Customer Service – The Need for a Personal Touch in the Age of Machines

“Customer service is the sum of many little things done well” James Casey Founder of UPS



Many years ago as part of my brand management duties when I worked at Lipton I was made responsible for customer service (read complaints).  As such I had the pleasure of working with a very nice lady by the name of Joyce who was the primary contact with consumers.  Over the course of a week she dealt with up to 100 consumers either by letter or by phone and in each case gave a high level of personal service and interaction, the type of consumer engagement that companies should aspire to today.  She dispensed sympathy, apologized and showed empathy with each of the people with whom she interacted.  As a result well over 95% went away satisfied and in fact grateful to Joyce, a number seldom met in today’s computerized environment.  In reality it was nothing more than some coupons and recipes but more than that it was the personal human touch that resulted in the positive thoughts and in fact letters from consumers about Joyce and the job she did for us.


As marketers these days we spend a lot of time talking about “engagement” with our customers/consumers but we also seem to have lost that personal touch in our attempts to monitor and measure our engagement in the age of computer technology.  Some recent personal experiences highlight the impact of this loss.


The first thing I have noticed lately is the development of measuring response time to a complaint as the key measure of successful engagement without addressing the complaint itself.  In this regard I recently purchased a vacation trip from Sandals for my wife and myself but encountered a problem with it.  I e-mailed the Sandals people about the problem and almost immediately got an e-mail response saying “thank you for your e-mail and we have passed it along to the appropriate person for response.”  This is like hearing “your call is very important to us” as you wait for someone or something to pick up. 


This was followed by a minute later by a second computer generated e-mail saying in effect we have responded to your complaint and consider the matter closed.  If you want to see the status of your complaint go to this website and input this number.


Now from their point of view they had a terrific response time to my complaint but did they in fact deal with it?  No!  I got another computer generated e-mail about a day later telling me to contact their customer service people by phone to resolve the problem.  I guess it didn’t conform to their standard computerized responses so I needed to deal with a person.  Unfortunately after the “your call is very important to us” initial response the person essentially told me tough luck regarding my complaint.  As a result I wrote another e-mail to complain about her response.  You guessed it, I got another “thank you and we’ve passed it on” followed by another “we have responded” e-mail with yet another incident number.


You can see by now where this was going.  The problem never was addressed, and in fact not even responded to by a person and instead fell into a black hole and this from a company that is known for their customer service.  Fortunately for them the people at the Sandals resort more than made up for my problem through their personal service while we were there.  So much so in fact that we booked another vacation with them while we were there. 


Unfortunately the “fun” did not stop there.  I got a customer satisfaction survey via e-mail on my return which I filled out and cited my earlier problem.  In response I got an e-mail of apology from the resort manager saying he was sorry for what happened but wished he knew about it either before we arrived or when we were there so he could try to rectify it.  It sort of begs the question as to where my prior e-mails went.


This leads to the second area of consumer service response, what I call “the black hole syndrome” where you get a response that says they’ve sent your complaint onto someone but you never get a response.  Recently this happened with me in regard to a complaint I made about my fitness club, which is part of GoodLife Fitness.  I sent their “Member Experience” Department (got to love the names some companies chose for their customer relations departments) a detailed e-mail about problems at the club and was sent a response thanking me and saying my e-mail had been forwarded to the General Manager of the club and the District Manager for their response.  Now the General Manager was leaving in a few weeks time so I suspect he really didn’t care a lot about my complaint and he certainly never addressed it with me, although he knew who I was.  However I was hopeful that the District Manager would respond.  When after 4 weeks I had heard nothing from either person I wrote the Member Experience person again telling him of the lack of response.  I was rather surprised to hear back that the District Manager was only getting my e-mail for his file and does not respond to members and that he was sorry the General Manager had not responded but then he, the Member Experience person had not followed up with him either.


While we talk a lot about consumer engagement we seem to be more focused on quantifiable metrics of that engagement rather than the human side.  We have lost a lot of that human touch even when we involve humans.  We offshore our call centers to save money but fail to ensure that the people manning the phones at the other end can clearly articulate a response or even have the discretion to resolve the situation.  We rely on the speed of a computer response to an e-mail rather than a personal response via e-mail.  In short we need to bring the personal touch of the Joyces of this world back into our consumer communication and demonstrate the triumph of person over machine.


It’s the Consumer Stupid!

A number of years ago as part of my initial orientation program at Unilever I was taken on a plant tour of their laundry detergent facility.  As I toured the site I was asked by one of the production foremen if “I was going to be the guy who put in or took out the blue sparkles.”  When I asked him to explain what he meant by this question he told me that every few years the marketing person responsible for laundry detergents changed and the new person decided to reformulate and most of this reformulation was simply cosmetic, adding or deleting a consumer cue like blue sparkles.  I asked him if it made any difference to the performance of the detergent and he said no it was just “a marketing gimmick”.


While one can argue that blue sparkles are in fact a cue to consumers that there is something different about the detergent it is also a sign of what I call a “marketer’s shinny object syndrome”.  All too often we get caught up in the next new innovation in terms of product or packaging in our search for a USP or competitive advantage versus our competitors but we do so without thinking about what our consumers will think about it.  If their reaction is “so what” then we are wasting our time and effort in promoting this new item.


We need to start with the consumer and build our brand proposition and identity based on understanding what their needs and desires are.  This is not to say that we should necessarily be researching every idea with consumers only that we need to look at our brand proposition from a consumer’s standpoint. 


A lot of people have cited Steve Jobs statement that he did not believe in consumer research because consumers didn’t necessarily know what they wanted or needed but that doesn’t mean he didn’t create his brands without regard for the end consumer. 


Take for example the iPod.  By itself it was nothing more than another mp3 player but Jobs saw the potential benefit to tie it into a system whereby you could purchase music to play on it in addition to what you already owned and launched iTunes at the same time.  In this way he met a new consumer need/desire, that is to be able to cheaply purchase single tracks of music that could be downloaded to his iPod from your computer thereby gaining a competitive advantage over the competition that they could never overcome.  The net result was two category killers; the iPod in the mp3 player category and iTunes in the way we purchase music. 


Compare that to what RIM has done with their tablet compared to the iPad.  I am hard-pressed to think of another brand/product launch that was as poorly thought out from a consumer perspective as the Blackberry Playbook.  Like the launch of the iPod the Blackberry Playbook already had a standard from the consumer’s point of view, the iPad.  What RIM failed to do was to understand that what consumers expected with the Playbook was the next generation of tablets not a regression.  The Playbook needed at a minimum to have every important feature of the iPad plus some new bells and whistles or applications that were unique to the Playbook.  Instead RIM focused on the technology of their Playbook and not on consumer expectations.  We therefore had the launch of Playbook without some critical features such as e-mail.  They therefore are left with the last refuge of a poor marketer, price.  Sales of Playbook have only taken off when it was discounted to under $200 or less than half the price of an iPad.


RIM’s failure to understand and anticipate consumer wants and needs has led it to the price death spiral it is now in, not just in the area of tablets but in smartphones as well.  Their focus from day one has been on their technology, their bright shiny objects and not on building a consumer friendly phone.  Unless and until they get ahead of the consumer’s expectations in these markets they are doomed to be also rans and potentially out of business.  RIM needs consumer marketers leading their company now not technicians who are fascinated by the next iteration of blue sparkles.  The best marketing advice for them is to start by determining who their consumer is and then building something that meets their needs.  Incidentally their consumers may not be the same as Apple’s, in fact they would be better off if they could focus on another group but they do need to focus on the consumer and not on the product if they are going to be successful.