Smothering Me With Customer Service

  |  April 7, 2006   |  Comments

You can kill them with kindness. Some companies drive away customers because of their customer service.

Technology has enabled us to reach out to customers in ways we never could before. We have detailed reports covering what individual customers do, how they interact with our companies (over multiple channels), and if they're on our Web site at this very moment (and if so, what they're looking at). Yet our CRM (define) strategies haven't evolved along with the technology. With great technological power comes an even greater customer contact strategy responsibility.

I'm Fine, Now Shut Up

A few months ago I was in a holdeverything store in Manhattan. A greeter met me at the front door and asked, "How are you today?"

"I'm fine," I replied.

A few moments later a woman entered the store. After receiving the same greeting, she replied, "I'm fine," happy to think someone actually cared about her day. She started walking around the store.

The first salesperson she encountered asked, "How are you doing today?"

"I'm fine, thanks," she replied.

As she wandered through the store, she encountered another salesperson. "How are you today?"

"I'm fine," she replied.

Then another one. "Good morning! How are you?"

"I'm fine, thanks," she said. With each interaction, she got increasingly annoyed. When she walked by the next salesperson, she said "I'M FINE," before he even asked. Finally, she said, "Please stop asking me how I am. I AM FINE. OK?" She left the store feeling frustrated and violated (at least, that's how it looked to me). The salespeople laughed as she left, saying, "Geez, we were only being friendly."

On paper, I'm sure it was a good idea. "Be friendly to customers when you interact with them. If you make eye contact, engage them in dialogue. Ask them how they are." In reality, customer contact needs to be a little more carefully planned. If greeters want to ask someone how she is, fine. That's their job. Everyone else should be cordial and respond to questions, but don't violate a customer's personal space. And don't interact with people in artificial ways when you really don't care about them. Instead, make yourself available to help if they clearly aren't finding what they need.

Big Brother Is Watching

Things are heading in that direction in the online world. I once complimented a site,, because it assigns a sales representative to you when you create an online account. That person's name and phone number appears on every site page, encouraging you to call or send an email to that rep to ask questions. It's a terrific multichannel customer service experience.

Things have taken a turn for the worse. I'm not sure if it's company guidelines or simply the will of my current representative, but I'm being smothered by customer service. Every time I log in to the site to look at products, I get a phone call from my sales rep within an hour. Sometimes she emails me. It's almost a joke at this point. I'm afraid even to visit the site. I sometimes browse it anonymously just so she won't call me. Over the weekend, I looked at new products to buy for my company (the site sells branded products like pens or USB drives with our company logo on it). Sure enough, I got an email that same day from my sales rep. In the most ironic twist I can imagine, she just called me on the phone as I was typing this paragraph. I almost wanted to tell her I was writing this column, but I didn't. I wanted to ask if her customer contact strategy was of her own design, or if the company had guidelines for how often (and when) to contact someone.

Travel Safely

On the other hand, Travelocity is pursuing a good customer contact strategy. Like, it also has technology that enables it to know when users log on to its site, when they store itineraries, and (obviously) when they book trips. As a constant traveler, I've seen many of its email campaigns and I'm impressed with them. Travelocity has a terrific browsing-based email marketing strategy.

If I save an itinerary but don't yet book it, it sends information about the location I looked at. It doesn't offer special deals. It just tells me what relevant deals it currently has. This is good because if it offered special discounts, it'd be training users to wait for deals before they book. (This is why "Abandoned Cart" discounts are bad for business in the long term.)

Once a trip is booked, Travelocity sends more location information. Instead of travel deals (it's already booked), it sends "around the town" information with coupons to local events, restaurant listing, and other things I can do while there. This helps the company increase share of wallet among its customers and is a great outreach to communities that are more than happy to get ancillary business through it. It also helps position Travelocity as a trusted advisor, using education and knowledge as CRM tools.

Reaching Out Is Great. Just Be Careful

It's fantastic to really understand our customers. We can track their behavior and provide information that's relevant, timely, and important. But there's an art to that science. We need business rules that don't smother our customers with customer service. Some companies (like two of those mentioned above) actually drive away customers because of their customer service.

Comments, thoughts? Let me know.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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