Create Unexpected Moments

Everyone likes surprises, good ones that is. They are unexpected occurrences that can lift spirits and even change lives. A surprise does not have to be the latter to have impact. Sure, if today I won the $40 million Powerball jackpot that would be a surprise and would be life changing. But, surprises that we are more likely to encounter are small in scope yet can have a significant impact on us long term. Marketers should be on the lookout for opportunities to create unexpected moments for customers by what they say and do.

Consistency Breeds Certainty
In a world where we often script our words and actions meticulously to create consistent experiences, unexpected moments can be scary because they deviate from the unified message that we believe builds brands. Consistency is valued because:

  • It creates control – Nothing can go wrong if we have policies, procedures, and responses for virtually any situation that arises, can it?
  • It reduces uncertainty – Employees and customers have a better idea of what to expect when the service encounter follows a rather rigid, scripted sequence of steps and actions.
  • It reinforces a brand’s promise – A scripted service experience delivered consistently over time is simply execution against we come to expect from brands. For example, one of the most anticipated moments when dining at Chick-fil-A (besides eating delicious food) is to hear two words uttered by the server when handing my order to me after I thank her: “My pleasure.” It is part of the script, but I believe that the server and Chick-fil-A feel it is their pleasure to have me as a customer.

Consistency is a valued trait for a brand to possess, but it can have a negative connotation: Boring. If customer experiences are delivered with mechanical-like precision, is there a risk of not connecting with customers on an emotional level?

The Power of the Unexpected
Scripting customer experiences to build consistency and brand promise is not a bad thing, but can it be balanced by injecting unexpected moments in the process. The most poignant unexpected moment I have had as a consumer occurred 15 years ago, but it was so memorable that I am sharing it with you today as an example of the impact an unexpected moment can have. My family was having lunch at Wendy’s in my hometown of West Point, Mississippi. The service encounter began as you would expect, following the script of placing an order, paying, and waiting for food. What happened next was unexpected- As the counter employee handed my order to me she said “Thank you. See you tomorrow.” Her statement stopped me in my tracks! It was so far off-script that I did not know what to say. I giggled, thanked her, and went on my way. I was not going to be in town “tomorrow,” but if I had been I may have gone back to Wendy’s at her suggestion.

I felt a bit strange describing this incident as the most poignant unexpected moment I have experienced as a consumer. After all, the statement “see you tomorrow” hardly stacks up against unexpected moments that  companies like Zappos and Nordstrom that are renowned for their service have been known to create for customers. The effect it has had on me is that it has permeated my work as a marketer and educator. How can I create unexpected moments for those I serve to enhance the value of their interactions with me?

The Unexpected Connects
The takeaway is not that you should chuck your scripted customer experiences. They play a role in satisfying customers and defining your brand. Instead, be open to the unexpected; do something that is beyond the norm that will impact customers. Two weeks ago, I took one of our cars to a local tire store to have a leaky tire repaired. When the work was finished, I pulled out my wallet to pay only to hear “no charge.” The tires were not bought there, but there is a great chance that the next set will! I left that business feeling like they cared about me, not just my money. The expected is just that- expected. Look to create unexpected moments to strengthen connections between customers and your brand.

Struggles to Serve the Social Customer

Social media’s marketing influence extends beyond advertising, public relations, and promotions. The voice given to customers via social networks demands that businesses be equipped to deliver customer service online. Whether it is responding to customer complaints, answering questions, or acknowledging praise, the interactivity of social network sites creates a natural channel for responding to customers’ needs. How well marketers are doing with social customer service is unclear.

A recent survey  reported by Social Media Today found that 7 out of 10 businesses said they use social media in their customer service efforts. Of those businesses, 87% have experienced a positive impact from social customer service. Those numbers might suggest a shift toward social media as a key channel for managing customer relations, but other findings from the survey run counter to that notion. Social customer service accounts for less than 5% of all customer issues handled by 4 in 10 companies.

One explanation for the relatively light usage of social media to resolve customer issues is that many businesses do not have a social customer service strategy. Evidence of this weakness in how social media is being used for customer service includes:

  • 38% of companies have no formal process for using social media channels for customer service purposes
  • 6% do not personalize responses when interacting with customers via social media
  • 6% monitor questions asked but do not answer them

Customer service is challenging when a business does not know what customers are thinking or feeling. Social media alleviates that challenge by creating a direct communication channel with customers. However, the capabilities of social media as a customer service resource cannot be realized if a strategy is not put into place that specifies which social network sites to monitor, who is responsible for monitoring, how will customer service issues be resolved, and what level of empowerment will social customer service personnel have to satisfy customers.

An unintended consequence of social media could be alienating customers because of inadequate response or worse yet, no response at all. If you are going to use social media in your business, be prepared to listen and ready to respond when the conversation puts the ball in your court. You would not let the telephone go unanswered when calls come in; “calls” made via social channels must be acknowledged and answered, too.

Marketing Charts – “Most Businesses Claim Positive Impact from Social Customer Service”

Plan for Failure

Murphy’s Law – you’ve heard of it, know it, and probably even lived it at one time or another. “If anything can go wrong, it will” is more than a lament; it is a call for managers to think about what can go wrong and how an organization will respond to adversity.

A reminder of the need to plan for a surprise visit by Murphy can be taken away from Southwest Airlines’ botched Facebook promotion last Friday. A 50% off fare sale intended to celebrate Southwest reaching 3,000,000 fans on Facebook blew up as a technology glitch caused some customers to be charged as many as 35 times for the same transaction. The company known by many as LUV was not feeling a lot of from irate customers.

What will be the response when Murphy sets up shop in your department or company? Most strategic planning focuses on how to achieve success – meet objectives, reach goals, and advance the business. Planning should include failure, too. The nature of the planning differs as it is not about how to achieve failure but rather how to mitigate it when it occurs. Examples of areas to address in failure planning include:

  1. Customer service response
  2. Public relations response
  3. Social media response
  4. Leadership response

It is impossible to plan specifically for failure as there are so many ways Murphy can invade your organization. But some essential considerations are:

  • How will a failure situation be handled – Within functional silos or by a cross-functional crisis management team?
  • Who are the key personnel that should be involved in resolving a failure situation?
  • What are acceptable benchmarks for delivering a response for each of the four areas (customer service, PR, social media, and leadership)?

Failure is inevitable, so is the need to plan for failure. How an organization responds when things go bad can either build trust with customers or destroy it. In Southwest’s case, it appears to be working diligently to refund all affected customers quickly. While relationships with some customers have likely been irreparably harmed, Southwest’s response will be a starting point for making amends with impacted customers.

Marketing Daily – “Southwest Facebook Promo Hits Turbulence”

The Lost Art of Conversation

Some people say that customer service is not what it used to be. That point registered with me recently through an observation made by my 12-year-old son. We were shopping at a local department store, taking advantage of great deals on men’s clothing. As we checked out, the sales associate was very pleasant and talkative. She told us about other sale items and even about purse snatchings that had taken place at area stores.
We walked away and my son remarked “she sure was full of herself, wasn’t she!” When I asked what he meant, he said that she talked a lot. I paused momentarily and it hit me why he made that observation: That level of personal touch has become the exception rather than the rule in customer service. “That is how it is supposed to be” was my response. Traditionally, department stores have been known for delivering a personal touch. Sadly, that experience is delivered less frequently today. My professional career in marketing began in retail management for a department store. Our associates were required to write 10 thank-you notes to customers weekly. Timely approach of customers was expected. Sales associates were to be more than cashiers and serve as a resource to customers.
My son’s perceptions of what customer service is (and is not) have been shaped by mostly unremarkable interactions with service providers. Not necessarily bad service, but not the kind of experiences that you walk away from and go “wow – that was great.” A generation is being acclimated to “service” being driven by technologies such as self-checkout and online ordering. Measures of service quality are based more on the reliability of the technology than the personal attention given. 
It almost sounds funny to say that conversation can be a brand differentiator. But, my son’s take on what is extraordinary customer service suggests that a personal touch has the ability to stand out in an environment that is often more concerned with transaction efficiency. Embrace the art of conversation – show customers that you value their business and more importantly that you value them.

Caring as a Brand Differentiator

Positioning a brand is one of the most important strategies a marketer must devise. Communicating a brand’s real, relevant difference compared to competition can be the difference between being a “me too” brand and a category leader. This point is touched on in the book Brand Against The Machine by John Morgan. One particular differentiation strategy is recommended that is so simple yet often not practiced: Demonstrate that you care.

Can caring really be utilized as a positioning strategy? Of course businesses care about their customers, or they will not be in business for long! But, as you and I know there are often breakdowns in execution of customer-focused marketing plans and strategies. Great customer service programs are little more than empty promises to customers who experience poor service quality.

A few months ago, we replaced a heater/air conditioner in our home. The company we called, Hiller Plumbing, has a great reputation for customer service. In fact, it won recognition from the Nashville Business Journal as a Best in Business firm in 2011. My wife talked with the manager about the company winning the award. His response was that for a company in that industry to be recognized for its performance is significant because the reputation of the category as a whole is not very positive. Winning recognition in a competition with businesses from a wide range of product and service categories was an even greater testament to Hiller’s differentiation as customer oriented. The key to Hiller’s success is that employees from top management to front-line service personnel show genuine concern for customers.

Many aspects of marketing are hard, but caring should not be one of them! One of the most frequent comments I hear from students who have been in my classes is that they appreciate that I show concern for them. It is surprising to me that they do not experience caring from all faculty members, but like customer service in general, knowing to do the right thing does not translate into actually doing things right.

Be different- care. Reflect on what you can do to demonstrate more concern for customers; then empower employees to deliver. They will be heroes, and your brand will stand out.

Who’s Out Front for You?

Every interaction a person has with your brand has an impact on associations that make up brand image and ultimately, liking (or disliking). Face-to-face experiences customers have with your employees are a critical channel for shaping brand perceptions. An enjoyable experience reinforces one’s decision to be a customer; a bad encounter can call into question why to do business with a company whose service leaves something to be desired.

The above comments state the obvious- the importance of good customer service is understood. This issue comes to mind because I have noticed a stark contrast in the interactions that occur at the front desk at the recreation center on the campus where I work. I have been going to the rec center several days a week for almost 10 years now, and it does not take long to realize that its approach to service would put a for-profit fitness center out of business quickly. Most of the customer contact staff is made up of students, and whether it is inexperience, lack of training, or apathy, a service orientation is sorely lacking.

One exception to the unremarkable customer service is Ashley. I look forward to going to the rec center on Tuesdays and Thursdays because Ashley is at the front desk. She greets each person entering and leaving the facility and usually strikes up a conversation. I complimented Ashley on her performance, and she attributed her approach to the influence of her parents and a decision to have fun doing the job. Ashley represents the type of person a business needs to have on the front lines. Her smile and demeanor create a positive initial impression for rec center visitors. Unfortunately, there are not more Ashleys on staff, making her performance stand out even more.

Who’s out front for you? Do you have an Ashley that can warm up customers and even disarm them when they are unhappy? If not, it is time to make a change to improve the initial impression people form about your brand.

The Follow-Up: A Lost Art?

For the past six years, I have had the privilege of serving as a judge for an awards competition sponsored by a local business publication. In that time I have met many successful entrepreneurs who have inspired me to stretch my limits of professional and personal growth. It is a service commitment that takes time and has no extrinsic rewards, but the people I have met and lessons learned are payment enough.

A fellow judge and I observed a trend over the years we have judged the competition: the act of follow-up from contestants does not occur as frequently today. We visited with top executives at 12 companies this year, and only two of them followed up with a “thank you” message. Follow-up from a company is not a judging criterion nor are companies excluded from consideration because they did not follow up our meeting with an email, call, or postcard.

Our surprise is that more managers do not pursue the small task of following up with judges, just as a salesperson would follow up on a meeting with a prospective client or a key account. The acclaim that comes being named a winner in this competition can enhance a firm’s visibility in the community, not to mention potentially attract new clients that recognize the firm’s accomplishments. The two managers that took the step of following up our visit (one with a handwritten note, one with a phone call) stand out from the others simply by taking a few minutes to say “thank you.”

The intent of sharing this experience is not to indict the other 10 companies. The saying “when you point a finger at someone, you point three fingers at yourself” rings true for me. As I reflected on the trend we observed, I realized my follow-up communications do not always meet my personal expectations. So, rather than criticize anyone I am using this experience to become more consistent in my own practice of the art of the follow-up.

Investing a few minutes to thank a customer, prospect, mentor or someone else who has invested time with you is often perceived as an indicator of someone paying attention to details. A salesperson that regularly practices follow-up with clients can create confidence that he or she is on top of things. And, follow-up is good, old school customer relationship management.

It’s OK to Say “I’m Sorry” but …

Customer service failures are inevitable. Even the best service providers will not come through for their customers sometimes, whether it is the fault of an employee, a product defect, or some external source. While minimizing errors and failures is a high priority, it is equally important to have clearly defined plans about how to recover. The question of how, when, or even if to say “I’m sorry” is raised by Neil Berman, CEO of email marketing company Delivra. Berman asks if companies are sometimes too apologetic, sending out apology emails for minor transgressions or even sending emails to all customers when an error affected only a few of them.

If an apology is warranted, Berman suggests the following guidelines:
• Be brief and to the point
• Take responsibility; do not make excuses or attribute the error to someone else
• Appearance of an apology email should be similar in appearance to other communications (e.g., use of logo, color scheme, and layout of email)

Berman’s suggestion that some marketers may be over-apologetic served as a pause for reflection on this issue. How important is a proactive apology in service recovery? Is it possible for an apology to fan the flames of customer discontent rather than correct a mistake? My take on this issue is that an apology, particularly if it is a sincere expression and not a scripted response, is a necessary first step in service recovery. However, the words of an apology are secondary to the actions taken to soothe an unhappy customer. An apology with no corrective action or worse yet, another service failure, serves no purpose.

The best rule to follow is AAA service recovery: Acknowledge, Apologize, Act. Begin by acknowledging an error or mistake occurred in a matter of fact way. Then, take responsibility and apologize for any inconvenience or harm experienced by the customer. Finally and most importantly, explain to the customer actions that can be taken (or have been taken already) to correct the problem.

Service failure can set the stage for a heroic recovery that instills customer confidence in your firm. Embrace that possibility by having a plan when it is time to say “I’m sorry.”

Email Insider – “Always Having to Say You’re Sorry: Our Love Affair with Apology Emails”

Redefining Customer Delight

The concept of delighting customers has many advocates among marketing experts. Going above and beyond what customers expect is viewed as a way to make customers happy and build loyalty. After all, who would not occasionally want a free product upgrade? Free shipping? A refund when a unsatisfactory experience is delivered? Delighting customers seems like a breath of fresh air and a basis for differentiating a brand.

Customer delight comes at a cost to the firm (see free product upgrades, free shipping, and refunds). The question that must be asked rather than assuming an answer is do efforts to delight customers lead to greater brand loyalty? The answer is “maybe,” but there may be an easier, more cost effective way to develop loyalty. According to findings from research by the Executive Board, the emphasis on delivering a “wow” customer service experience may miss the mark in building long-term relationships.

An immediate reaction to this assertion is “how can this be?” We have been led to believe that giving customers the unexpected is good; our challenge is to figure out how to move customers from satisfaction to delight. The shift called for in the Executive Board report is that the focus of customer service should be how to reduce the effort required by customers to solve the problem they have. If you desired to quench thirst with a glass of water and were given a gallon of water instead, you would no longer be thirsty but you received something that will not deliver utility.

The Executive Board has developed the Customer Effort Score (CES) to measure customer service performance. It consists of a single question; “How much effort did you personally have to put forth to handle your request?” It is scored on a five-point scale with anchors of “very low effort” and “very high effort.” The CES was a better predictor of customer satisfaction and even the highly touted Net Promoter Score. In short, it appears that the easier marketers make it for customers to do business with them, the more loyalty customers will show.

This research was conducted in the context of call centers and self-service contact channels on websites. Does delight via reducing effort apply in all situations? Or, is there still room for creating customer delight by going the extra mile? According to the Executive Board’s research, going the extra mile will only make you tired! The thought of simplifying interactions with companies with which we do business does conjure images of delight.

Harvard Business Review – “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers”

Marketing is Everyone’s Job

The idea that everyone in a business is a marketer, regardless of whether it is in a job title or description, is hardly new. But, I believe it is a mindset that we should remind ourselves to have and look for ways to go from lip service to practice. I was reminded of this adage when I heard a story on NPR about Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford holding a “speed dating” event. The purpose was to allow people searching for a physician to meet informally with a prospective health care provider. This type of event puts doctors in the position of selling themselves. Correction, they are always in a position of selling themselves. Any service provider is engaged in marketing when they come in contact with customers. The difference with the speed dating event is that physicians are expected to sell themselves before having the opportunity to dispense their professional services with patients.

Another great feature of this event was its use of an innovative promotion channel to reach prospective customers. Hospitals and physicians benefit from branding and should have a strategy for marketing, but the approach often taken is using mass media advertising. This face-to-face event was promoted via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, and the total cost was about $600. The opportunity for customers and prospects to experience your brand face-to-face is one of the most powerful branding tools a business can use. Well done Texas Health… although your brand name is a mouthful!

Remember, marketing is everyone’s job. Are you doing your job today?

NPR – Hospital Attracts Patients with Doctor ‘Speed Dating’