Ten years ago I contributed to a book on customer service: Customer Service Delivery- Research and Best Practices, in which I decried the increasing tidal wave of spam and vanishing privacy that was hitting us then as a result of emerging “marketing automation.” Today I’m unhappy to report that the situation is no better, in fact it’s much worse. While IT and automation makes transactions easier and “frictionless,” companies in general have used it to cut costs, de-personalize experience, and relentlessly overload us with a massive invasive, irritating, at times simply immoral tsunami of global spam that shows few signs of slowing down.
We all try to deal with it. If you still have a “landline” (i.e. crappy, useless wireless set) you know that all you get on it now is robo calls. And many years ago the threshold for phone spam crossed into mobile phones. I have been getting calls for a decade from the same generic, untrackable Indian pharma company trying to sell me Viagra. Nothing I do can stop the calls- blocking, complaints on government web forms, and depending on how vile my mood happens to be, threats that are far beyond impolite and often fall just short of what might be construed as terrorism. I won’t even talk much about email, which has been a wasteland of spam almost since it was invented (and I’m so Paleolithically old I remember that, believe it or not!). Speaking of being old, I also remember the days when we complained about the “commercialization” of the internet, which now seems laughable in hindsight. After a few minutes of lazy web searching, I couldn’t find much in the way of consensus in recent reports of spam percentage in email (somewhere between 50-90%), but as this article indicates, thankfully there may be a slightly downward trend.
Perhaps the best thing on the topic I’ve read in recent years is a New Yorker piece Are You Being Served, by James Suroweicki, in my mind the best business writer in the country. If you care to look deep enough, you can find a reason for things that may seem to defy reason, and here he explains very well why good customer service is far rarer than we may deserve. In light of this I would say that much of what’s driving poor customer experience is companies lusting after the “network effect.” This is when the value of the network- express by millions of likes, customers, users, whatever- increases dramatically the larger it gets. Network effect was demonstrated early on in the birth of the internet by the stratospheric growth of Netscape, AOL, and others, to the point that actual revenue or profits became irrelevant, as long as you had millions of users. Companies today chase new customers, at a much greater cost per customer than keeping old ones happy, to inflate the perception of their network effect and attract investors, who have mostly been sitting on piles of money for many years.
Lately one specific piece of the “customer experience” experience that’s really galling is the number and frequency of requests to rate transactions. In almost every transaction with a new service provider, as well as with most old ones for that matter, I am asked to “rate” the transaction, long before it’s actually completed. This is almost always a brain-dead on-a-scale-of-one-to-ten row of radio buttons web form. There are SO many things wrong with this approach that I’ll restrict myself to listing only a few so I don’t blow a gasket. First of all, because I know what’s behind the scenes here, I know that nothing is EVER done with any data you send to any company. They collect it to show they’re collecting, and if they look at it at all it’s only to validate conclusions already reached. They don’t analyze it or listen to it or use it in any important way, and if they did, you’d never know it. Secondly, they automatically assume that you’re more than happy to spend 1 or 5 or 10 minutes of your precious time helping them figure out their messed up products or process or company- with NO compensation whatsoever. Thirdly, by putting money into this kind of tip-of-the-iceberg approach - which is, granted, cheap, fast, broad, and quantitative - they completely miss the most valuable information hidden in plain sight “between-the lines”: the real emotional profile of the customer. And lastly, none of this has to be, as I discovered, people are eager and willing to help companies if approached correctly and shown RESPECT. This is not difficult to imagine or do, but it is far from the norm.
How to Start Better Customer Engagement with Insights (Research)
Back right after the turn of the century after the tech boom and crash, I gave up on design and making communications in order to find out for myself who we had been talking to over the many years I ran a webdev and marketing company. I was tired of not knowing how effective any of our efforts were and of not actually knowing real customers as well as I wanted to. So I invented a customer research methodology that involved a web interface and phone interviews. I designed and ran hundreds of one-on-one interviews with Ma & Pa Public, for a wide range of services and products, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my long strange brilliant career. It was also a case of DIY- I needed good research, and most, if not all, of what I found was total crap. (It still is). So I invented my own from best practices. I called it BrandSequencing, after the idea that “memes” (Richard Dawkins’ term for “unit of cultural evolution,” or something like that) could be messed with and “sequenced” like actual genes based on amino acids. From this experience I learned a few valuable lessons, which I will now make good on my promise by delivering in “tip” form. (I read somewhere that if you want to get a lot of hits, make titles that say “Top Ten Tips” or “5 reasons Why…” Pretty cool what you can learn on the internet, huh?)
1. Find the Nonzero
I’m all about nonzero sum games lately, especially after reading Robert Wright, whose books, including Nonzero, are awesome. A zero-sum game is “win-lose,” meaning one side winning is contingent on one side losing. A nonzero game by contrast, is “win-win,” meaning both sides benefit from a transaction. Human culture, especially including commerce, is fundamentally based on win-win transactions. Every customer you need to engage with has a win, and it’s a waste of your time and theirs if you approach them to do business without first identifying that, or at least seeking to identify it. How does your solution make their lives easier or help them live better. Most technology companies today still fail this basic test and try to cover up this failure with, among other things, worthless “research.”
2. Invite, Don’t Demand
Don’t call people at home during dinner or spam them at all in any way. Instead respectfully invite them to participate. This takes more time and thought, arguably in short supply, but yields much better results. Even if you don’t offer anything in return (which I don’t recommend) people will respond much more positively if you simply adopt an inviting tone in asking for feedback. They mostly don’t care whether you get feedback or not if there’s nothing in it for them.
3. Offer Something in Return for Time and Information
Every single invitation to provide feedback I’ve received recently comes with no “what’s in it for me” and I refuse all of them on principle. In designing customer research I’ve found that it’s the mere fact that you’re offering something that makes the most difference to the customer – ideally related to the service or product you’re researching rather than something generic like Starbucks gift cards. In one case, the offer was for a credit towards whatever service was being offered. The acceptance rate of this invitation and the followup analysis indicated that by making this kind of offer, our pre-research filter selected for the most hardcore, passionate users for whom a small credit was immensely valuable.
4. Do it One-on-One and Measure Unconscious Responses
Lose the Survey Monkey BS- just because it s fast and cheap or free doesn’t mean it’s useful. If I had a choice of doing 25 in depth personal interviews or 250 online surveys, I’d pick the personal ones. I’m not saying there’s no use at all for “quantitative” methods (well I kind of am saying that) it’s just that I never see them put to any use at all. Personal interactions with people are still the most valuable way to get good information. This is what good salespeople and sales teams are expert at- reading the unconscious responses of customers. Speaking of which, there is now software and technology that lets you do this. It’s called emotion analytics, offered by companies like Emotient, Affectiva, and Beyond Verbal. These solutions allow you to conduct intimate, information rich remote customer interviews and analyze unconscious emotional responses that tell the real story.
5. Share Results with Customers
Customers who spend time with you spilling their guts want to know that their feedback is at least listened to, if not acted upon. This is a primary motivating factor, after all, you’re banking on their fundamental altruism by asking for help, so don’t harsh on them by ignoring them. Let them know you’re listening by posting research results and inviting further feedback. The people you’ve filtered out for in-depth engagement may very well end up being your best customers and evangelizers.
6. Read “Between the Lines”
In designing research projects, I found that by creating a structure, a progression of questions that people can apply some kind of rating to, I was able to focus people thinking on a cognitive, quantitative task. But my real goal was not to fill in the blanks- it was to engage them to unconsciously reveal how, not what, they were really thinking. Usually the important revelations came at the end of the formal, more quantitative part of the interview, where the “one more thing” last comment turned out to be the most valuable. On one project, after dozens of interviews, I realized that the conversations were starting to sound like this: “blah blah blah blah DELIVERY blah blah blah blah DELIVERY blah blah blah Delivery…” in other words, simply the number of times people mentioned what was important to them (like, oh..delivery, say) seemed to be indicative of what was important to them. So I developed a word count algorithm to measure this that ended up being pretty accurate. In interviews and research, people behave the way they expect you want them to because they’re trying to help you get through your mind-numbingly boring fill-in-the boxes research project, so they’ll basically say anything they think you want to hear. This is double true in focus groups. They will always unconsciously express what they’re really feeling and thinking, and it takes a lot of listening to be able to tease this out, analyze it, and put it to use.
7. Call It Insights, not Research
To most people, “research” means guys in white lab coats with clipboards counting blips on the screen. As such, scientific, evidence-based inquiry in US business has a relatively low value, and is often centered more on things that are easily quantifiable, like market opportunity, stock value, and technical information. Actually “insights” are the result and “research” is the process, but if you focus on the valuable outcome I feel that your efforts are “branded” more effectively (apologies for using the B word!). Research produces piles of data, insights are the valuable findings we interpret- focus on those.
There’s also now a completely huge paradigm (apologies for using the P word!) shift in the underlying nature of research and searching for insights. “Research” also suffers from being thought of as an expensive, long, complicated process, which it often is of course, but that’s if you base it on the typical approach: hire a big firm with lot of white lab coat type people and spend months or years and millions of dollars. Instead, the new paradigm sets up a sensor-rich observation environment that provides an endless stream of realtime data that can be analyzed for trends and patterns any time. This can be deployed in brick-and-mortar environments as well as virtual ones, and with emotion analytics can even provide data that humans can miss.
Sheeple- It’s About People, Not Web Forms!
A big trend in retailing today is making the delivery chain more frictionless, which unfortunately means that if you find the incredible new perfect thingie you want, it’s increasingly rare for a brick and mortar store to actually have it in stock – this is further removing people fro interacting with physical stores and physical people. Of all my tips, I think that the thinking at the very beginning of the process is the most important. Before you gather and analyze any data, you need to know what problems are worth solving inthe first place. The search for insights can help you here and when done well, save your company millions of dollars in wasted effort. The problems you’re looking for are human problems- everyone basically wants and needs to business with you somehow, you must focus your efforts on what’s in it for both of you, so you can get to win-win. This is not new or revolutionary or difficult, so why aren’t you and your company doing more of it? It’s not like we don’t have the tools!