Same story, different time …0
By Frank J. Rich
In a world of instant information and growing automation, are we likely to see personal customer service disappear? Retail has moved online, without a doubt, though meteoric growth of its share of the $5 trillion dollar pie benefits significantly from the arithmetic magic of small numbers. Online purchases are roughly 10-12 percent; though most asked the question guess the number to be between 50-90 percent. Clearly, Amazon has taken the lead, making retail the facile mechanism that serves a needy consumer with the convenience that the information age encourages, but they have succeeded at something fundamentally more important than the listing of “everything under the sun.” Even when selecting the “fav” of the American craze for quick burgers, one company revealed the essential philter in the success model by telling customers they can “ … have it your way.” No less cleverly, Amazon did the same; making the answer to every customer’s question—“Yes!”
A WSJ report that Apple Stores have lost their luster, suggests a refocus from customer services to retail tricks, that lure customers now spurned by the absence of creative and effective “help” with Apple products, to “niceness” in the form of less capable technical problem solvers and hard-to-access solutions. Lighter traffic and sales are the result. When Best Buy announced some years ago that it would focus its attention on the top 10 percent of its customer base, and leave the rest to fend for themselves, it was no surprise to see customers find alternatives while sales fell.
The essential truth in competition is that its purest form is the “alternative use of the same resources.” Challenge the customer to reconsider your products, and they inevitably will do just that. The wisdom that informs sales is customer service; not sweet temperaments and seeming helpfulness, but real help. While Amazon may be testing its stellar “returns policy” by accepting more product from sketchy suppliers, it continues the march to “having it your way” by its move to “next day delivery” for Prime members. Whatever your brand of it, losing sight of the value in customer service is to forgo the golden goose. The magic for retailers begins when they get the attention of buyers. It is this moment they have the opportunity to capture their loyalty on the way to a successful “retention revenue model.” It’s what secures the future more than anything else.
Before Apple found gold in its music and mobile products, it relied on its loyal base to tout the uniqueness that distinguished it from others—“the computer for the rest of us.” The loyalty of its customers ( a cultural pennant) sustained the company through decades of so-so sales until the genius in bold product moves was revealed, along with a customer service juggernaut; the Apple Store, that even surprised success models, where others had failed. Though it is at risk at the moment, the solution remains the same—simple, better than good customer service.
After a recent fender bender, I called my insurance company (on the spot) to provide all the information needed to begin the repair of the damage, including a pre-selected local body shop. Days later, despite email confirmation of the exchange and promises to move quickly to restore the car’s use to me, nothing had been done. A funneled connection to a single claims agent revealed confusion on her part about the insurance coverage on the vehicle. She claimed first that it did not include collision, and next that no policy for that vehicle had been purchased in the renewal that occurred two months earlier. In telephone conversation with the claims agent I insisted that she review the five policies we had with the company and get back to me with a solution to the problem, in lieu of my proving to her that we actually had insurance policies in place. Begrudgingly, she accepted, certain that her records correctly positioned me as she described. I immediately went to their site and retrieved the details on all policies, confirming the renewals and coverages in each, including full collision for the damaged vehicle; then waited for her promised call following the weekend. It didn’t come, so I called her at 3:56PM and left a message. She works to 4:15PM of each weekday. The message explained that if I didn’t hear from her by the next day I’d only be talking to our local agent and headquarters people of her company, but not with her again. The next day she called to apologize and confirm that all was well, policies in place, and a promise to move things along immediately. And one more thing: she blamed the confusion on another—the clerk that took the information; strangely, whose confirming email to me contained every bit of information I gave her, including the body shop that would do the repair. If customer service meant anything to this employee, it was not evident in her pronouncement that I had no coverage for the damaged vehicle; neither in the lack of compensation for the 12-day delay in beginning the process of repair. You can guess what this might mean for Progressive, whom I have been using since 1993. if it happened to me, it is happening to others.
We are a creative people, whose desire for “the better” in things drives new models of enterprise. A good thing! In the end, some things remain the same. People are the object of all things, which recommends that we see them first, before revenue, profit, and so called opportunities to charge what the market will bear. Once gained, the trust of people is the most powerful asset an organization can claim. We do well to give this player, in the model of organizational achievement, our undivided attention.