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Human Beings Make Such Difficult Customers.

September 23, 2010

According to Sainsburys 70% of consumers at 4.00pm in the afternoon – do not even know what they are going to eat that evening.  Strange isn’t it? Last week I was lucky enough to attend a great session at Henley Management School where Prof. Moira Clark outlined some of the latest thinking on customer management. Serving and understanding them is more difficult than ever – and yet marketers then build systems and employ people who do not make that task any easier…

As consumers, we’re over communicated and consistently feel under serviced. We have more marketers, agencies and call centres and communication plans than ever – yet small brands grab huge market shares from established players. When Clark asked the group to give examples of great customer service, the first insight of the day came from seeing that nobody mentioned large corporations, massively advertised brands or sophisticated marketing led programmes. It was personal service, a bit of 121 care, going the extra mile and not adhering to the script that seemed to strike a chord with people. Clark introduced us to a model showing Product > Service > Experience. And unfortunately those tricky areas such as service and experience touched on difficult to control human factors. Attitudes, relationships,  peer groups, atmosphere, emotions and social concerns. It was a like a teenage party at midnight. All gets a bit tired and emotional this stuff. For accountants and analysts out there, this must be like hell. Soft, fluffy, intangible factors that you cannot measure or control very easily having a drastic affect on commercial success. Human beings really do make difficult customers. Another example of how odd these human beings are; 16% will buy a good car from a bad dealer but incredibly 24% will buy a POOR car from a good dealer. The human and personal dimension to purchasing and loyalty (both B2B and B2C) cannot be over stated. In B2B customers, the most important parts of the relationship have been identified as Personal Contact >  Flexibility and Understanding of Needs. In B2C, Helpfulness >  Time – and Customer Recognition. These seem simple don’t they? So why do marketing led organisations get it so wrong, so consistently? The annoying call centre. The horrible admin. The assistant who does not assist. The rigid systems. In the corporate world the modern marketer seeks to build and understand a Customer Management system, that needs to carefully balance all kinds of data collection, IT, business culture & market strategy. Not easy bed fellows and this does recall in my mind the dilemma of Complexity and Paradox: to address poor customer loyalty and relationships, businesses add analysis and IT to help solve the problem using greater automation and efficiency, which leads to more complex systems and more management, but a lack of focus on core products and 121 service. And so the wheel spins again… Complexity and Paradox. The large systems and projects and rules that corporates need do not lend themselves to building the flexibility and personal attention that customers are seeking. Some manage to do it well. Dell, Amazon and John Lewis seem to build smart reputations for brilliant call centres and customer service despite being huge enterprises.

Service, attitudes and relationships are difficult to control

Ideally of course – customers can move up the staircase, to become supporters, advocates – and in select cases, true business partners. The area of Clark’s presentation that generated the most debate was when she turned to the increasing use of social media to help engage with customers. This is a huge debate in marketing circles at the moment – with some marketers pointing out followers and fans in social networks is not generating genuine interaction and action with brands and is best suited to individuals. Others, see the rise of sites like Facebook and Twitter as the best thing in marketing since sliced bread (and was there a best thing before sliced bread?). Clark points out that 86% of consumers are said to trust a friend’s opinion on a product – over a reviewers. And this suggests that whether marketers like it or not, it is going to have an impact. Social Media can be used to engage with brand fans and loyal customers and it can be used a channel of discontent for consumer groups – as Nestle have found out with their Facebook pages being subject to Greenpeace campaigns against the use of palm oil in KitKat. The nature of Facebook meant that Nestle could do very little to prevent the campaign reaching their presence online. The carefully curated  logo books, campaign plans and guidelines can be easily derailed in our digital world. eMarketer reported recently that more than 25% of social media marketing projects are now focused on retention and a further 19% on acquisition – with just 28% now seeing social media as being just for brand building. And in another report – eMarketer show that Twitter is becoming the most powerful social media channel to encourage customer acquisition – with 33% likely to recommend, whereas only 21% of Facebook users will do so. This shows how rapidly social media is becoming established as a part of the marketing mix, no longer just a bit of fringe creative coolness – but part of the toolbox that will be foolish to ignore. The rules for what works in social media and how to best use it to improve customer service are not yet established and brands are having to test (and yes ‘play’ with) this new channel to see how it can add value – and it will differ from market to market. But it will not go away. Could social media be the answer? Maybe. Could it be a nightmare for some? Perhaps. But as we are always having to deal with human beings, customer service is never going to be easy.

Marketers beware. IT channels are leading the customer comms..



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