Warning. This post is more of a rant than it is a calm and measured tome on some marketing subject. As such, if you want to switch off now, no probs. I understand. Soap-boxing from Hilton is something best consumed after a strong coffee.

Here’s the rub. I continue to be amazed at the number of companies who consider poor customer service appropriate or even a legitimate way of doing business. I’m not talking about obviously disinterested frontline staff who amble over to you with glacial swiftness, their boredom and apathy permanently etched on to their face whilst they fail to answer even the simplest of product questions before slouching off to find their (slightly but not by much) engaged manager who similarly can’t really help you but has to dash off to another customer.  No, not those guys. I mean the guys who have complicated IVR phone systems that never connect you to real people, have FAQ sections on their web site written in a language that the NSA would struggle to decipher, send out monthly account statements covered in legalese and then direct you to their complicated IVR system if you’ve got questions. Yes, I’m talking about those guys. The guys who seem to forget the word “service” in the phrase customer service.

Look, I get that providing customer service can be a very real cost to an organization. There’s training (and re-training), there’s increased hiring costs to find staff with the right aptitude and “service mentality”, there’s time required to actually peruse a monthly statement and buck against the corporate lawyers who want to cover it in mousetype legal jargon, there’s diligence required to ensure your 1-800 number isn’t an inescapable maze. I get it. In fact, I actually applaud companies who make no bones about their poor customer service. This example, granted somewhat dated, from UK budget airline EasyJet made for amusing reading.  But, not surprising in this day and age, customer backlash can be swift and often widely-publicized. It takes a brave organization to tell customers “you can have dirt-cheap flights but don’t expect premium service”. That’s fair, at least you’re managing my expectations.

Truthfully, I’m not expecting a foot massage with every latte or free movie tickets every time I top up my mobile. I’m just expecting that a company recognizes a basic business premise. Customers allow your company to exist. They provide cash that allows you to pay your salary and remain in business. Simple basic stuff. Surely keeping them sweet has the added benefit of the potential for repeat business?

And, yes, I am brushing over some well-established economic realities. There are categories where customer churn (mobile) is so high and customer retention so fickle that service seems pointless, categories where providing customer service adds so much to the COGS (budget airlines) that it can make a company unprofitable, and the reality of customers who are not profitable and who actually create a disproportionate drain on resources versus the revenue they generate. Yes, I’m ignoring those bona-fide excuses. But, in a rant I can choose to.

So what caused this rant? What set me off? Two things actually. One was yesterday’s “austerity budget” released in the UK which signals the toughest economic times ever in post-war Britain. Classically, in times of belt-tightening (oh, like a pesky recession or an attempt to balance a grossly debt-ridden economy), it is easy for companies to look at customer service costs as discretionary and try to do away with them. Conversely, the second thing was this report in AdAge that showed that advertisers who increased advertising spend in a recession – essentially bucking the time honoured trend to cut investment – actually saw an increase in market share and profits. Here’s the verbatim extract;

26 top marketers bucked the trend and boosted 2009 advertising even as spending for the 100 Leading National Advertisers plunged 10.2%. Among those with the guts to spend more, 70% saw a U.S. sales increase — double the success rate of those whose spending declined.     

I’m just left wondering what might be the impact if companies actually took better care of their customers in this recession?  Boosted their commitment to servicing customers reeling from the new budget. Paid and invested more, not less, attention to what their customer’s were complaining about and went out of their way to actually solving those issues. Part of me thinks that they, like the brave souls in the AdAge article, might actually come out ahead in the tough times that lie before us.

But will they do that? I hope some will…

Rant over.

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