Does Your Company Walk the Talk?
By Scott Hornstein
Wednesday, 13th October 2010
If I am in the buy cycle, companies tend to be quite responsive, but if I'm not, it's another story, and that story encompasses research, problems and just plain old dopey questions.  (Dopey, I might add, is in the eye of the beholder.) 

Although I am the customer of many companies, I approach my non-sales interactions expecting to be treated poorly and I am rarely disappointed.  My research leads me to believe that this is the norm.  My experience tells me that corporate American is missing the boat, because our definition of a customer relationship is at odds with the customers'.

Before I go into the research, let me ask you three quick questions:  whether b2b or b2c, we all email a question to a company at some time in our "relationship".  Agree or disagree?  Let me see a show of hands.  We would all like an answer to our question – yes or no?  We would all like to get an answer within 24 hours.  ?

Every year, for the past 10 years, my company conducts an e-mail responsiveness survey.  We have compiled, and update a database, which consists of the Financial Times' Most Respected Companies, Fortune's Most Admired Companies and The Reputation Institute's Most Respected Companies.  This includes Apples, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bristol Myers, Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Nordstrom, Google and more.

We send each company an email whose subject is Customer Service and the body copy is "What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for emails addressed to customer service?"  This year we made one change, instead of having the email come from me; it came from my daughter, Rachel. 

Answers are the only thing that count.  Tell me your policy and I put a check next to your name.  The results are interesting.  Here's what happened:

2002 is the high water mark for answers received in any time frame, 86%.  2009 was the low- 45%.  This year was 51%

In 2002 63% of companies answered us within 24 hours.  2009 was 29%, this year, 35%.

But there is an interesting phenomenon in this year's survey – 24% of our original database decided that they would no longer participate in the conversation.  9% do not publish or post an email.  9% had a form that required information we did not have, like a flight number.  And 6% of the emails we sent via the form provided or to the published email, bounced.

Here are some interesting observations from the answers received:
  • 20% have a 24 hour policy
  • The web forms provided by P&G, Coke, General Mills and Kraft require age
  • AMA's policy is 24 – 78 business hours.  (As the customer, how does a business hour differ from a regular hour?)
  • GE could not disclose the information because of privacy regulations
  • IBM, HP and Target asked that we call in to discuss our question
The fastest answer was Nordstrom, 29 minutes.  Their policy is asap. The slowest was Disney, 11 days.  Their policy is 2 – 7 business days.  The oddest answer came from sar.Imceachern@protocolgs.com who wrote, "We like to respond within a 24 hour period" but never identified the company.  Who is "we"?

A colleague once told me that it would be such a nice business if it weren't for all those annoying customers.

As a customer, my reaction is part disgust and part no surprise.  At best, 50% of company deign to answer my question?  Like I said, no surprise.  I can count the companies I feel a relationship with on my left hand, and have fingers left over.

Another colleague told me that there are only three steps to business success– make stuff, sell stuff, collect money. 

As a marketer my reaction is, that was then, this is now.  Customers exist in a continuum, or a lifecycle that may start with a need go through the buying process, and then continues through the period of use until the next need arises.  The parts involving sales we embrace, the parts that involve investment we try to get as far away from us as possible. 

And this is the fatal flaw, because opinions are formed within this period of use, of problems and questions.  The opinion that would do us the most good is one of preference, that the result of our investment in customer service is that when the next need arises, they think of us first.  If there is no preference, we look like a commodity.

Accenture published research in which 61% of customers stated that poor customer service led them to change a supplier within the past year.  Which sort of seems like a long arms, flat forehead moment.  Treat customers with trust and respect and they will reciprocate.  Treat customers like commodities and they will surely return the favor.

Scott Hornstein is an author, lecturer and consultant, with over 30 years experience in all phases of marketing, research and implementation. He is president of the consultancy Hornstein Associates. His latest book, Opt-In Marketing:  Increase Sales Exponentially with Consensual Marketing, was just published by McGraw-Hill.  Scott can be reached at scott@hornsteinassociates.com or 203.938.8715.

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