I’ve been talking with my students this week about how companies maintain or lose customer satisfaction with consumers, and the topic always brings up good and bad personal experiences.
On the negative side (and there are more of these than positive ones), I wrote in this blog two summers back about how Capital One had declared me dead, causing me all kinds of credit problems at the exact time I was trying to get a home mortgage.
Even after I finally got a human voice (albeit from a foreign call center) to admit he believed I was alive, he told me “the computers are in charge, however,” and they had from 30-45 days to investigate and resolve the problem.
On the up side — and this may sound ironic given the stereotype of this government agency — I have found the IRS to be extremely helpful over the years. It’s easier to get a human and knowledgeable voice on the other end of the line with the Internal Revenue Service than with United Airlines, even when all you’re trying to do is buy their service.
For the purposes of this blog, however, I am most interested in the intersection of communication technology and customer satisfaction. It’s no stretch to say that the inability to talk to a human being, and the dehumanizing experience of talking to a digital signal, is probably the No. 1 cause of customer dissatisfaction in America.
A popular topic
Author Laura Penny has even written a book about this, appropriately called, Your Call is Important to Us: The Truth About Bull—-.” The cover features a large shovel, and the first chapter is called, “You’re Soaking in It.”
More than any other lie that corporate America would spin onto consumers, “Your call is very important to us,” is the one that sends most consumers through the roof. We know a long delay awaits and — even then — we will be handed a digitized voice to talk to.
The dehmanizing side
This whole dehumanizing concept of requiring customers to talk to robots, or at least a voice from a call center on another continent, was dramatized in the George Clooney film, Up in the Air. In that film’s most tragic and poignant scene, we see a veteran, dedicated company employee being fired by a detached voice from a computer screen. He starts to weep; the computer is unable to mimic of even register that emotion.
We know that technology is very important to customer satisfaction. If a business doesn’t avail itself of Web 2.0 communication technology, that can — in itself — become a cause for disgruntled customers. We want multiple access points to a company we deal with, starting with Web access.
NBRI weighs in
As one of its ten tips to customer satisfaction, The National Business Research Institute (NBRI) lists the need to give customers Web access to your business and to make it easy for them to place their orders. It explains:
“Technology means more than a fancy Flash website. In order to satisfy customers, companies have to keep up with the latest technological advances or suffer the consequences. Change is never easy, but business as usual isn’t a viable alternative anymore. Technology can help small and mid-size companies look like big companies by improving the quality of the purchasing experience without adding staff to the payroll.”
Twisting its use
But taking that same technology and turning it into a demeaning obstacle to the goal of customer interaction … therein lies the rub.
Turns out, I’m far from being alone in my assessment. Wall Street Journal columnist Gary Hamel penned an entire column about this, entitled, “Your Call is Important to Us. Yeah, Sure.” He writes:
“What irks me most, though, is when companies barricade their customer support staff behind a near impenetrable wall of multi-level telephone prompts. I mean, golly, you’d think I was trying to get through the White House switchboard rather than obtain a part number for my broken dishwasher.
“I get the fact that companies are trying to keep their call center costs to a minimum—but I wish they’d at least be honest about that. (But) Instead of telling us: We are experiencing unusually heavy call volumes . . .
“They should say: Even more of our underpaid and overworked staff called in sick than usual.
“Instead of telling us: You may be able to find what you need on our Web site . . .
They should say: There are 10 people in the world who still haven’t heard about the Internet and we want to make sure you’re not one of them.”
Thanks Gary. You think the decision-makers at Capital One and United Airlines ever read columns and blogs?
One can only hope. A call from one of them, about this issue, is one I would wait for.
If you’ve ever visited a major indoor shopping mall, you’ve probably seen a store called, As Seen on TV. It’s a phrase that has often been a part of some print ads and suggests that, because a product has been advertised on television, it must be good.
But if philosophers are fond of hypothesizing that we are in the postmodern era of thought, mass marketers might mention that we may be nearing the post-television age of advertising.
It’s not that TV is still not a major player as an advertising venue; it’s just that the Internet is growing in influence at a much faster rate of speed.
Low cost, long reach
Here’s how Ad Age describes it:
“The theory is that wary financial investors will applaud spending on social media because of its lower cost and growing reach.”
The leading magazine on the advertising industry is quick to point out that the single largest share of advertising bucks still go to television, but that more and more advertisers are pulling dollars from print and radio to pursue social media marketing.
Not an equal playing field
But only the big players in that world are deriving the greatest benefit of the shift to social media.
Ad Age continues, “Online advertising appears vigorous but look under the hood and you’ll find it’s running largely on Google and Facebook.
‘The rich are getting richer,’ said one digital-media executive, referring to the two giants, which continue to put distance between themselves and the pack. ‘All our clients call me and ask, ‘What is our Facebook strategy?’ — despite a wide lack of agreement on the effectiveness of social-media advertising, the exec said. ‘We are seeing increases in spending motivated less by financial evidence than a belief that “they have to be there.’
“Facebook, of course, is only too happy to foster that belief, as marketers described an aggressive push by the social network as it looks to ring up ad sales before its initial public offering. Brian Weiser, analyst at Pivotal Research, estimates that Facebook grew 46% and Google 22% in online display in the first quarter.”
The Age of Google
Google outruns all other search engines in popularity. Every second, so many people visit Google that advertisers willingly pay large sums for on-screen advertising space on pages with search results. This is targeted marketing at its best.
Someone who is looking for information on vegetarian diets, for example, is a more likely customer for a store like Trader Joe’s than someone who is a meat-and potatoes customer.
The algorithms that Google’s search engine uses provide an unrivaled linkage of products and potential customers. And that is a dream come true for advertisers. It’s not a bad dream come true for Google, either, which sees much of its $23 billion income originate from advertising.
Slicing and dicing
Says media scholar John Vivian, “In effect, Google slices and dices the mass audience in ways that give advertisers unusual efficiency in reaching the people they seek. In advertising lingo, there is less wastage. Why, for example, should a marinara company buy space in a food magazine whose readers include people with tomato allergies when Google offers a targeted audience of people looking for spaghetti sauce recipes with nary a one among them who’s allergic to tomatoes?”
If Google is king or queen of the search engines, then Facebook leads all social media sites in advertising lure, according to Vivian and Ad Age.
Facebook focuses more on behavioral targeting, collecting personal information on its users who are, coincidentally, the potential buyers of advertised products. The personal data of Facebook users is organized and catalogued in ways that offer a mother lode of targeted consumer data for mass marketers.
Vivian points out in The Media of Mass Communication, that each month the 200 million+ users holding Facebook accounts post some 4 billion bits of information, 850 million photos and 8 million videos, all of which says a great deal about the behavior, likes and dislikes of these individuals.
Members offer it up
“Facebook has incredible potential to deliver customers to advertisers based on information that members submit themselves … when they communicate with friends, identify their ‘likes’ … and share their interests,” Vivian notes.
“The ‘Likebutton’ introduced in 2010, allows advertisers to shower anyone who clicks it,
as well as their Facebook friends, with messages. Within a year the button was on 2 million websites. The button is a vehicle for what’s called “referral traffic.” Advertisers and other sites report huge increase in traffic.”
Of course, many worry about the further erosion of privacy that comes from simply clicking a “Like” button, because it sends an instant message to advertisers that here is a potential target. As a result, many Facebook users are more judicious in deciding when to hit that button.
For its part, Facebook says it doesn’t pass on information to other parties without the user’s permission, although it does use the aggregated data. Few of us actually read the legal agreement which we agree to on Facebook but, if we did, we would find this: “We serve the ad to people who meet the criteria the advertiser selected but we do not tell the advertiser who any of those people are.”
Like so many other aspects of the Internet, the social media seem destined to be here for a long time to come. And anytime a couple hundred million people decide to flock to a media site, you just know the advertisers are going to be there in the midst of them.