Mobile Customer Service: Getting to the Right Level of “Whelming”

This post was originally published on Digby’s Mobile Retail Blog.

Over the past decade, many businesses have become much more focused on customer satisfaction. This has been driven by recent insights into the economic power of loyalty (it costs a lot less to keep a customer than to earn one), and an increased need for differentiation in a world full of more powerful Internet-educated and smart-phone-armed buyers.

Most brands trying to elevate their customer satisfaction and differentiate themselves have resorted to amping up their customer service. Take the case of Enterprise Rental Cars. They are loyalty innovators, and are a case study for any marketer trying to understand the dynamics of net promotor score and the power of one happy customer recommending something to a friend. But just as you can underwhelm your customer with the physical brand experience, you can also easily overwhelm them.

My most recent experience renting a car from Enterprise is a case and point. In Denver on business, I was on a day trip from Austin and had scheduled my itinerary pretty tightly. I needed to get my rental car as quickly as possible and get going. I’m familiar with Denver and with the rental process. But the Enterprise staff seemed dead set on engaging me in personal conversation about my trip, offering me lots of help that I didn’t need, and even walking me out to my car and giving me a demo of it. I was patient with them, they were well-trained, well-meaning, and clearly executing on a new service approach that probably came down from a well-intentioned marketer at corporate.

But it took me a good 15 minutes extra to navigate this new experience, to the point where I felt compelled to let the parking exit booth agent know that they needed to do something about it. I was patient but I was not happy.

I’ve had similar experiences at certain hotels on business trips, where every employee was trained to greet me every time I entered the lobby. Sometimes 5-6 of these greetings from bell desk to concierge to reservation to cleaning staff would descend upon me in a single crossing from one side of the lobby to the other. There’s friendly, then there’s a little too friendly. I’ve also encountered customer service gang tackles in certain retailers, restaurants . . . almost any place where people are there to serve customers.

But I’m not every traveler, or shopper, or customer. I’m certain there are some folks who are on a leisurely vacation, or don’t travel that often, or are unfamiliar with Denver who love the fact that Enterprise is more helpful now. There are extroverted bed-and-breakfast types who probably love the more personable approach that certain hotels are working on. But there are probably folks who are more introverted than me (who would never write a blog post!) who are even more estranged by these new practices than I am.

The fact is no customer is alike, and what would underwhelm one customer might overwhelm another. And depending on their changing situation (I’m traveling on vacation vs. business, for example), one person might change from one visit to the next. How does a physical brand experience account for this?

I believe the answer is to design multiple pathways of service, and listen to cues from your customer that tell you what path they are interested in. Mobile can be a big part of this, because it is an unobtrusive way to kick-off the customer experience.

If I am a loyal rental car customer, I could download an app that detects when I am in an airport and marry that up with an upcoming reservation. Based on my proximity to the rental car center, I could be messaged by the app if I want to check in through the app or check in with an agent. I make the choice. On business, I might check in, decline insurance, decline gas, be told which stall my car is in (all on mobile) and have the car waiting with the keys in it when I get there. Wow! On vacation, I might want to talk to a friendly agent to get directions, help with the vehicle, or to make a change to my reservation. Mobile might have notified the agent of my imminent arrival and they greet me by name and have all my paperwork ready. Wow! Multiple paths through the rental car lot have been provided and I have been allowed to choose.

Of course, these scenarios require a high level of integration between the physical experience and the digital/mobile experience. This is a multi-channel symphony. Executed poorly, it could be a real mess. But it can absolutely be done – and with contextually aware mobile experiences that work in harmony with physical service experiences, you can avoid doing too little or too much.

When you don’t overwhelm or underwhelm, you leave your customers “whelmed.” Which is to mean they are happy and satisfied, every time.

From social media to mobile commerce: My new gig

In October of 2008, I moved to Austin and starting working at Powered. Powered had been around for a long time, since 1999, but was just then embarking on its journey as a social media marketing company. Over three amazing and tumultuous years we succeeded in building one of the largest and most successful social-media-focused agencies in the world.

It was a fantastic learning experience as we worked through forging new client relationships, built great partnerships, and acquired three accomplished and like-minded companies to flesh out our vision for the capabilities the next-generation agency would possess. I worked alongside some amazing people, both inside and outside of our little company.

This past December, that world got even bigger as The Dachis Group acquired Powered as part of a vision that encompasses not only social media marketing (how companies talk with their customers) but also the use of social media to advance workforce collaboration and partner optimization. “Social Business” is truly a guidepost for how the companies of the future will function, and there are massive challenges that large companies must overcome to get there. The Dachis Group will no doubt be one of the companies that will lead the way.

For me, having helped to build something of which I am truly proud and seen it successfully off, it is time to move on to the next challenge. That’s why I’ve chosen to move from social media to mobile, and to a great start-up company here in Austin named Digby.

Advances in mobile platforms and mobile devices are some of the most exciting things happening in our technology culture today, and we are really just scratching the surface. Digby is a company that works with retailers specifically to create not only the mobile buying experience (“mobile commerce”) but is also pioneering the mobile in-store experience. I will be helping them with Product Marketing, shaping the future of that experience and working with them to be successful in bringing it to market.

I will miss my colleagues, clients, and partners from Powered, but I am enthusiastic about the great team at Digby and what I will get to build with them.

The beautiful goal

Americans are naturally skeptical of soccer. It’s too slow, it’s not physical enough, it’s too simplistic. But for Americans that watched the final U.S. match of Group Play in the 2010 World Cup, the game captured our imagination.

We saw that soccer is the world’s game. The United States, facing elimination, playing the team from Algeria. The fates of England and Slovenia hanging in the balance as well. This doesn’t happen in any other sport.

We saw that the beauty of its simplicity, the basic components of ball and players in infinite combinations as the U.S. pounded away at the Algerian defense trying to get the goal to break the nil-nil tie and allow the U.S. to survive in the tournament.

Finally, we felt the emotion that soccer so readily produces, the building of tension and anticipation for 90 minutes as our team skated ever closer to elimination, and the floodgate of emotions that is released in one amazing moment behind a beautiful goal. The U.S., through sheer perseverance, wins in the last.

Now on to the Knockout round, with lots more work to do for the U.S. team . .

You can check out the game recap, if you missed it.

Update: I like this video compilation of U.S. crowd reactions to the goal, it really captures what I’m talking about. Is there anything better than cheering for your country?

Getting over ourselves, or why advertising works

AdvertisingI work in social media marketing, and as a result many more traditional marketers expect me to have a low opinion of  old school advertising – which is usually characterized by the “30 second spot.” It’s common to find social media purists decrying the state of marketing, knocking advertising as too interruptive, too noisy, disempowering of consumers, and in general a plague upon humankind.

It’s true, I do favor social as a marketing approach – but for those who mistake “social” as “marketing on Facebook,” it’s not about where you play. It’s more about how you play, and the philosophy of empowering consumers, trying to produce great experiences for them and do things on their terms, weaving yourself into the fabric of people’s existing lives in an appropriate and low-impact way. These two philosophies and how the people who espouse them approach social venues are summed up very well in this recent post from my colleague Jen Van Der Meer.

In her post, she refers to the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, a seminal book that continues to define the social media side of the argument, admitting that they were wrong when they wrote “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it”:

“That was clearly wrong,” Locke said. “Advertising isn’t going to work? Yes, it can. Google is the biggest brand and company going and they’ve made it completely on Internet advertising, and so checkmate.”

I like that Locke admitted he was wrong, but Google seems like a weak concession. What about the billions of dollars still getting spent on TV, outdoor, even direct mail? Stuff much older than Google is still rocking along.

Why is that? And why does it appear that advertising in some form will always exist, until the end of time?

It’s because we need to be interrupted.

Most human beings are prone to routines. We find ruts and we get in them. It’s a natural mechanism that helps us cope with the risks in the world around us –  a deep survival instinct. Cavemen found the most sabre-tooth-tiger-free path from cave to water source and took that path every day, starting a chain of behaviors that would eventually lead to me taking the same way to work every day.

We even encourage routine in others because we need them to be predictable, to lessen the perceived risk in our world. Sure, there are some folks that are on the surface more adventurous than others, but even adventure can start to be a rut.

Advertising, in many cases, serves as the interruption that nudges you in a new direction. When this happens, we appreciate it, and so do the advertisers. Explore the wine country in Michigan? Sure, good idea. Enjoy a Stella Artois? Hmm, a beer does sound good this morning. Buy that Lexus and put a big bow on it? I was just trying to think what to buy the family for Christmas!

Ok, perhaps those examples are a bit over the top, and I do believe that advertising spend will be generally lower in the future. But regardless of the form it eventually takes, interruptive marketing will always have a place and will always work because we have to get over ourselves. We need the help. Without it, the world would be reaching out to us to try something new a lot less.

Apple unleashed

Apple LogoI don’t make any bones about admitting that I’m a big Apple fan. I’d be hard-pressed to name another company that I think has their approach to the marketplace and how to innovate for consumers so well thought out. I think this is particularly true in the portable device space (iPods, iPhones, iPads). I don’t own a Mac computer and still can’t make the economic argument for it, but in my opinion their portable devices rule the roost. And let’s be honest, for consumers at home, the future is devices. We are likely to find in the near future that the iPhone was never about the phone, it was about getting in your pocket.

As I followed the unveiling of their latest – the iPhone 4 – yesterday, I had to feel excited for users (despite the clear disadvantage of a remaining lock-in to AT&T) and sorry for handset competitors. I wonder what it would be like to have to compete against them in device space.

My Dog RioA likely comparison would be to how I feel when my dog Rio is able to escape the leash, which she has done a Houdini-like 7 or 8 times during her life (which breaks down to about once a year). Once free, she retreats to about 40 yards away and lingers, paying no apparent attention to me. This is just far enough away that if I break suddenly into a dead sprint I will get within 5 feet of catching her before she is able to escape again to another 40 yard cushion.

Over the past year or two, I feel like other manufacturers have been catching up, slowly but surely, to the iPhone. Apple, seemingly unaware, has been sniffing a few trees and loitering non-chalantly. Then the sudden leap forward comes. Competitors must again find themselves 40 yards away, out of breath, dreading the next phase of the chase.

Lines in the sand

One of my favorite excerpts from Rework, the 37Signals‘ folks latest (and potentially best) book:

Draw a line in the sand

As you get going, keep in mind why you’re doing what you’re doing. Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or service. You have to believe in something. You need to have a backbone. You need to know what you’re willing to fight for. And then you need to show the world.

A strong stand is how you attract superfans. They point to you and defend you. And they spread the word further, wider, and more passionately than any advertising could.

Strong opinions aren’t free. You’ll turn some people off. They’ll accuse you of being arrogant and aloof. That’s life. For everyone that loves you, there will be others who hate you. If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. (And you’re probably boring, too)

It’s a great passage on many levels, but the thing that resonated with me is that what you believe in as a business will lose you customers, and you have to be willing to accept that . . . and maybe even embrace it.

Rework Book CoverIt’s what Apple does with it’s devotion to artistry and unwillingness to have anything other than complete control over the systems it designs.

It’s what Southwest Airlines does with it’s devotion to cheap, friendly travel and unwillingness to diversify its fleet, assign seats, or charge to check bags.

When you think about it, the companies  with the most passionate fans also tend to have a healthy amount of critics. Are enough people complaining about what your company won’t do?

By the way, a thanks to Jane, who bought me a copy of this book before I had to buy one.

The problem at Facebook: their business model

The tide of concerns around privacy is rising at Facebook, as they try to leverage the personal information you’ve given them (who you are, who you know, your photos, your notes) to make money. They try to sell it, they try to offer it to other websites who can use it to attract your attention, they try to use it to target you for ads on their own site. Why are they acting so . . . evil, as many have put it?

You haven’t given them anything else.

You haven’t paid them cash. You don’t like ads on the site and don’t pay attention to them when they run them – you certainly don’t click on them. What’s a Facebook to do to keep the doors open and the investors happy?

It’s not really your fault. Facebook started doing what they’re doing with no real plan to make money, a common form of hubris among many start-ups these days. Over the past decade, it’s been all about getting people’s attention online – and the slam-dunk advertising model (or the idea of it) was always there to help cash in on that attention.

But it’s not a slam-dunk any more. People have sipped the sweet elixir of ad-free business models and developed a taste for them. $15 a month for ad-free HBO or satellite radio? Sure. Downloadable iTunes music, apps, and more? Sign me up. Netflix and now streamed movies through On-Demand services? Yes.

The heart of Facebook’s problem is their business model. You (we) are the ones getting the value, but we aren’t willing to pay for it in the way they are asking us to . . . but could they ask us in another way?

What if Facebook charged you $3 a month, locked your data down (no more privacy issues), and focused all of their energy on providing more features and value for you (vs. building out fan pages and hiring sales people to attract money from brands)? Would you pay them? I would, actually. But a lot of people, perhaps most people, might not.

But don’t underestimate what Facebook could do if it were the first subscription social networking site and was suddenly only serving one master (you). They are big enough and have enough resources that they could steadily and rapidly absorb the capabilities of every other networking site you use – and serve you at a higher level than any of those other sites, many of whom are still clinging to the empty promise of the ad model also.

I don’t think Facebook would ever do this, they are making some good money from advertisers and are rushing in that direction guns a-blazing. They have too many cooks in the kitchen to change approaches now – and I know if I was in their shoes and I read this blog post I’d think “yeah, easy for you to say dude.”

So does the subscription model opportunity exist for another fledging general-use social network? I think so. Facebook’s second (and perhaps final) hubris would be to underestimate users’ willingness to switch to an alternative who is solely focused on user needs. Ultimately, two masters – the users and the advertisers – might be one too many.

Social media budget is Soylent Green!

Soylent Green Movie PosterCatching up on reading the blogs of some of my respected friends in the social media biz, and I came across this latest one from Adam Cohen where he reacts to the thought that social media at companies is too labor intensive.

He’s right. A quote from his article:

As these [social media] tactics become more successful, they become more expensive.  These tactics require long term effort and can certainly can do more damage if abandoned.  But it takes more effort to continue to manage, build and grow, and that can mean more costs internally, at a minimum.

What he touches on but I’d like to put the emphasis on is that social media represents a shift in thinking on where the money goes . . . from ad space to people.

A real world example:

My brother Jim works in local politics as a campaign manager (and for the record, his record is now 3-0 starting with his work on the Obama presidential campaign). He has found an interesting new formula for winning which others have been very slow to pick up on. He takes much of the budget that would normally go to ad buys, which even for small local races can be in the hundreds of thousands, and he hires and trains a small team of young field operatives who go door-to-door every day for months on end and have real conversations. Now he does leave some in ads for the final get-out-the-vote push, but most he shifts to the ground effort. Most campaigns don’t do this, they get hired guns to work a few weekends and all they really do is leave door hangers, never even knocking.

The odd thing? His approach actually saves money. For instance, for the campaign he’s working on now, back-of-the-napkin math revealed that the repurposed available media budget would allow him to knock on every door of every registered voter that could vote for his candidate three times. Three conversations per voter. He doesn’t even need more than one in many cases.

In my brother’s last campaign, he beat a wealthy candidate who had many more endorsements and much, much larger ad budgets. It took a run-off, but he did it. Is there a fundamental change at work here? I think so.

This post’s title is a reference to an old science fiction movie where the horrific reality behind a popular consumer product, Soylent Green, is that it’s made from people (as in, people’s bodies, yikes). The last, famous line from the movie is the revelatory “Soylent Green is people!”

The reality behind social media budgets that grow as conversational efforts become more successful? They are people! But it can be cheaper than an ad-driven strategy, and you’ve just created new jobs at a time when those people could really use them. That isn’t horrifying at all.

No longer a Grinch

And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of *ten* Grinches, plus two!

The above is one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and it came back to me a couple of months ago, in the week after the birth of my first child – a daughter.

I’ve found it’s the best way to sum up how I feel about fatherhood – like my heart has suddenly grown to fill my entire chest. Symptoms of this cardiac syndrome include chronic grinning-like-an-idiot, becoming suddenly obsessed with taking and displaying photos/videos of the baby, and near-catatonic staring at the little girl when she’s doing nothing but sleeping.

But mostly I feel moments of tremendous strength punctuated by moments of tremendous weakness. I suppose that’s just falling in love.

Why my grandfather gets social media

On a recent trip to Norman, Oklahoma to see my grandparents, my grandfather and I got into a conversation about where I work and “what I actually do.” I would highly recommend to anyone who works on the web to go through the exercise of explaining his or her job to the oldest person in his or her family. It’s a challenge that makes you strip what you do down to the bare essentials and explain things in plain language. This is something I wish more people did more of the time, particularly in the buzzwordy world of marketing.

Oddly enough, I found it was easier to explain social media and how you use it to market to people to him than it is with others.

Granddad, in the time when you grew up how did you decide who did business with? You listened to your friends, found trustworthy people who did great work, and you forged personal relationships with them over time, right? Well, once radio and then TV came on the scene, marketers found that it stopped being about who did the best job or who was the most trustworthy, and it became about who could spend the most money buying the most advertising. The people being advertised to lost all control. But now, people are using the Internet to communicate with each other, recommend things to each other, build relationships. People are taking back control. What I do is I help big companies who have spent 50 years living in the world of mass media understand how to function in that new world, which is really just a much bigger version of the old world.

My grandfather is nodding. He is over 80 and has been an independent oilman all his life. When he talks about the banker who backed him through his successes and failures he talks about a guy he knew personally, not an ATM. When he talks about anyone he ever handed money to, he talks about them by name and has at least one meaningful story about them – good or bad. He remembers the dawn of mass media, and watched as technology separated us from each other slowly over time. Now, in many ways, it’s bringing us back together. And while he still has an assistant who prints out emails so he can read them, he gets that.

The reason why I love working in social media is because I’m a part of that change. In some cases driving it, in other cases riding it, but always a part of the wave.

Have you ever had to explain what you do to someone much older than you and found yourself explaining it in better ways than you ever had before? Interested in hearing about it in the comments, if you are inclined.