The Experience Is The Thing

December 4th, 2015

And now a rant on customer experience triggered by Brian Solisnew book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design (more on this later).

I am a Birchbox subscriber. Twice, when the company’s sample boxes got me hooked on a product and I went to the website to purchase a full-sized version, the product was sold out, and I had to check back numerous times. The last time this happened was on Cyber Monday 2015, when Birchbox was pushing me emails shouting “25% off on everything!” Twice that day, I took a moment away from my work and clicked through from those emails only to find the product unavailable. Frustrating. As a result, I tweeted at Birchbox, asking them whether a sale could really be called a sale if the products loyal subscribers wanted (that they’d already promoted to us) weren’t available. I got a smiley robo-tweet in return, apologizing and suggesting I buy something else. When I tweeted a second time, suggesting that this sounded a little like a bait and switch, Birchbox tweeted back the identical robo-apology… minus the suggestion that I shop for something else. Non-thinking, unfeeling, impersonal and obnoxious.

If that sounds strong, it’s because I care. Seriously. Birchbox obviously frets quite a bit over how pretty their monthly boxes are, and what color the tissue paper is inside, and all I want to do is shake them and ask, “Do you understand what you sell?”

Like all brands, Birchbox’s product is not at the point of the most obvious transaction – in their case, the monthly boxes of samples. Their “product” is the entire experience into which a consumer is drawn when he/she decides to allow a brand into his or her busy life. And that’s what it is: I have choices, I don’t need you and – if I let you in – every single touch, every single interaction better be great. In Birchbox’s case, I love the samples, but may not renew my annual subscription because the surrounding experience they provide is lousy and I can’t count on getting a product I want even if I like the sample.

I am constantly shocked at how unconscious brands seem, how blind they are to the fact that experience IS the brand. As a marketer myself, it’s seriously terrifying how clueless brands are about what’s really important.

Oh, and – once a customer starts yelling online – it often kicks off additional complaints, like the woman on Twitter who responded to my experience with “I was basically charged twice for a December birchbox. I signed up last week and now I have ten bucks out of my account today.”

Oh, and (one more time…), of course Birchbox has completely ignored my question about sale rainchecks. Ignoring a customer? That’s the worst.

As Brian Solis says, “Ignorance is diss.”

All this is what Brian’s book is about, and why I loved it. If the above blah-blah makes me sound a little crazy, Brian says I’m normal. He explains that the digital world has upped the ante in terms of what customers expect, making us all “accidental narcissists” who expect more and expect it quickly. And by the way, these expectations that started online have bled into every part of our lives. The experience is everything everywhere now. I don’t care how amazing a refrigerator is; if I can’t get a service person on the phone, I will never buy you again. I don’t care how great your clothes are if your salespeople are rude and your return policy sucks. I don’t care how amazing you are if your ad tracking follows me all over the Web until I want to scream. I don’t care how fabulous your shoes are if your website’s a nightmare. No amount of product fabulousness – or boxes that are so pretty I save them – can overcome a crappy experience.

Brian is right. From the second a brand story catches a consumer’s eye, the clock starts ticking and the expectations start growing. That brand is on stage… and needs to learn how not to f* it up. I used to love Birchbox. Happy thoughts all around. That was then. Last night, I saw a holiday TV ad for the company, and my head was full of disappointment.  That’s a self-inflicted wound that the company would need to work hard to close.

Great book.

Anyone who knows me well knows that helping people understand, grow and protect their personal brands online is something I’ve been committed to for some time. I’ve written numerous posts on the subject, including these two recent ones – Thinking it won’t happen to you? Dumb idea and Don’t let social make you stupid – along with a popular 4-part series called “Promoting and growing brands in the digital age” that I started writing way back in 2007 (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4).

While nearly all of the advice I provided in these posts is still valuable (if I may say so myself), just as much or more has changed since then, particularly when it comes to who can now see, capture, process and act upon the information we’re all sharing every day. How hard would it be for someone with a mighty set of algorithms and a big server to answer these questions about you right now?

  Where do you live?
  Where do you shop?
  What do you look like?
  What do you drive?
  How much did your home cost?
  How much do you spend on clothes/groceries/electronics?
  Where did you go to school/where do your kids go to school?
  Where do you vacation and party? What’s your favorite drink?
  How far are your favorite stores from your home and office?
  Who are your friends?
  What are your favorite restaurants? Where do you eat out most often?

The answer is that it wouldn’t be very hard at all for a capable person or company to harvest the answers to these and many more questions about you, and to mix and match them in an infinite number of ways in order to predict what you might do, where you might go and what you might want, watch or buy next.

Is this what we’ve signed up for, or do we just not think about it? Are we paying enough attention to the idea that everything we like, share, post and repost, pin or repin, tweet or retweet, Instagram or “re-gram” is being used to create profiles of each of us, and that the value of these profiles goes far beyond what Amazon might try to see us next?

Mark Cuban is thinking about it, and he believes that the biggest mistake we are making in social media is letting the content we create live forever [If you cannot see the video interview with Mark below, watch it HERE. It’s a must-see].  His point of view is that looking back at the days when privacy worries were focused on cookies is going to appear quaint when the 0s and 1s we throw off become the basis of psychological profiles that are used in pervasive and invasive ways that we cannot control.

You’ll go to a job interview, and the company will have a psychological profile of you based on your online activity. You’ll get sued, and the opposing lawyer will share where and what you’ve posted, along with an analysis saying that your activity looks that of a person who was convicted of xyz crime, and so there must be a link.  You’ll get pulled over for speeding, and the officer will have reviewed an analysis that scored how likely you are to have committed various crimes, or be drunk, or to have seen a therapist or have a weapon in the car before he even walks up to your window.

We already know that these scenarios are not far-fetched.  In the days when I first began writing about personal branding, one of the most important lessons I taught was the importance of creating your own content in order to create and present the narrative you want.  Now that benefit must be balanced with what others can do with the intelligence you produce.

I have tweeted over 13,000 times since joining Twitter in 2008.  How many do I remember? How many feature some tiny tidbit that could be used in a way I did not intend?  How important is it that I keep everything I tweeted in February 2010?  The answers are Not many, Probably several and Not at all.  To that end, I’ve begun erasing old tweets and am beginning to scrub away a bunch of old stuff.

If you handle this intelligently, such social cleansing is not likely to negatively impact your positive search results, but it is likely to limit what is unknowingly shared with others.  At least, that’s the hope: I for one would not bet someone’s life on the idea that anything on the Web can ever be fully erased, but you gotta start somewhere.

What if yesterday rewarded those with the biggest digital footprints possible, while tomorrow goes to those with the smallest?

P.S. Sure, Cuban is selling in this interview; Cuban sells like the rest of us breathe. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.