous, can settle such a matter so quickly”. He keeps on tweeting, gains 5.000 new followers and hits the news – national television and newspapers cover the story. People start complaining about all kinds of bad customer service especially in the areas of telecoms and energy in the Netherlands. And this spreads to Belgium – the country which shares a border, language and culture with The Netherlands.

“Hello, is it me you are looking for?”

In Belgium, Radio 1 (a national Flemish Radio Station), starts a program inviting people to talk about their bad experiences with call centres. Now, two nations are talking about the subject. Why are customers treated that way? Are call centre employees trained to embarrass customers? Why does the sales story seems like a fairytale and the customer service so awful? Shouldn’t advertising have some truth in it?

Some Belgian comedians play a practical joke. They have a large lorry size container dropped in front of the Mobistar (a Belgian Mobile Operator) car park in the early hours of the morning.  Result: the employees arriving for work cannot get into the car park.   On the outside of the container is a contact number -put there deliberately by the comedians. The security officer of Mobistar calls that number to get the container removed.  Call after call the comedians take the calls, invent excuses, stall, give the security guard the run around, hang up on him and so forth.  In total they stall him for 3 hours and 20 minutes.  Every time the security guard rings they put him on hold and play Lionel Ritchie’s”Hello, is it me you’re looking for”.  You can watch the joke being played here (English subtitles!) – it is funny!  By the way, the guard was congratulated because he stayed calm and polite despite the run around he was given call after call.

Eventually, the Belgian Federal Minister urges companies to do something about the matter. He finds it unacceptable that too much time is lost before getting to speak to a real person. In June 2011 the companies with the largest contact centres in Belgium signed up to a charter: to limit the waiting time to 2,5 minutes and to use a minimum service level. It is not a law, it is an intention.

 Conclusions

Consumers have more power than ever before, a complaint can go viral now, but the transition from bad service to good customer service does not happen overnight.

As a marketer it strikes me that it is very hard to break through silos within a company and put the customer experience first.  In the case of Telecom operators, most customers only have a choice between bad and worse. Consumers have long term contracts, companies are organized in a specific way.

Is improving the service at the contact centre level enough? In my opinion, the issue of good service is too focussed on the management of contact centres.  For example, why can’t the mobile operators select the right, best, call plan for me?  The giffgaff example on this blog, shows the advantage of a more holistic approach.  My point is this: the customer experience goes far beyond the contact centre only – it is the whole chain of the service across all touchpoints on the customer journey.

The core of the problem is that call centres are too often considered as a cost. The whole telecom industry is managed by the same mantra. This means that contact centres have to work efficient and should process a number of calls within a specific timeframe, I’m afraid we have to wait for new entrants to the market… or keep shouting it out on social media.

Final words

In his book Delivering Happiness, Tony Shieh, CEO of legendary Zappos, explains that for them logistics management and the call centre are considered as the core competences of the business. The call centre doesn’t use any script. They are trained to make people happy on the phone by helping them, even if that means they have to refer a customer to a competitor. And that message goes viral too.

Why large companies cannot cultivate customer intimacy and customer relationship theory is misguided

How easy is it to large corporations to cultivate customer intimacy?

You can argue intimacy leads to loyalty and you can also argue that loyalty leads to intimacy; I see the relationship between intimacy and loyalty as depicted by the diagram that shows the relationship between yin and yang.  So it is no surprise that many business executives have an interest in cultivating intimacy and loyalty – flowing from their customers to them and not the other way round.  And of course a lot has been written about these topics by the relationship marketing school and brought into the mainstream by the CRM folks.

Customer Intimacy Doesn’t Scale that is what Barry Dalton asserts in one of his latest posts.   And Guy Letts, in his comment, makes a good point: he doesn’t want to be intimate with large companies and is not sure that he could reciprocate the intimacy.  This got me thinking about how the language around human (social) life has been adopted by the relationship marketing school and then corrupted by the CRM school.  For example here is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject of intimacy:

“Intimacy generally refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together. It is a familiar and very close affective connection with another as a result of a bond that is formed through knowledge and experience of the other. Genuine intimacy in human relationships requires dialogue, transparency, vulnerability and reciprocity.”

And the same source (Wikipedia) sounds the warning bells of strategic (exchange) relationships masquerading as intimacy:

“It is worth distinguishing intimate (communal) relationships from strategic (exchange) relationships. Physical intimacy occurs in the latter but it is governed by a higher-order strategy, of which the other person may not be aware. One example is getting close to someone in order to get something from them or give them something. That “something” might not be offered so freely if it did not appear to be an intimate exchange and if the ultimate strategy had been visible at the outset.[13] Mills and Clark (1982) found that strategic (exchange) relationships are fragile and easily break down when there is any level of disagreement. Emotionally intimate (communal) relationships are much more robust and can survive considerable (and even ongoing) disagreements.”

And if you look up the definition of customer intimacy what do you get?  Here it is: “Customer intimacy is a concept from marketing, which describes the ability of a supplier to become accepted and known as the regular partner with its customer. Customer intimacy creates a virtuous circle: the better the supplier knows the customer company with its objectives and difficulties, the better able he is to provide an optimal solution. The more adapted the supplier’s product or service is, the happier the customer will be, and the stronger the “intimacy” between the two parties.” That sounds very much like a strategic (exchange) relationship.

All of this got me thinking about a post a wrote about a year ago when I started this blog – so you are unlikely to have read it.  I’d like to update it a little and share it with you to get your feedback.  Here it is:

“The critical flaw at the heart of modern customer relationship thinking

When I was working as a Senior Consultant with The Peppers & Rogers Group the customer paradigm was explained through the analogy of a small grocer (or florist) serving his/her local community.  The thrust of it was that the grocer got to know the customer – the person, his circumstances, his shopping history, his attitude, his values, his beliefs, his preferences – and used this knowledge to offer him the right products, at the right time, at the right price in the right way.  The end point – this is important – we have the technology to recreate that kind of business relationship with our customers.

What the analogy leaves out is the social context.  In days gone by the local grocer (or any other shopkeeper for that matter) was living in the same community as his customers.  He was likely to come across his customers in the social life of the local community.  Some of the customers used to be fellow students at school, others went to the same church, others frequented the same pub, others were friends of friends and so forth.

In short the grocer’s relationship with his customers was much a social one as an economic one; he experienced his customers as rounded multi-dimensional human beings not as one-dimensional economic objects nor as abstractions on a revenue statement. Because of the shared local context the customers also invested in the grocer – they knew the grocer in a rounded context and not just as an economic entity, a grocer.  A different way of saying this is to say: the social and economic relationship were in a yin-yang relationship (as illustrated in the diagram above).

Furthermore, the owner was also the CEO and the person having the daily contact with customers – listening, talking, interacting, serving customers. 

That situation today for Mr Multi-National Enterprise (Mr MNE) is completely the opposite.  There is no social relationship between Mr MNE and the customer – they typically live and move in very different social circles.  The customers do not have to support Mr MNE (like they did with the grocer – else no local grocer) and Mr MNE can find other than local customers – the world is full of potential customers.  And importantly, Mr MNE is completely divorced from the customers – he never has to see, talk with or serve a customer.

So whilst the technology exists to gather information, the all-powerful social context that is necessary for building enduring mutual win-win relationships is absent.  And that is the critical failing at the heart of modern customer relationship thinking.  It misses the fact that relationship are a natural by-product of a social context.  That social context  is missing from the modern corporate world and it cannot be recreated in the typical tenure of the CEO.”

One year later on I might add that there are a lot of people (like Barry and Guy) who do not want a “relationship” with large (impersonal) corporations even though they find themselves intimate with local stores that are embedded in their social lives because the owners/employees of these stores are embedded in the same community (as Barry and Guy).

What do you think?  What is your experience?