Your Call is Important to Us: Why customer service must improve

When I started writing this, I was waiting, seething, for someone at Hewlett Packard to pick up the phone to answer a query I had. As I waited, I had to grit and bear, listening to the second most annoying hold music I’ve ever heard. HSBC wins for the worst hold music hands down – I even recorded it last time I was on hold for what felt like a century, so that I could share the pain with you.

In HSBC’s defence, I don’t usually have to wait very long with them, but when I do, I get a hell of a twitch. As for HP, there was no excuse for the lengthy wait times I experienced.

In fact, an HSBC staff member admitted on the call that day that he’d had many complaints about last summer’s choice: Amy Winehouse’s cover of Valerie. He confided that it wasn’t unusual for customers to be in a call queue for half-hour with nothing but a lo-fi version of Valerie as company – Enough to send anyone into mental meltdown. At the very least, it’ll cause your mild annoyance to snowball into a murderous mood by the time the poor call centre guy/gal picks up the phone.

Anyone who has had to call the Applecare phone line will have experienced the same frustration I did when my MacBook casing cracked:

I went through to an Indian (?) call centre where the quality of the phone line was so poor and crackly, I had to shout my MacBook’s serial number six times, with Andrew giggling increasingly with every “E for Echo, L for Lima!”

The amount of time spent repeating information to the call centre was a waste of my time and theirs, and a crackling poor quality phone line caused tempers to rise. Clearly, the relationship between customer and call centre needs to change.

What’s wrong with the current relationship?

  1. Businesses need to value existing customers
  2. Generally calls to call centres are made by EXISTING customers. Is it any surprise then that it takes five times longer (scientific finger-in-the-air statistic) for calls from already-acquired customers to be answered, versus nearly instant answer for the new-customers-only line? Businesses need to stop treating existing customers like crap based on the assumption that we’re tied in with them.

    The “Brand new customers only” approach doesn’t work anymore.

  3. New technology needs to be adopted more widely
  4. If Online Chat widgets were more commonplace on business sites, I’d often be just as satisfied to ask my questions that way. However, in my experience, the staff answering questions on online chat are often under-informed and working based on a very strict data sheet, most often leading to a conclusion that I’ll need to call the sales line to get an answer to my question.

    Some businesses have embraced services like Twitter as an informal customer service channel, and their success is usually proportional to the efforts they’ve put in; a consistent and regular response to questions, rather than the occasional outburst will no doubt have a positive impact. But reality is that not everyone’s on Twitter, so while I enjoy seeing businesses use it, I also want to see the more mainstream services like corporate websites and call centres acknowledge that new technology can help make customers happy, albeit at a cost.

  5. Staff need to be encouraged to have a friendlier approach
  6. Treating customers like liars, making them guilty until proven otherwise is a nasty way to start a relationship so while it’s fair to ask for a proof of purchase receipt in order to provide a refund or ask callers to provide identification details before answering questions, customer service needs to be friendly, approachable and proactive in wanting to solve the customer’s issue.

    No more robot-like scripts or refusing to escalate the call to managers who can take action, the entire team’s objectives should be to create happy customers, resolving problems and using common sense to solve them in a timely, cost-effective way.

While working on this post, I came across David Cushman’s customer service manifesto, and Heidi Miller’s post who flagged up BL Ochman’s bad customer service experience over a $34.32 accounting error.

How would you improve customer service online, on the phone or in person?

Corporate Blogging: Why you SHOULD publish press releases on your blog

This morning, I came across the excellent “10 Harsh Truths about Corporate Blogging”, published by Paul Boag on Smashing Magazine. I was nodding emphatically at each point, until I hit the 5th one, which jarred me in the back like a bad pothole in the road when you’re daydreaming on the drive to work.

Funnily enough, a year or two ago, I would have militantly agreed with Paul.

5. Press releases shouldn’t appear on a blog

[…] a press release preforms [sic] a different role to that of corporate blog. As the name implies, a press release is meant for professional journalists. It is designed to encourage journalists to write about your product or service. It is not designed for your customers.

A blog, on the other hand, is meant to be read by prospective and existing customers. It should be engaging, informative and helpful. When writing a blog post, you should always have the end reader in mind. What will they learn? What insight will this give them into who we are? How will it help build our relationship with the reader? You should never simply copy and paste press releases or news stories.

The other problem with press releases is that they are corporate statements. A blog should have a more personal tone.

Here’s why I now disagree; Bloggers are both journalists (in the broad sense of the term at least) and, one can assume, interested customers or prospects. Yet bloggers are journalists who often don’t get paid to deal with PR agencies’ bullshit (eg. embargoes) and don’t necessarily have the research resources that a professional journalist has access to.

Realistically, a corporate blog won’t be read by the vast majority of customers. Even with cool companies like Flickr, 37Signals or Twitter, what percentage of users really care about what’s being said on the corporate blog? [Note: There is a difference between a corporate blog & a blog directed at the end users. On a blog solely directed at end users, press releases are unlikely to have a purpose. This post refers to corporate blogs specifically.]

The beady eyeballs who will find most relevance in a corporate blog will be:

  • Existing and potential investors;
  • Competitors (As Paul says, get over it!);
  • Potential employees;
  • Active developers & geeks who want to use your API;
  • Journalists & Bloggers;
  • The occasional day-to-day user.

Don’t fool yourself, the majority of users will only care when the service goes down. As long as your site/ service/ product is available, they don’t think about what you do as a company an awful lot.*

So why does it still matter so much? The bloggers and the passionate users give a damn. They’re a key player in spreading the word about your business, and when they want to write about you, you should provide all the information you can so that they can feel smart and well informed. Yes, including that nasty old-world press release. Why? Bloggers cannot divinate information. Bloggers find themselves with only a short amount of time to write an entry and will be grateful for the stats you provide or the CEO’s past startup that can be confirmed via the release’s boilerplate.

So go for it, publish that press release. But wait! Don’t publish it alone. Accompany it with a summary in informal tone, some context to help readers understand the relevancy of the PR push, and a bucketload of useful resources (links, images & further information).

If your press release is so officious that you’re embarrassed to publish it on the blog, could it be that you need to rethink your releases altogether? Journalism is changing too, and a fresh, no-bullshit press release will most likely appeal to traditional journalists too. Why not try that for a change?

[* Here’s another tip: If your livelihood is dependent on being available on the web, host your blog elsewhere so that you can still provide status updates when your service goes down.]

Astroturfing & Disclosure: Where Do You Draw the Line?

As more businesses start peppering their marketing plans with social media projects, activities that previously were reserved for the geeky early adopters are now coming under scrutiny when used for commercial endeavours.

astroturf-belkinWith all this new media growth, there’s no clear rule book yet. We’re writing it as we go, and just like the Bible, there are an awful lot of different interpretations of the same guidelines.

Certain aspects of blogging and online brand identity are seeing their limits pushed by certain brands lately…

Belkin, the computer peripherals manufacturer, was caught red-handed recently when The Daily Background Blog uncovered that a Belkin employee used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and similar services to solicit paid reviews. An anonymous tip-off from a Belkin staff member seemed to confirm this wasn’t a one-off either.

Belkin apologised publicly for the actions of its employee, but “Is that enough?” asks The Responsible Marketing Blog.

The above is a clear case of astroturfing, but rarely is the line quite so clearly drawn into the fake plastic grass.

Before I go any further, let me pause and let Wikipedia explain the concept of Astroturfing:

Astroturfing is a word in American English describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.

Back when I worked for Active Hotels, we prided ourselves in having a hotel review system that was much more fool proof than average; only guests that had stayed at the hotel, paid for their stay & been confirmed by the hotel would be able to leave a review. The site was engineered to discourage astroturfing on the part of overzealous hotel managers – while it didn’t stop them, each attempt would cost them a commission, which in most cases was enough of a deterrent. Trip Advisor couldn’t exactly say the same of their reviews. Ethically, again the line is fairly clear; you haven’t stayed, you shouldn’t make up a review about a hotel. Still with me?

Via Simon Collister, I then I found a blurry line, one written by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (who often strike me as not “getting” the online world at all):

“[CIPR] Members’ use of social media must be transparent, and they must make extra effort to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. … In this regard, members should be aware that ‘ghosting’ a blog is illegal”

Woah, hold your horses there, Georgie! Surely, their definition of a ghost blog is different to mine then? A ghost blogger, in my experience, writes on behalf of the CEO, politician or other high-profile person, who may have called the PR team from across the country to give an outline of what they wants to say, letting them find the exact words.

Marketing teams are used to committee-written press releases, so blog entries often get the same treatment. Circulating between the marketing team, the CEO and the legal time a few times in a three-way table tennis match, the watered-down, reviewed entry gets posted. It may not be the most genuine method of writing, but it certainly isn’t something I’d consider illegal.

I suspect that what they refer to as ghost blogging is in fact the above-described astroturfing, which deserves a long stay on the naughty step and a spank to the bottom (not in a good way!)

How does this scenario (not the bottom spanking, the ghost writing for the CEO one), and every other one in between, fit in alongside all other transparency issues encountered online?

It’s not the first time I bring up my issues with non-disclosure & dodgy marketing practices, but as social media becomes a more mainstream interest for marketing bods of all walks of life, I truly hope that we’ll all take a few moments to think about the opportunities available to us. If organisations spent as much on building positive branding and community relations with their audiences as they do on being snake oil salesmen equipped with smoke and mirrors, the relationships could have a far longer shelf life.