Customer Service Hall of Shame

I came across an interesting article today on MSN Money. Last April, MSN asked their readers to tell them about their worst customer service experience and within 24 hours, over 3000 responses came in. Seeing an opportunity in those kind of numbers, MSN has partnered with Zogby International to create conduct an online national survey that gathered feedback on the 20 companies most mentioned in the original response. The results of that survey have been published as “MSN Money’s Customer Experience Hall of Shame”.

Not surprisingly, Sprint Nextel came out on the bottom with a whopping 40% of respondents who had an opinion of Sprint’s customer service saying it was poor; and this was before Sprint made news last July for firing their customers. The remainder of the bottom 10 all had poor ratings of 20% or more.

The article goes on to point out that the bottom 10 all share one thing in common which is that their customers have very few alternatives. I discussed this same concept following the Sprint story last summer: Companies who have little competition in the marketplace aren’t compelled to differentiate on customer service. Interestingly, most of the “Dishonorable Mentions” in the Hall of Shame are retailers who’s markets are highly competitive with increasingly downward pricing pressure. In other words, a group focused on cost cutting.

As part of the Hall of Shame survey MSN invited CEOs from the companies to respond. Predictably, most of the responses listed in the article are defensive and tout the investments the companies are making to improve. Sprint touted their new billing system which arguably saves them a load of cash by reducing paper costs. But they also discussed the “Buzz About Wireless” community site which includes a customer-service-focused message board where customer can “rant” about their experiences. They also set up a mailbox in response to the MSN Hall of Shame for customers to share their experiences via e-mail.

So it appears that Sprint is finally listening. If you are a Sprint customer, I’d love to hear if you’ve seen any improvements since last July. After all, actually making real changes in the customer experience is what really matters. Listening is just the first step.


The Expectation Economy

expectation.jpgexpectation.jpgI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – If you don’t subscribe to’s monthly briefing, you’re really missing out on some rich and actionable insight. The monthly briefings focus on a single trend group and contain insights gathered by thousands of “springspotters” from all over the world.

The January briefing is out and its entitled The Expectation Economy:

“The EXPECTATION ECONOMY is an economy inhabited by experienced, well-informed consumers from Canada to South Korea who have a long list of high expectations that they apply to each and every good, service and experience on offer.

Their expectations are based on years of self-training in hyperconsumption, and on the biblical flood of new-style, readily available information sources, curators and BS filters. Which all help them track down and expect not just basic standards of quality, but the ‘best of the best’.”

People have always had high expectations, but over the last few years, two major sub-trends have emerged that really drive the Expectation Economy.

  • Instant, worldwide communications allows information about the latest, best, most original things to be immediatey available to consumers
  • Increasingly, consumers are doing their own diligent research and niche blogs, sites and mags are fueling that behavior.

While consumer’s expectations are up and rising, most brands choose to not keep up with the “best of the best”. The result: Informed Consumers are Indifferent or Irritated. The briefing suggests that these states will likely manifest themselves in Fake Loyalty and Postponed Purchases.

Customers continue buying from under-performing brands only as long as what they want isn’t available. This is Fake Loyalty. Once the better option comes around, the customers quickly disappear.

What are the implications of this trend? Trendwatching makes the following points:

  • The Next Generation: Before consumers had full transparency, brands could get away with not being peak performers. Those days are now over. The next generation, who will never know “mass production, mass advertising & mass ignorance” will be full participants in the Expectation Economy.
  • Cross Industry Mindset: Companies what to know what’s going on in their industry and what their main competitors are up to. In the Expectation Economy, businesses need to look cross-industry to see what’s going on. Why?

1. Your competition could be anyone

2. Expectations are often set outside your industry

3. Just copying competitors is a race to the bottom

Action Items

The Trendwatching Briefing goes on to give concrete examples of largely niche brands in a wide range of industries that are leading the way in setting expectations. They also offer a prescription for translating the things these brands are doing in to actionable strategies for your business.

“Find competitors and non-competitors, big and small, who are setting consumer expectations much higher than you’ve ever been able to. They’re more fun. They have better design. Their stuff tastes, looks, feels better. Their customer service actually responds to emails. They’re cheaper. Then compile what you think are now the global standards for whatever it is you do, and from there start thinking about new goods, services and experiences that at least incorporate those standards, and preferably outdo them. “

Does your business have a program like this? If not, what are you waiting for?

Companies Without Conversation

This past week gave us several great examples of companies demonstrating their obliviousness to the changing world around them.

scrabble_v_scrabulous.jpgHasbro / Mattel

You know Scrabble. Created in 1933, the classic wordplay board game has been a favorite worldwide for decades. So when Calcutta-based developers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla created a Scrabble knock-off application called “Scrabulous” for the social networking site Facebook, people started signing up like crazy. As of today, Scrabulous has 600,000 daily users but that’s only a quarter of the number of people who have signed up to play it. You’d think Hasbro & Mattel, who together own the world-wide rights to the game, would see an opportunity here and find a way leverage these social media passionistas to further promote their product. Sadly, they don’t see it that way and have issued a cease and desist order trying to get Facebook to take the game down.

From a legal standpoint, Hasbro / Mattel are well within their rights and in fact, as Shel Holtz points out in a response to Matt Dickman’s excellent post on this topic last week, companies must consistently go after intellectual property infringement cases to make future charges stick. Moreover, if the Agarwallas had simply printed a copy of Scrabulous and sold it as a board game, there would be little controversy about whether it constitutes a copyright violation.

Back in the days before consumers had a voice, there were really only two parties to consider in these types of cases: The IP owner and the IP infringer. The lawyers would shut the infringer down and that would be the end of it. Unfortunately for companies like Hasbro / Mattel, the world has moved on and, as demonstrated by the Scrabulous case, the consumers now have a seat at the table. They can’t impact the legal outcome of the case, but they can make the PR fallout into a big deal. Hasbro / Mattel either didn’t see that coming or felt it was not as important as defending the IP. What I and many other observers are suggesting is that a little creative thinking between the lawyers and the marketers could have resulted in an outcome that both satisfied Hasbro / Mattel’s legal requirement and managed to tap into the 2.5 million potential evangelists playing Scrabulous. This case is far from being closed and it will be interesting to see where it goes.


Amy Jussel is a blogger focusing on media & marketing’s influence on kids. She sent a letter to Target’s Corp Communication dept regarding a billboard in Times Square that some people have found offensive. The good news is that target responded. The bad news is that this is what they said:

Good Morning Amy, Thank you for contacting Target; unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets. This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest. Once again thank you for your interest, and have a nice day.

target.jpgTarget “does not participate with non-traditional media outlets”?? Huh? Then what are they doing on Facebook and what’s that Rounders program all about???? And just who do they think their “core guest” is. I shop Target at least once a week and I bet millions of other people who “participate with non-traditional media outlets” do too. Perhaps if Target understood who their “core guest” really was, they would know that some of them can be quite vocal. Word of this “policy” spread like wildfire through digital communities and bloggers like Julia Roy quickly responded. With one sentence to one person, Target managed to offend an important segment of their customer base. What’s astonishing to me is that Target, which portrays its self as being cool and hip, is apparently clueless about how to engage with the “non-traditional media” segment of their customers. They don’t understand the brand evangelism opportunity that can be had from engaging with them (and I don’t mean in a Rounders sort of way). There will likely be some PR backpedaling on this one, just as there was just a few months ago with the Rounders debacle, but whether Target will make some fundamental changes in their approach is yet to be seen.

In a follow-up to his post on Scrabulous, Matt Dickman wrote about engaging with “non-traditional media” types. He asked:

When you look at your brand’s social media universe, are you looking for criminals or evangelists?

I think the first question for many companies should be Are you looking at your brand’s social media universe?

How Do You Top The Age of Conversation??

aoc2_3.pngMarketing is not my profession, but it is something that I am keenly interested in and enjoy discussing. Last Spring, I started following the blogs of some pretty insightful marketing professionals. About that time, two of those professionals came up with a very innovative idea: the creation and publication of collaborative business book entitled The Age of Conversation (buy it). AOC began as a challenge between Drew McLellan and Gavin Heaton but ended up being a highly insightful collection of essays from over a hundred marketers, writers, thinkers and creative innovators. AOC was also a testament to the power of community AOC raised more than $10,000 for Variety the Children’s Charity and was listed among Advertising Age’s “Books You Should Have Read in 2007.” If you aren’t already familiar with AOC, you can get read about it here.

One of my big regrets for 2007 was not joining in that particular conversation. I’m not going to repeat that mistake this year because Drew and Gavin have decided to do a sequel and I have already signed up. Once again, it will be a collection of writings from more than one hundred authors. So what’s going to be different this time around? Drew and Gavin have decided to let the community decide the topic. They have proposed a short list of topics (Marketing Manifesto, Why They Don’t Get It, and My Marketing Tragedy) and are asking the community to vote for the one they’d most like to see as this year’s theme. By the way, if the topics seem a little vague, you are very perceptive.

You can read Drew’s announcement here.

So do you want to join the conversation??? — send an email to Drew and let him know. If you don’t plan to write for the book, we still want you to help us decide what the topic will be so go ahead and take the one question survey here by January 31. I’ll be providing updates as the project progresses.

(image courtesy of Greg Verdino)

Is part of Your Operation Not Living Up to Your Brand Image?

apple-bandaid.jpgLast Spring, I wrote about opportunities for improving your brand by focusing on the customers experience in areas that may not be directly under your control. The main point of the post was that what the customer sees as the total experience may be broader that what you think it is. It doesn’t matter if the customer encounters a problem outside of “your” area of responsibility; to them it’s still part of the overall experience and can reflect poorly on your brand. These experience extensions are often delivered by third parties who don’t necessarily have the same customer objectives as you, but sometimes, inconsistent customer experiences can be due to a problem internal to an organization. A recent personal experience with Apple makes for a good case study.

Apple excels at designing great technology experiences. They completely dominate the portable media player market. They have redefined what a cell phone is and sales of Mac computers is growing faster than any other brand in the US driven by a highly effective and popular ad campaign.

Apple has also done an amazing job expanding from a technology manufacturer to a retail powerhouse. On average, Apple stores generate over $4000 per square foot per year. That more than four times what Best Buy produces. Apple has invested heavily in creating a retail shopping experience which is both innovative and compelling.

This Christmas, I was compelled to purchase a MacBook as a present for my daughter. The sales experience was simple and fast and I walked out feeling really good about the purchase. My daughter, who loves to create and publish videos, was thrilled with her new computer. That is until it died five days after Christmas.

I was a little surprised. This was after all, a Mac. They’re better than PCs; they just work, right? In fairness, all technology products have their share of defects and from my research, Apple makes some of the most reliable computers on the market, so I don’t think this failure is indicative of a general quality problem. My first response was to go to Apple’s website to see if it held any information about the series of beeps that we got trying to boot. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any there. I then checked Google and quickly discovered that the beeps indicated that the RAM wasn’t being detected.

I spent the next hour and a half on the phone with about an hour of that time being on hold. The tech that I was working with could not diagnose the problem and kept putting me on hold to consult with product managers. He eventually sent me to one of those project managers who, after twenty more minutes on hold, told me that I had (surprise) a memory problem. I’m no “genius”, but 90 minutes to tell me what I already knew doesn’t seem very smart. The product manager then told me that he would give me an address where I could ship the computer to be repaired. That came as an unexpected and downright irritating surprise….

WHAT!?!? It’s only five days old, it’s dead and you want me to ship my daughter’s new Christmas present off for a couple of weeks to be repaired?? I’m thinking, “How does this experience support the Apple brand?”

OK I didn’t say any of that, but I did ask if I couldn’t simply take it back to the store. The product manager responded (and I’m not making this up) “Yeah, you could try that. They might have some extra memory laying around”.

I told him that I wanted to try that option first. Having previously dealt with a defective iPhone, I knew that I would have to make an appointment or risk waiting at the store for a few hours on standby. With my iPhone, AppleCare made the appointment for me so I asked the product manager if he could schedule an appointment for the computer. He responded by telling me that I could only schedule appointments for the current day since I had not paid the $99 fee that gives me the right to preferential treatment. Apparently my $250 extended warranty doesn’t get me any preferential treatment like it does at other CE retailers. Given that it was after store hours on Sunday, he told me that I would have to try to make the appointment myself early the next day.

On Monday morning, I went to Apple’s website at 7:30 am only to be informed that my store didn’t have any availability. At 10:00, I called the store to see if I could get an appointment, but the recorded message told me that they are unable to schedule appointments over the phone. The only option for tech support was to transfer me back to AppleCare. I did that hoping that they could possibly schedule stand-by appointments. No such luck as the AppleCare people could only see the same screen that I saw.

Finally after investing over two hours in this process, I got in the car and drove to the store with the dead MacBook. Entering the store, I was immediately approached by a very helpful employee who was able to get me scheduled with a genius in about 20 minutes. I told her about the problems I was having trying to schedule the appointment and she told me I “could have just pressed 5 when I called the store and they could have scheduled me over the phone.” (Doh…) I started to explain that the recorded message said otherwise, but just let it go.

Thirty minutes later, the problem had been diagnosed as both bad memory and a bad disk drive. I ended up getting all the personal data and software loaded to a new machine.

So here’s how I perceive the Apple brand based on this experience:

  • The user experience design for Apple’s technology is excellent.
  • Apple’s in-store retail customer experience both before and during the sale was excellent.
  • The AppleCare phone support experience was terrible on several counts.
  • Apple Retail’s in-store tech team was highly responsive and deserves the credit for salvaging a bad experience.

Apple, like many organizations, operates a number of divisions who each contribute to the success of the business. When all of those divisions are equally focused on delivering great customer experiences, the brand image is enhanced. But when one or more don’t deliver a great experience, the brand is diminished.

Make a point to regularly examine all of your customer experience touchpoints to ensure that they are consistently deliver experiences that enhance your brand.   Then act quickly to turn those deficiencies into opportunities for enhancing your brand image.