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.

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.

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.

Putting It On Goal

A good friend of mine and co-founder of  CaptainU sent a video along this morning that reminded me of a concept I learned from playing certain sports – most notably soccer and (during a few years in Tulsa) roller hockey.

In those sports, where both sides are shooting at a goal and much of your success is governed by the positioning of players and the angles of the field/rink, you’ll often hear team members encouraging each other to put the ball or the puck “on goal.” Putting it on goal is basically taking a shot at the goal where, if it was unblocked, it would go in, even if there are visible obstructions (like the goalie).

The reason you want to put it on goal a lot is that you really don’t know what will happen. The puck might ricochet, the ball might take a weird bounce, and the goalie might just miss it. The goalie might go to the ground to block your shot and a teammate might get an open look on the rebound. The more attempts you make, the more chances you have that something will break in your favor. But if you dribble the ball or control the puck around the perimeter and never take a shot (because you’re waiting for the perfect look), you have no chance.

As the video shows below, even the most ridiculous attempts lead to success sometimes. But you’ll only know one way or another if you try. And try again. And try again.


The three big questions in sales

There are three questions I think a salesperson has to answer for a potential buyer:

  • What is it that I’m buying? (Understanding)
  • How is it relevant or valuable to me specifically? (Relevancy)
  • How risky is it to buy? (Risk)

The difficulty of answering these questions can vary widely depending on what you are selling and to whom you are talking. But they all have to be addressed before someone will buy.

For a salesperson, understanding which question seems to be the most challenging to answer most of the time can be key to focusing your message. Also, experience in answering these questions in order, while choosing just the right words to answer each question quickly and effectively is key.

For a marketer, by choosing potential buyer segments that easily understand what you are selling, find what you are selling very relevant, and feel that it is less risky than others do, you will likely make things much easier on yourself. With each successive sale, understanding and relevancy will be better understood by tougher targets – while risk will be perceived as lower.

For a businessperson, you can rate the worthiness of a business on these three dimensions. If one out of the three is a real barrier, you can probably find a way around it and capitalize on doing so. But if what you are thinking of providing to buyers is confusing, lacks wide relevancy, and is a risky thing to buy, it’s clearly not a wise investment.

A final point: most salespeople, and most websites, ignore the first question. Then they wonder why they just can’t get past the second or third one.

Music should look like professional sports

Famous football songsI was understandably rankled when I read about the recent merger between Ticketmaster and Live Nation. Just when we were getting some competition going in the live ticket sales industry, we’re going back to the monopoly. In the article, the writer tried to put a positive spin on it by saying that perhaps now they’ll go to an auction-based ticket sales format so that artists can get paid the true value of their performance (much of which is now captured by Stubhub and ticket agencies on the secondary market).

The thought of an auction is a bit scary. Demand for hot show tickets in most cities is out of control, with individual tickets to most desirable shows going for 2 to 3 times their base sales price – typically hundreds of dollars each. It seems like you’d be able to see a lot fewer shows than you do in the current system.

But for the sake of comparison, let’s look at another public-venue entertainment industry: professional sports. One of the reasons professional athletes get paid as much as they do is because of the economic concept of “rivalry.” Simply put, rivalry identifies whether a good or service can be enjoyed at the same time by more than one person. For instance, only one person can eat my box of junior mints. Therefore that box is only worth the three dollars the movie theater overcharged me. However, the movie we sit down to watch can be enjoyed simultaneously by everyone in the theater. That is why one movie can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars (if it’s any good).

Professional sports teams and the athletes that play for them know this. They do as much as possible to get their on-field activities in front of as many people as they can. People pay top dollar to attend events, with ticket prices set close to market price, and then the leagues have massive TV contracts that bring the events to people all over the world. Merchandising and celebrity-athlete spokesperson contracts are for huge amounts of money, fueled by TV availability and awareness (the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Cubs, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish all excel at grabbing national attention, which is why they are more valuable than other teams in their leagues).

So why aren’t rock concerts like that? Why can’t you watch them all live on TV (I know some of them are on pay-per-view, but that doesn’t count)? Well, I’ll point an accusatory finger (again) at the packaged media business. By putting musical content on to a tape, a CD, a DVD – by slapping DRM technology on digital downloads –  media distributors are trying to introduce rivalry into a medium that is characteristically non-rivalrous. Follow me?  Music is intangible, abstract – not at all like my junior mints. When people say that “music wants to be free,” they don’t mean without cost. They just mean that it, by its very nature, is supposed to be enjoyed by more than one person at the same time.

The economic reality of music and the musicians that produce it is that they are like professional athletes, and that economic reality is now causing a collapse in packaged media sales. Because you just can’t fight the nature of something.

What do record companies do? Is the music industry going shrink or even <gulp> collapse? No, not at all.

A big part of the solution is to follow the lead of professional sports. Raise tickets prices so your “athletes” get paid what they’re worth. Don’t fire everyone who works in your packaged media business. Move them over into a new type of distribution job for “ConcertTV” channels 1-20 that air live concerts of all types from all over the world on cable, 24/7. I’d pay $15 a month for those channels. With this increased personal exposure for artists, ramp up the merchandising and sponsorship dollars (there is so much that could be done here that isn’t being done). More distribution and marketing jobs there, too.

The side effects of this approach? Prices for albums lower further to a price that lets more people enjoy more of the good stuff (25 cents a song, anyone?) – music becomes more accessible and demand is further stimulated. Supply follows: Bands tour more, more venues are built, more musicians can actually make a living doing it on the low end – music becomes bigger and more diverse. Bands that can’t actually play their instruments, are supported only by good production and marketing, or write albums full of filler can’t put on a decent show and fail – music becomes more about talent and quality.

I for one think the above realities will come to pass regardless of what the record companies do, and I’m pretty excited about it. But I’d like to see the record companies continue to employ the good people they have, I’d like to see the transition happen faster and with less heartbreak. So here’s hoping that sometime soon, during a Sunday afternoon football game, a few record executives have epiphanies.

Photo Credit: Originally uploaded by Mark Sevigny

Web 3.0 is what you make it

Play-dohI recently got sent this very well-written article by Marc Benioff of and a this video of Eric Schmidt from Google both answering the question “What is Web 3.0?”

Well, not surprisingly both definitions are highly biased toward the bets that their respective companies are making. Marc thinks it’s cloud computing, or SaaS, or a world without deployed software. Hmm, is not beating a new drum there. Eric also think it’s cloud computing, but a huge number of point solutions launched and tied to together with open architectures. That sounds awfully like Google’s product strategy.

Of course, I don’t think either of these guys is trying to requisition the term “Web 3.0” in a greedy or underhanded way. Their corporate directions are only a logical result of where they genuinely think things are going – not vice versa.

But I think they’re both wrong about Web 3.0. To see why, you just have to climb into Marc’s article a bit. In it he defines Web 1.0 as “anyone can transact,” Web 2.0 as “anyone can participate,” and Web 3.0 as “anyone can innovate.” The problem is he switched what he meant by “anyone” in the Web 3.0 instance. The first two were sea changes for everyday users, and I like and agree with his definitions there. The third one is a sea change for developers, which will arguably go unnoticed by users. And sadly, there are still a lot more users than developers. So his definition is more like Web 2.5.

That said, I don’t know exactly what Web 3.0 will be. But I do think the following things:

1. There will be one. A 3.0, that is. The Internet is not reaching maturity, more like just headed into adolescence.

2. 3.0 will come about as a result of another sea change in the user experience, not just the developer experience.

3. It will have something to do with the reversal of informational flow. Instead of you searching to find it, it will find you.

In the meantime, Web 3.0 could be whatever you want it to be. Which means your web company is headed in exactly the right direction.

My related post over at The Engaged Consumer: Marketing 2015: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Guest Blog on Austin Startup

As I mentioned in a previous post, Twitter’s best application for me so far has been for business – and that continues to be the case. Noticing this past weekend that I was twittering from ProductCamp Austin, the editor of the Austin Startup blog and area entrepreneur (Bryan Menell) asked me to write a guest blog on it. I did, and it’s up now with a byline for my current company and company blog.

The Austin Startup blog played a key role in allowing me to assess the startup community in Austin and find job opportunities here when Megan and I decided to become Texans (again, for me) 8 months ago. For that reason, it’s a real pleasure to be able to make a contribution back to it.