Subject: Why better service is more important than good advertising
The greatest threat to consumer brands today is not bad advertising – it’s bad customer service. I say that in spite of the fact that this blog is dedicated to critiquing advertising and helping advertisers create better ads.
In fact, the biggest single investment that most companies could make to improve their brand equity would be to get rid of automated answering systems and have a person answer and route incoming consumer calls.
Is this shocking? Cutting a $70 million ad budget by a few million and hiring people to answer the phone, lend a sympathetic ear and find the right person for unhappy consumers to talk to? Won’t this just create a new “cost center” that an aggressive former-CFO (now CEO) will be eager to cut?
We are facing an epidemic of bad customer service and it is hurting brands. Right now, I would be willing to recommend any brand that has the common sense to have a real person who is trained and knows the company and its products answer the phone. Making me feel better about the service experience is critical in an era where products are getting ever more complex and all of us experience product failures in many categories from time to time.
This is not just my opinion. The link between good customer service and brand repeat rates (the percentage of consumers who will purchase a brand – whether product or service – again) has been proven again and again. A very good article on this is “The One Number You Need to Grow” by Frederick Reichheld from the December 2003 Harvard Business Review. I haven’t found it online for free, but click here for the HBS version for $6.00. Reichheld showed that the best way to understand brand loyalty was to ask consumers the likelihood that they would recommend the brand to another consumer. The stronger the recommendation, the higher the likelihood that that consumer would return to the brand. This was true of companies across a wide variety of industries.
My point is this – a huge amount of money is being wasted advertising brands that may deliver good product but have terrible customer service. When customers become disillusioned by bad service, they become “Brand Terrorists” who tell lots of their friends not to use the brand. Advertising then serves to remind these consumers that they hate the brand and they spread the message further. Sadly, it seems that “brand terrorists” are even more effective than brand lovers or “brand apostles” in spreading their message. So the maxim “good advertising is the quickest way to kill a brand” may be truer than ever.
I’ll give you a good example of this trend that is staring me in the face – literally. I’m writing this post on a HP Pavillion dv1000 laptop. It is a sweet little machine, but I cannot and will not recommend it to friends or any of you. Why? Because I bought the laptop with an expansion base and a 200gb backup drive that plugs into the base. When the whole deal arrived, everything worked except for that backup drive, which whirred and purred but could not be found by Windows. So I called the HP customer service center. Or more accurately, I called various parts of India attempting to get trained help for my HP.
Don’t get me wrong. I am half-Indian and I think India is a great place. I visited last year. I also don’t think outsourcing is inherently evil. But the idea of randomly delegating the most crucial part of your branding experience (customer service, where you have the chance to take dissatisfied consumers and turn them into brand lovers) to untrained people is absurd.
During the week of my conversations with HP customer service I became absurdly grateful for the GE speakerphone in my office. I also became familiar with a lot of elevator music as I clocked over 7 hours of hold time. My problem was simple – a hard disk drive with a faulty controller. But I couldn’t find a single person in HP support who even seemed to be able to pull up the specifications for the HP xb2000 Notebook Expansion Base let alone understand that I plugged a hard drive into it which did not seem to be working.
My daily routine was something like this. Sit down with a cup of tea and attack e-mail. Call HP customer service. Wade through menu after menu of entering digits. Spend a half-hour or more on hold. Finally talk to someone. Spend a half hour explaining my problem. Get transferred to another number that is busy. Get put on hold. Spend another half hour explaining my problem. Repeat from the begginning.
Finally, at the end of the week, I had a revelation. The sales staff at HP Direct was obviously American and very knowledgable. (It’s easy to see the revenue implications of a poorly trained sales staff.) So I called as if I was going to buy something new. Still had to wade through a stupid automated menu, but when I got a real associate on the line I explained my problem. She immediately shipped out a new drive and gave me a return authorization for my old drive. The new one worked fine. Total time spent: 11 minutes. Tell me that my week on the phone with India cost HP less. It certainly cost them a customer. And don’t go running to Dell. I’ve had similarly awful experiences of late with them.
As a marketing trainer and branding person, I find myself in the strange position of telling customers who come to me for better branding campaigns to either spend less on advertising or hold it altogether until they can get their entire user experience to meet the promise they are making with the advertising. The legacy airlines don’t seem to understand this. We sometimes will post the press release for an ad we are about to critique. Eva Lind-Mallo did this for an American Airlines spot that she hated. Even before she posted her scathing commentary on the ad, however, the press release got picked up by other blogs which attacked it (and us for posting it). That’s how strongly bad customer service can make you feel about a brand. Anybody who has been stranded on the runway by NorthWest, crammed into a middle seat by a surly flight attendant on Delta or had their knees jammed up against the seat in front of them on a “new less-spacious” seat in American just hates those brands. And the advertising just reminds you of the problem.
So here’s my advice to airlines, banks, computer companies and others intent on wasting our time with advertising – good or bad – that we won’t believe. Train your customer service representatives. Give them the power and the decision-making authority to actually solve consumer’s problems. Ditch your five-step interactive menus and have an intelligent person answer the phone and route callers to the EXACT person they need to talk to in order to solve their problem. Accept some fraud in return for no-hassles returns (remember that this is how Nordstrom’s built a legendary brand – by accepting exchanges on things they didn’t even sell). Stop arguing with the consumer even when you are right. We’re tired. We’ve been taken advantage of for too long. We don’t want to have to get our EE degree to use your products or spend our afternoons on the phone to make them work. And as soon as someone else comes along and treats us better, we’ll be gone in a heartbeat. Just ask SouthWest or JetBlue.