Customer Service is Dead?

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Is customer service dead? asks Tom Asacker at Brand Strategy Insider. I do believe that the nature of customer and service have both changed — but neither is dead. A little different from Mr Asacker’s final point in his incisive post on the demise of customer service, I would posit, dare I say a little pedantically, that it is CONSUMER (as in he/she who consumes) service that is dead. All the while, I would agree with Mr Asacker and say that what counts is customer EXPERIENCE.

Here is the nuance: the customer is a person before he/she is a consumer. And the experience (whether it is a good or service) for the consumer must be converted to an experience that feels more customized.

The experience naturally differs according to the category of good (or service) purchased. To the extent, for example, the good is consumable and non-durable, notions such as zero default, accurate promises (say what you will do) and POS are vital parameters for the successful experience. For a luxury good or service, excellence & innovation in product, emotion and putting the Very in VIP come to mind as absolutely vital. Of course, you might say that every notion cited above is important for every category. I am suggesting, however, that these notions need to be prioritized according to the category.

In an ever changing, fickle world, there is a quirky relationship between great quality, long-lasting products and the ability for a company to create profits. There are surely instances where a company has (perhaps mistakenly?) created the perfect product. Take the tungsten light bulb. Or the concept of everlasting (not to be mixed up with everready) batteries. [While I am on the topic of imperfect products, did you know that for an anti-virus program to be truly effective, it needs to be updated every few minutes? Grounds for insecurity.]

A product without repeat purchase potential is a product with either a very high gross margin or represents a business that could efficiently run itself out of business if it is not careful.

On the other hand, in our massive consumeritis, a company like H&M purposefully providesH&M - In Fashion not in hock fashionable items without concern for customer service, nor for criteria like product durability or whether it remains in-stock. H&M makes accessible the ability to be ‘in fashion’ but not ‘in hock.’ The new consumer service is in full throttle: faster, cheaper, person-less. The consumer experience is soulless. The consumer’s consumerism is bereft of deeper lasting values. A “consumer”, as Mr Asacker’s father found out, values more the few pennies saved over the love of a greater service [in this case, at the gas station, formerly known as service station].

Mr Asacker suggests that a product that needs no customer interface is a product with great customer service. I would argue that a lack of a customer interface is a trouble of another sort = reduced engagement.

Whether automated answering machines, self-service counters or even a flawless product, the human interface remains critical for the long term health of the brand. The key is to have the RIGHT experiences and to make sure those moments occur at the right time. A good example is a proactive (post sale) telephone call or handwritten card.

As I said above, I agree with Mr Asacker that it all does come down to the experience and that, why not, it is preferable to have reliable, if not the best, products. Nonetheless, as he states, it is about knowing what the customer is accustomed to having and what he/she wants. To this end, especially in the luxury end of the market, the human touch and personalized service remains at a premium.

And, more emphatically, like our yin and yang, we all have our moments when we are the basic consumer (coveting price over experience) and others when we seek the personalized, human (customer) experience. It would seem that as the emptiness of pure consumerism becomes more apparent–exacerbated by the threat of living on borrowed money–the intertwining roles of the customer (as the living, breathing person), the brand (as the object of desire, with a veritable personality) and service (as the full experience) will lead to new market forces. In this context, aided by technology, it is no wonder that we have the brand’s customer as contributor and the arrival of consumer generated content. The best service will be the one that fulfills the self, rather than the self service that fills my cupboards and seeds my garage sale. The way technology plays an impactful role in (i.e. bringing emotion to) the customer experience is still in its infancy. The key word with technology is “surprise.”

In Paris, when one goes down to visit the small, local shops and the shopkeeper recognizes you, offers the children a little extra and helps you out with the laden bags, customer service and the experience is alive and kicking. With the credo “life is short,” I am happy to be one who is, on most occasions, prepared to pay for that little extra.

The challenge for many brands will be ensuring that experience and emotion consistently throughout the distribution chain, including most emphatically after-sales service.

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