Friday, April 4, 2008
Customer Service: Source of Revenue or Brand Strength?
Another truism is that the US economy is increasingly a service economy. Services account for a higher percentage of US GDP than 20 years ago, and products today have a higher service component than in previous decades.
Together, these two facts mean that the best "experience" a brand can provide is a positive customer service experience. Why then are more and more brands making the mistake of thinking customer service should be a profit center rather than a source of brand enrichment?
I personally have experienced the positive and negative brand impacts of customer service in recent months. My positive experience was with Microsoft, often viewed as being a faceless corporate entity. I manage an online ad campaign on their PPC (pay per click) program, and I was having trouble trying to get an expired campaign restarted. Unable to figure out how to relaunch my campaign, I sent a service email on a Sunday at noon. Two hours later they called me and solved the problem in two minutes. On a Sunday! I bragged about this experience to friends and on blogs, and it altered the way I think about Microsoft.
My negative experience was with Symantec, provider of the Norton suite of security software. My computer got infected with malware, and my Norton security suite not only allowed the infection but seemed unable to find and solve it. That's okay--I know the people who make viruses are pretty ingenious sorts, but I do expect Symantec to stand behind it's product, so I turned to their customer service chat feature. The Symantec rep announced he could solve the problem, I typed "thank you," and he responded it would cost $99.95. My reaction was so negative that I solved my malware problem by uninstalling Norton and downloading some freeware that fixed what Norton could not. Moreover, I shared my negative experience with many peers and on blogs.
It shouldn't be news that the quality of customer service can make or break Word of Mouth (WOM), so why is it so hard for companies to figure out that positive customer service creates positive customer experiences? And why, in the name of common sense, do companies think that charging for expected customer service would be in the best long-term interest of the brand? In my Symantec example, I not only didn't pay for their "service", but I canceled my renewal of their security subscription. They lost a customer when they might've instead created a raving fan.
What got me to thinking of my recent customer service experiences was an article from TheStar.com. "Air Canada now wants you to pay extra for better customer service," says the article. The air carrier rolled out a new service called "On My Way" that, for a fee, promises to help passengers cope with delays and cancellations beyond the airline's control, including bad weather or airport traffic.
An airline consultant comments how Air Canada will need to deliver excellent customer service to those paying extra because, "People are going to have heightened expectations." And therein lies the problem for Air Canada, Symantec, and any other brand trying to turn service into profit: Consumers already have heightened expectations!
We live in a time of heightened expectations, and the growth of social media only means that word will spread when brands either excel or fail at customer service. Brands cannot strive to utilize Web 2.0 tools to fashion a stronger brand while their own business practices provide customers with reasons to feel slighted and complain on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and across the blogosphere.
I'm not suggesting companies can never make money from service, but when offering fee-based service to those who are already customers, it is imperative that service be so distinct from whatever the consumer has already paid for that the extra value is obvious. When I pay for Symantec's "full circle of protection" on my PC, I would expect to pay extra for their SmartPhone security service, but there is no way to overcome the negative brand experience that results from being asked by them to pay to fix my infected Norton-protected PC.
I think it's a shame Air Canada launched their "On My Way" program as a for-fee service. Think of the positive PR and enhanced brand image that could've resulted if they had announced this as a free service for all fliers. Delighting customers with quality service shouldn't be something brands charge for--it should just be part of the entire brand experience.