Customer service isn't just for dealing with complaints.
Two new books show how to use it to strengthen loyalty.
BY RICHARD PACHTER
published 7/28/08 in The Miami Herald
Business is more challenging than ever. Competition, consolidation, inflation and other economic pressures make it difficult for any company to survive, let alone thrive. Adding to that is the ubiquity of the Internet and the shift of power to the consumer, with more choices and the ability to subvert traditional distribution channels in unprecedented ways.
But the number of firms who still conduct business in the traditional manner without taking the Web into consideration is amazing.
Sure, they may have shiny websites, and some provide e-mail addresses for ''feedback,'' but the majority seems to either ignore or minimize the potential benefits of customer interaction. The prevailing notion that ''customer service'' exists only to deal with defective products or unhappy customers is equally odd.
Two new books examine how discontent can often be transformed into opportunity.
Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World. Pete Blackshaw. Currency/Doubleday. 208 pages.
Blackshaw, of Nielsen Online, is kind of a guru on customer interaction and invokes a bunch of well-publicized horror stories, including blogger Jeff Jarvis' online counterattack against shoddy treatment by Dell Computer, critic Bob Garfield's similar crusade against Comcast and an AOL user who wasn't allowed to close his account despite numerous requests, so he recorded the interminable and frustrating phone conversation and posted it online. All of these episodes received considerable publicity, much to the embarrassment of the companies involved.
The resulting losses of good will and sales are impossible to quantify. (The author also recounts episodes where companies treated customers well, but those occasions, unfortunately, rarely receive much amount of publicity.)
In addition to the anecdotes, Blackshaw provides suggestions for taking a more proactive stance in dealing with unhappy customers. Given the high cost of branding, marketing and advertising, retaining customers would seem to be more cost-effective than recruiting new ones.
A Complaint is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong. Janelle Barlow, Claus Moller. Berrett-Koehler. 250 pages.
The Internet provides numerous opportunities for companies to develop closer relationships with customers. E-mail, for example is essentially free and one-on-one, even when sent out in bulk, yet few firms understand how to use this interactivity to cultivate positive relationships.
Barlow and Moller have a healthy and somewhat unusual perspective. They view complaints as gifts. Sure, it sounds goofy, but the passion evinced by unhappiness can be an entry point for further dialogue. Like Blackshaw, they recount tales of customers' bad experiences and how the companies responded. It's interesting, of course, to read about these tales of woe, but it's also instructive to see how even a hint of humanity trumps the usual corporate-speak. That's the paradox of high-tech — it allows an unprecedented level of human contact when correctly deployed. But at best, it's only an expression of genuine consideration.
It's not that surprising, though. People generally prefer to be treated well. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell observed that doctors who spend more time and were friendlier with patients were sued less frequently for malpractice than doctors who behaved in a more authoritarian and curt manner. Trust is a function of being treated like a person, which seems to also be good business.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008