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?

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.

Email marketing software: The good, the bad and the downright ugly

Back when I worked in email marketing, I kept meaning to write about what it’s like to work in that field and what applications have blown my mind, or been the bane of my life. In March, I wrote an article for the Digital Web magazine about the Seven Deadly Sins of Email Marketing, but it focussed more on list management and attitude.

Spam is bad!Today, I received an email from an old colleague asking for tips on the best email marketing software to use in her new role. Instead of responding via email, I thought I’d turn it into a post, since it isn’t the first time the question comes up.

The first step in deciding what type of email marketing application to use is whether you’re looking for a one-off-cost downloadable application or an online service-based application. At first glance, the downloaded app will appear to be the best option, and by far the cheapest. That’s the one big pro about it – it’s a one-off purchase. Now, I’ll be perfectly honest and say I’ve never used one of those apps, so the only recommendation I can make on that level is to look for reviews before you buy.

However, I can explain the cons of using a downloadable app.

One of the greatest challenges in email marketing is deliverability. By this I mean the percentage of total email addresses on your mailing list who receive your newsletter to their inbox.

Think of the process as a funnel:

  1. Total number addresses in your list
  2. Delivered emails
  3. Opened emails
  4. Clickthroughs to your site
  5. Your reader taking action on your site

On that second level of the funnel, if you’ve chosen to use a downloadable app, you have to count on your ISP and your domain name, cross your fingers and close your eyes very hard when you hit the send button. Why am I saying this? It’s because you don’t have the online service’s great ISP relations squad behind you. You get no help whatsoever from your app to ensure your email is delivered, rather than wiped by the server or treated as spam.

If too many users flag you as spam or the ISP recognises your IP address as being troublesome (not necessarily by your fault, could be due to a previous owner of the address or because you’re sharing it on a network), you might find your whole domain blacklisted. This includes your entire sales team’s email addresses – and that can’t be good for business! Establishing relationships with masses of ISPs worldwide and ensuring nothing goes wrong is a full time job and a very difficult process, which small businesses can’t really manage on their own.

So there, that’s one of the many reasons I support online email marketing apps. They’re the guardian angels of deliverability.

No matter what, online email marketing services also vary wildly in quality. I’ve used a few of them, ranging from the extremely user-friendly Campaign Monitor (my preferred choice) to the awfully antiquated and highly aggravating Epsilon DreamMail and Axciom Digital’s Impact dinosaurs. [It should already raise a big red flag when the service is only usable in IE 6 on Windows…]

Services like Campaign Monitor suit the vast majority of small/medium businesses with to their simple and slick user interface, and are still priced very reasonably. The team does everything in its power to offer great email templates, and gives some of the best email marketing tips I’ve ever read on its blog.

Quite at the other end of the scale, services like DreamMail and Digital Impact give me a rash. They’re from a completely different school of thought, offering far too many radio buttons and tick boxes*, resulting in some very costly mistakes over my time doing email marketing. The service is slow, unreliable – often down “for maintenance” at peak times, unbeknownst to our assigned (and unreachable) account manager. Sure, the cost per email sent is lower when sending very large mailouts (to the tune of 3-4 million emails a month) but the service is dire and the time spent fighting with the system is disproportionate to the benefits gained from the cost-saving exercise for a business any smaller than that.

You might think I’m drawing a grim, black and white picture of the older and more traditional services, but speaking on behalf of those who’ve used it before and after me, we’ve gained a full head of grey hair between us from using them. Go for small, human services who are in tune with their users’ needs. Aren’t they the ones we want to see flourish anyways?

[* I once asked my account manager what some of the tick boxes did and what mysterious options were for. His answer? “Oh they’re deprecated, don’t use those. We should remove them but nobody’s done it yet. We’ll have a new product for Europe at some point but this is the US service, minus a few features.” Yeah, mate. That makes me feel like we’re very important customers… And we’re not talking about 2-3 small tick boxes, but nearly half the interface not being functional for us.]