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.

The era of usable design

Dyson VacuumsOne of the interesting by-products of the information/internet age has been the speed with which people provide feedback on products and services. In the olden days a company would make something, market it through mass media, one-way marketing (TV/radio/print) and watch sales go up or down. Why sales were going up or down was anyone’s best guess, and those guesses were often based on anecdotal market research and focus groups that weren’t very comprehensive or timely.

But now businesses have the opportunity to know a lot more. The web’s interactive format, social environments, and user-generated content can cause feedback to be almost instantaneous. Some organizations have become great listeners to the online buzz, others – not so much.

For those companies who are really listening, one message is coming through loud and clear in a way that it never has before: Design matters.

Old world businesses were built around capability. What could the product do? What could the service provide? How will I compete against my competitor who has more capabilities than I do? Are my capabilities performing reliably? Things were shifted out of balance toward the logical and the rational.

Then the companies who were really paying attention (like Google, Apple, Honda, Dyson and Southwest Airlines) started to hear the message about design. They started to focus on usability, utility, simplicity, experience – things that matter more to the emotional side than they do to the rational side. They have been rewarded for it. And now you see others following the lead, and the overall level of design in the products and services we use is being elevated. A balance is being achieved between capability and design across the board.

It’s a new, more elegant world in the making, and now when you approach development of the product or service your company is selling, you must see it as a combination of both science and art.

More on usable design principles , and the business case for usability.

Everything’s relative in Geni

Geni LogoIt seems like everyone is launching a social network these days , especially since the big ones are worth billions of dollars now. It’s getting kind of ridiculous – there are even online social networks that help you launch your own social network.

Amongst all of the noise, a few original ideas still float to the top – and these seem to be niche networks that serve a particular audience in ways that the general-use networks (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) can’t or won’t. I came across one a few months back that is really fantastic: Geni. Geni is built completely around the idea of family networks, and appeals to the genealogist in all of us.

Geni start screen

Of course, like any idea for a website it isn’t the idea that counts: it’s the implementation. And in this area Geni is really getting it right. When you first visit Geni you create a simple box for yourself on a family tree simply by entering your name and email address. Then you can build your family tree, adding relatives and inviting them to join the site if you like. The website brings you into the experience very gradually, and it gets addictive fast. Before I knew it I had pulled out the book my grandfather wrote about our family, Tributaries and Rivulets, and started to put in everyone. In less than an hour my tree included 43 people going back 9 generations (picture below, with me in the bottom left of the tree)

You can go deeper by opening up individual profiles and editing them, adding pictures and family stories. If you spent some time on it, you could really make Geni a fantastic shared repository and asset for your family. And with genealogy software compatibility as a priority, it’s clear they plan to serve the serious genealogists and treat your data with respect – though competition from will be tough if you are really in research mode.

Geni’s thoughtful (and viral) approach is being rewarded, as they just recently celebrated passing the 5 million profile mark. They are getting a lot of impatience for new features (a good sign for a startup), but as long as they continue to implement as well as they have so far, their following will continue to grow.

Geni family tree screen

Buying a pair of virtual sunglasses

Elvis shadesA very good article came across Techcrunch last week about the online economy for virtual goods. In it, virtual goods are touted as the next big business model for online businesses. People already spend $1.5 billion per year worldwide on stuff that doesn’t really exist.

Yes, I said $1.5 billion . . . and growing. Most of these online items involve some sort of personal accessory (bling for your online self, a virtual pet, a new sword for your World of Warcraft character) or a gift for someone else (virtual flowers, pixelated puppies). The prevalence of this online trend shows that materialism isn’t really about the material, it’s about the virtual effect that material produces for you.

Ok, that statement’s a little bit nebulous – let me get more specific. My favorite consumer good in understanding why people buy things, and how they think about it when they buy things, is sunglasses. In college I had a friend who never went anywhere without her shades on. It actually was a little annoying, because I could never see her eyes when I was talking to her. When I eventually asked her why she wore her shades all of the time, she told me she had sensitive eyes and needed them.

Over the years I have repeated the same experiment over and over with habitual shade-wearers, and there seems to be a whole segment of our species that has a vampire-like inability to deal with natural sunlight. I can’t imagine their suffering 100 years ago before the invention of sunglasses!

Ok, of course that isn’t the real reason why people wear shades. The real reason is they make you look cool. Heck, they make you FEEL cool. I bought a pair for Vegas last week that looked a little like Elvis’ famous shades, and damn if I didn’t feel a little Jailhouse Rock when it was time to double-down at the blackjack table. Oh . . . and that girl in college was one of the cooler ones I’ve known.

But back to virtual goods. There’s no fooling yourself when you buy a pair of virtual shades, or anything else virtual. You don’t need this stuff because it doesn’t really exist. But it still gives you the same satisfaction when you have it. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, and doesn’t understand why the market for virtual goods WILL work, is still wearing their shades and thinking they are doing it because that sun is so bright.

In concert with the Techcrunch post was a recent Virtual Goods Summit event out west. Tech blogger Robert Scoble has a good link to notes from it and to all of the online conversation it spurred.

UPDATE: Shades do have health benefits, they prevent cataracts. Of course, this is mainly the case if you are a fisherman in Chesapeake Bay, as the study mentions . . .

Cooking something up

Perfect cuisineIn the creation of anything, but particularly something functional like code or design, I’ve noticed that many of the best people within those fields don’t just train themselves to produce better, more elegant products – they train themselves to produce them faster. But unfortunately, not everyone balances care with speed – thus the term “gold plater” was invented to describe those people for whom a creative task is never elegant enough, and becoming faster is not a priority. They take forever to finish, and the output includes all kinds of stuff that you don’t need. I’ve been guilty of it myself, in everything from a coding task to a client presentation.

I like to cook and do it pretty frequently, and the interesting thing about cooking is it is a very “temporary” creative process. Time is of the essence, because temperature and freshness are so important, and you can’t fall too much in love with your creations because in half an hour someone is going to eat it and you won’t be able to stand there, admire it, and tinker with it any more. The end goal is very clearly not the food itself, but how delicious the person who eats it thinks it is. At work or even at home, a chef’s mindset can bring appropriate speed and focus to the thing you’re creating.

Obstructed customer experiences

Wrigley field front

Last Saturday I went to my first game of the year at Wrigley Field. I took Megan and her mom, and spent a couple of hours wheeling and dealing on Craig’s List in order to find three good lower deck tickets together. After I got the tickets I noticed that they featured a warning that the seats might be obstructed by one of the metal beams that support the upper deck.

Thankfully, when we got there we were far enough back that we could see perfectly well, although the beam in front of us blocked out first and second base from where I was sitting (I could lean to see around it ). However, I noticed that several rows down a gentleman was sitting in a seat directly behind the beam, not a foot from it.

I’ve often wondered why venues bother doing things like that. Sure you want to make a little more money, but why would you put a seat there? How angry is that person when he or she arrives at a seat he or she might have paid $60-$70 for and sees that it is up close and personal with the architecture? I think the same thing in movie theaters. I would ask for my money back if I entered a theater and the only seats left were in that useless front row.

It’s a cautionary tale for any business trying to provide a great, consistent experience for its customers. Every time you modify your customer service approach ask yourself if there is a chance that the change might put a particular type of customer behind an obstruction. If there is any doubt, just don’t do it.