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The Individual: A Coming Thing?
By Scott Hornstein
Thursday, 20th July 2006
 
The key is to focus on customers one at a time rather than en masse.

I think customer service or as I look at it, customer care—is the next big thing. But take note: I'm not talking about how we service customers at large, but rather how we care for the individual customer. That's the important, strategic goal, and the compelling competitive differentiator companies should focus on.

Right now, many companies define and invest in the customer as a group, a set, a slice. Many measurement systems look at averages and the big picture, like market share and customer satisfaction.

But usually there is little or no value placed on the individual customer. In fact, interaction with the individual is widely viewed not as an opportunity, but as a cost to be driven down. And that's a loophole big enough to drive a competitive truck through.

Let's put on our customer hats for a moment. As individual consumers, it's probably safe to assume we all have sent a customer service e-mail to a company at some point. I'll also assume we expect an answer, ideally within 24 hours.

Now, if we receive that answer within 24 hours, that's good; no extra credit for that. But the longer we wait for an answer, and the more indirect the answer is, the less satisfied we are. And if we never receive an answer, we logically assume that we don't matter to the company.

Every year, our organization conducts an e-mail responsiveness survey of 38 important companies. The subject line is "Customer Service," and the message consists of the following sentence: "What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for e-mails addressed to customer service?"

The surveyed companies include all of those on the Financial Times' list of the World's Most Respected Companies of 2005: Microsoft, GE, Toyota, Coca-Cola, IBM, Wal-Mart, BP, P&G, Apple, Siemens, and more. To be counted, their responses must answer our question. Referral to a Web site ("Go help yourself!") doesn't count.

We began this survey in 2001, and the following year 27 of the 32 companies answered the question. By 2005, 24 companies answered the query, and this year the response had dwindled to 22. What's really disappointing is that only 12 companies (32 percent) answered us within the desired 24-hour period.

Besides the response time, there is interesting information in the responses themselves:

  • Four companies said they had no policy regarding e-mail.
  • Two companies wrote back, saying, "We apologize, the information you are requesting is proprietary information and is not available to the public."
  • Four companies said they shoot for a response time of 24 hours.
  • Two companies have 30 days as a response-time goal.
And amazingly,16 companies (42 percent) simply didn't respond to our e-mail query at all, and there's really no excuse. A nonresponse takes a great big bite out of brand quality, and individual customers are becoming vocal about their irritation and frustration.

Individuals like to feel important, which results from something as simple as getting an answer to their e-mails within one day. Feeling important is a contributor to overall satisfaction. And satisfied customers stay longer and buy more.

I think customer care—individual customer care—is the next big thing.

Scott Hornstein is coauthor of Opt-In Marketing: Increase Sales Exponentially with Consensual Marketing, and President, Hornstein Associates.

Scott Hornstein can be reached at scott@hornsteinassociates.com
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