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.

I have written numerous posts about the relationship between marketing and customer service. Plainly speaking, the former means zip without the latter. It’s at the front lines – at the point at which a customer is making a purchase decision – that a consumer will make his or her long-term choice (and, as a result, determine whether a company’s advertising is believable or laughable).

This is a story about JCrew.

I’m an active customer. I don’t often respond to emails, but I pore over the catalogs and either buy from there or go to a nearby store to check out the merchandise.  I do, however, keep an eye out for the end-of-season sale emails.

And so it was a couple evenings ago. I bit on a 30% off plus free shipping sale.  While watching TV, I invested maybe 30-45 minutes combing JCrew’s web pages, determining my confidence levels under the  final sale, no returns circumstances.  I finally initiated an online transaction which – before the discount totaled $149.98 – 2¢ below the $150 hurdle for free shipping. 

Surely for 2¢, JCrew would see the sense in helping a loyal customer, if I were to just call and ask… 

Not so much.  The phone rep seemed confused by the question (um, uh, $149.98 is not $150 and that. is. the. rule), but this did not surprise me and I just asked to speak to a supervisor.  Unfortunately – after waiting for maybe 90 seconds, expecting to be rewarded by the supervisor I’d asked for – the same rep came back and suggested I buy a pair of socks to push me over the $150 limit. 

So now I’m mad.  I almost laugh after I catch myself shifting into Perry Mason mode: “So let me just be clear, because I’m going to tweet and maybe blog about this – the company is not going to waive a 2 cent difference for a frequent customer – is that what you’re saying?!” (Is that your testimony, M’aam!?).  Geez – you’d think that those ballet slippers meant life or death, but you know how these things go.  I insisted on speaking to a supervisor one more time because this just seemed so dumb to me.

And then the clouds parted and a supervisor named Nicole R. came on the line. She could not have been more pleasant or professional.  She ignored the 2 cent gap and gave me free shipping with no hesitation.  She offered to complete the online transaction over the phone, so we did.  All done.

So why is this blog-worthy?  It’s a great example of service recovery.  The concept of service recovery is that people and companies screw up.  Everyone knows it.  It’s how something broken gets fixed that can show how customer-centric a company really is. 

Nicole R.’s service recovery skills probably made me feel more positive about JCrew than I had when I started the transaction in the first place.

And then Nicole R. really took it way past the goal line.

Only after she had completed the entire transaction did Nicole mention (nicely) that – for future reference – free shipping offers apply to the purchase price after all discounts are applied.

My $149.98 was before the extra 30% off.   After the discount, I was $45 away (not 2¢) from the $150 hurdle.  Nicole R. had immediately honored my request, saved me $14.50 and made sure I was happy.  Only then did she point out this small fact.

Now we’re into “delight” territory.  For me, $14.50 (or $45, depending on how you see it) was a big deal.  Nicole at JCrew understood that this was a tiny investment in a long-term customer relationship.

Wonderful. Sensible. Amazing. Bravo!!!

It’s a shame that consumer expectations regarding customer service are so low, but it also gives companies an outsized opportunity to stand out.  And more often than not,  “standing out” actually happens in the everyday interactions you have with a consumer.  A lot of whiz-bang is great, but these small moments are what build lifetime relationships… and help marketing efforts look believable in the process.

I can’t believe I haven’t written about Mona Shaw before, because she’s become a hero to frustrated consumers everywhere who must cope with companies that have a virtual monopoly on some corner of our lives, such as the providers of trash pick-up, energy, phone and cable service – companies that hold you practically hostage (or at least it can feel that way), because you have nowhere else to go.

I had my own experience with one of these companies in the past week – Time Warner Cable – and once again I was reminded that all the marketing in the universe cannot make up for one customer service representative who treats me like I just fell off the turnip truck.

The short version is that, for over a week, I had intermittent high-speed cable service. Do you understand? No Internet connection. I mean, didn’t I come out of the womb with an Internet connection? No? Inconceivable!

I spoke to many representatives. Those that treated me like an idiot made me angry – not at the CSR, necessarily, but at Time Warner Cable. Then the second representative who had to come to my apartment in person restored my belief in humanity by fixing the problem, cleaning up after himself, validating my feelings of frustration and wishing me a good day.

Why do consumers have wild “mood swings” like this? How can one person in a call center destroy years of corporate spending and goodwill?
 
                          stephanie-fierman-on-comcast-customer-service.gif

It’s because it’s not about the product. It’s about a much deeper human need for respect, understanding and honesty.  Too many marketers think that marketing is “the fun stuff” – advertising, PR and whatnot.   Not true.  Marketing must become a student of the entire customer lifecyle, including – maybe most importantly, in many cases – the touchpoint at which the customer and company make contact. 

If you don’t put Customer Service up on a pedestal – push them, but provide solutions, too – you’re dead.

So back to Mona “The Hammer” Shaw of Bristow, VA. Certainly Mona was reacting to a particular seriess of prior events with Comcast when she entered a local office and began bashing phones, keyboards and monitors with a hammer, but her words indicate that what really made her angry was how she and her husband were treated: “[Comcast] thought [that] just because we’re old enough to get Social Security that we lack both brains and backbone.” In other words, a little respect goes a long way. Tara Hunt writes a great post on this very topic, triggered by a recent experience she had with a rental car company.

What’s most interesting to me is that the traits Tara assigns to companies that make customers happy vs. those that make them crazy once again have nothing to do with product quality. In old direct marketing-speak, decent product execution is almost “hygiene,” and consumers do understand that a product or service may not work sometimes. No one takes a hammer to your phone because your product failed: they do so because (a) you put them in a corner with no choice, (b) you duped them (Mona and her husband waited two hours in Comcast’s local office only to be told that the person for whom they were waiting had left) and (c) you treated them poorly.

Companies in these one-choice industries are exactly the ones who have the opportunity to delight customers right into buying additional services. So why is the reality too often the opposite? Where is the rest of the organization when a CSR takes a call?  Is that person adequately trained and ready? If not (and that’s an enterprise-wide responsibility),  treating a customer poorly will overwhelm a new-and-improved widget or ad campaign every time.

If CMOs and CEOs don’t focus on “experience delivery” and include relationship-oriented customer service metrics when they calculate marketing ROI, they’re missing a vital part of the success equation.

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Mattel’s Missed Opportunity

September 24th, 2007

The most recent news on the Mattel toy recall story is the company’s apology to China.



Clearly Mattel and the entire toy industry have serious challenges right now, but this post is not about China, or manufacturing or lead paint: it’s about how puzzled I am that Mattel – the world’s biggest and perhaps most repected toy company – would permit others to control the story, particularly when the web makes it so easy to get a message out quickly, clearly, repeatedly and directly. Let’s look at just the last several days.

On Friday, September 21, Thomas Debrowski, Mattel’s head of operations, appeared on camera in China to personally apologize for its massive recall of Chinese-made toys.  Mattel made the decision to do this because most of the items were defective due to a (Mattel) design flaw and not because of a (Chinese) manufacturing problem. Several media outlets interpreted this move as Mattel’s attempt to protect its own fortunes, with ABC saying that the company was trying to patch up its relationship with a country that “makes most of its toys and fattens its profit” and the Washington Post pointing out that the toymaker “receives 65 percent of its toys from China and has made significant financial investments in the Asian country.” These reports prompted Mattel to react with a formal statement defending the apology and attempting to point out that it was very similar, if not the same, to the apologies that the company had offered in several other markets. Ugh.

So I went to mattel.com fully expecting the entire home page to be taken over by the company’s messaging and statements of caring and action about this situation. I assumed I would see perhaps one-click access to a moment-by-moment updated list of recalled toys, a video statement from the Chairman, further explanation of the company’s apology to the Chinese, an invitation to call a 24/7-manned 800# hotline for further information and messages to key stakeholders such as parents and stockholders. Maybe a corporate blog. I can’t overestimate how much I just assumed about what’d I’d find at their site. When I stopped for a moment to think about why, I realized, actually, that I had such positive feelings/memories about the company that I just figured they’d “do the right thing”:  Mattel itself is the entity that creating such high expectation on my part.

Here is a snapshot of Mattel’s home page as of Monday, September 24 at:

stephanie_fierman_mattel-home-page.jpg

The main section of the well is unchanged (“The World’s Premier Toy Brands Today and Tomorrow”). Two smaller call-outs link to a recall list last updated September 4, nearly three weeks ago, and the only statement from the Chairman accessible from the home page is Mr. Eckert’s Wall Street Journal editorial dated September 11, more than two weeks ago. In what I consider to be a particularly painful irony, the third of the three call-outs notes that Mattel has been named one of the 100 best corporate citizens of 2007 by Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine.

The first item in a “Mattel in the News” section (IS there any other news?) refers to a new Barbie full-length DVD musical and kick-off event. [NOTE: as an aside, it is possible that Mattel is inadvertently damaging the potential of this new product by having it on the home page at a time when visitors are least likely to want to be receptive to Mattel marketing messages.

There’s no landing page solely devoted to what’s happening and what people care about right now.  Even the information in the site isn’t completely updated.  Forget about the video blogs I’d have all over the web updated multiple times/day, the street teams I might consider fanning out all over the US to talk to real citizens, the use of Youtube to get your position out – in other words, the extensive list of PR options Mattel management deserves and should have in front of them at this moment…  They’re not even using the most valuable piece of real estate in the universe right now, mattel.com, to take charge.

Having made these decisions before, I do not underestimate their difficulty, or the pain this has caused Mattel.  And being an honorable company may just make it worse.  You assume that the public sees and understands much more than they do:  that they will rationally assess an incident in the context of your track record of excellence.
 
If this was ever true, the Internet has forever changed the picture.


It’s not about truth on the Web:  it’s about sensationalism.  The Google algorithm actually rewards popularity – the bigger the fire, the better.   So where companies may have believed that the high road meant staying silent, sticking to their knitting and just fixing the problem… that is no longer an option.

Whoever steps into the void is the party that will be heard, so a premier company like Mattel needs to re-program itself to understand that the “high road” now means delivering authentic 24-hour information online – in good times and bad. 

Manage the story, Mattel: don’t let the story manage you.