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Throw me a bone, here: why marketers crave feedback

There have been a few occasions recently when I’ve had reason to provide various organisations with feedback about the way they’ve treated me, and doing so has made me stop and think about what feedback means to marketers.

It’s been said that if your customers are happy they’ll tell a friend, but if they’re unhappy they’ll tell several. With customers’ increased use of social media we’re seeing a lot more public feedback than we used to; ignore it at your peril, because if you’re not listening to your customers’ feedback and acting upon it, your mission statement is going to come across as a paragraph of smarm that looks great on paper but doesn’t mean anything to your customers.

The time I talked with my feet…

Because of an error a couple of years before, when my electricity bills were based on estimated usage for about two years, I’d been having to pay £110 a month for electricity in a house which was empty from 8am to 6pm, five days a week.

Then one day a few months ago, I had my latest bill from Scottish Power. It said that my account was about £35 in credit, so I called them to ask whether my direct debits could be re-calculated.

The customer services advisor asked me to give him a meter reading, so I did. “Ah right, Mrs Williams,” he said. “You see, because you’ve given me a new meter reading, that puts you in a new billing cycle. Which means you’re not in credit any more… you’re in arrears of eighty-odd pounds. The best I can do is reduce your direct debit to £65 a month.”

That didn’t sound right.

“Do we use £65 of electricity a month?” I asked. “Surely not… the house is empty from 8-6, five days a week…”

“No,” he replied. “You use £55 a month. But because you’re in arrears, we have to charge you £65 a month.”

“But I’m not in arrears,” I said. “I’m £35 in credit.”

“No you’re not,” he insisted. “I told you: when you give us a meter reading, that puts you in a new billing period, so you now owe the next quarters’ worth of electricity.”

I couldn’t believe it – or quite understand it, if I’m honest. It seemed unnecessarily complicated, and extremely unfair; according to their system, I would always be branded as being “in arrears”, even though I hadn’t missed a single payment. I told him so.

“Yes, but,” he said, his patience starting to wear thin, “as I explained, Mrs Williams, you’re in a new billing period and…”

I cut him short.

“That’s ridiculous,” I spat. “It’s bad enough that you claim I’m using £55-worth of electricity each month. But now you’re saying I’m always going to be in arrears? Not good enough, I’m afraid. I’ve got my laptop in front of me, and I’m opening uswitch.com right now.”

He panicked.

“You don’t need to do that, Mrs Williams,” he whined. “We can save you money on your electricity bills; if you can just hang on a moment, I’ll transfer you to someone who can explain how we can reduce your electricity costs.”

I was flabbergasted.

“You mean to tell me,” I said, “that in the two years that this has been going on, you could have at any point given me a cheaper price plan?”

“Erm… yes,” he said, nervously; I imagined him cringing at the other end of the phone.

“Well you can stuff it then,” I said. “You rip me off to the tune of hundreds of pounds for ‘arrears’ that aren’t my fault, and only when I threaten to switch suppliers do you tell me you could’ve saved me a fortune all along? I don’t care how much you can save me now. Your customer service is appalling; I’m switching to a supplier that looks after its customers.”

So I did, there and then; I switched to e-on, who provide me with a hassle-free service for £36 a month.

What is value?

Fact: a LOT of customers care more about the service they get from your organisation than the price you charge for your products and services. Providing good value isn’t about being the cheapest: it’s about providing the biggest possible number of benefits – and by benefits, I mean benefits as your customers perceive them, not benefits as you perceive them – for the price you charge.

I witnessed this first hand at SecureTrading, an Internet payment service provider for whom I worked for nearly 7 years. Although it was one of the more expensive providers, the customer service was (and still is) so outstanding that customers were prepared to pay more, rather than use cheaper suppliers with poor service reputations. We received tons of feedback about it, which we used in promotinal material to good effect. And the lasting effect, for me, is this: if I ever need to accept payments on my website, I’d rather pay 1.5% per transaction to SecureTrading and get an amazing service than pay 10p per transaction to its competitors. And I’m not alone…

Customers are not stupid. They know they have a choice. They make value judgements before they select a supplier; if they’re wrong, they’ll find another. Don’t be under any delusions that your customers are too lazy, institutionalised or dim to find a better supplier… today’s consumers are smart, sophisticated, Internet-savvy and will desert you at the drop of a hat if another supplier satisfies their needs more readily.

It’s been said that the Brits are not very good at complaining. But marketing (in the true, customer-satisfying sense) is improving and wider choices are becoming available, and I think we’ll find that customers – even British ones – will increasingly talk with their feet whenever they find their needs aren’t being met.

This one got it right. Eventually.

So I’m a complainer, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I have a strong sense of justice, and if I think someone is being unjust with me, I’ll tell them.

Another example: I ordered a printer toner cartridge online recently, from a supplier I hadn’t used before. When the box arrived in the post, it contained a drum unit instead of a toner cartridge, so I called the supplier.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I’ll send you a new one.”

“What do you want me to do about the one you sent?” I asked. “I live in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to get to the post office to send it back to you.”

“Oh don’t worry,” he said. “Whenever you can will be fine.”

A few days later, the replacement still hadn’t arrived, so I emailed the supplier and asked for an update. His reply surprised me somewhat:

“Hi Debbie

We are still waiting on receiving the drum. We will despatch the toner cartridge as soon as we receive the drum from you.

Regards

Allan”

“Well that’s not what you said on the phone, you cheeky bugger,” I thought. So I mailed him back:

“Hi Allan,

When I spoke to you on Friday you simply said “I’ll send you a new one” – there was no mention of me having to send the original back to you, in fact it was me who brought up the subject of how to return it. When I did ask, I told you that I live in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t guarantee when I could get to a post office, and you told me not to worry about it. Perhaps you’re not the person I spoke to, but this is a true record of the conversation I had with your organisation.

I’ve already spent £5.50 on delivery to receive the wrong item – why on earth would I want to pay the same again to return it to you, without having received the correct item in the meantime? I paid in good faith and you made a mistake, so it’s up to you to rectify it as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see why I should be even further out of pocket (postage, petrol/time in getting to a post office) without any guarantee that the correct item will actually turn up.

So can you please send the toner cartridge, and when I’ve been able to confirm that it’s the correct part, *then* I’ll send back the original.

Thanks

Debbie”

To his credit, Allan realised the error of his ways:

“Hi Debbie

Your point is well taken. We will despatch the cartridge today.

Regards

Allan”

A couple of days later the new toner cartridge arrived. Allan had kept his side of the bargain, so I did too; I sent back the original box the next time I was able to get to a post office.

If you love them, let them know

I’m not a total bitch though. As I said, I have a strong sense of justice, and that’s a two-way street. If I receive an exceptional service, I believe in shouting about it.

Case in point:

I had a lovely chat with Smile, the Internet bank, a couple of weeks ago. I had a few questions about my mortgage, so I called them for a chat. Not only did their advisor, Matt, answer my questions in a friendly, helpful, knowledgeable way, but he also gave me some really useful information that I’d not even asked for.

Absolutely brilliant; I use a lot of Smile products, and guess why? It’s not because they’re the cheapest, or because their products have the best features; it’s because I know that every time I need to ask a question, their customer service is going to outshine that of other providers.

My experiences with Smile have been so positive over the years, there have been several occasions when I’ve felt moved to tell them so. I’ve told them on the phone (Matt’s pleasure was palpable when I told him what a fantastic job he was doing), and I’ve sent them messages through their website’s contact form, telling them they’re wonderful.

Marketers thrive on feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. When we get positive comments, they strengthen our brand; when we get negative comments, we’re given the opportunity to make amends and again, strengthen our brand. We need to know when we’re getting it right, but we equally need to know when we’re getting it wrong, so that we get the chance to put things right.

Feedback from your customers is a win-win situation, so whatever business you’re in, whoever your customers are, make sure your customers have every opportunity to let you know how you’re doing. It should be an ongoing process; blogs, forums, message boards and the like are great ways to interact with your customers, but you can help things along by asking every now and then. Drop them a line, give them a call, or contact them by any other means that works for them (they’re your customers, so you ought to know the answer to that one).

Just remember: competition on price and features is so fierce these days that customer service has become the last bastion of differentiation in many industries. Whatever your business, you can’t afford to overlook customer service and empowering your customers to tell you what they think of yours.

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5 Responses to Throw me a bone, here: why marketers crave feedback

  1. Alex 2nd May 2008 at 10:47 am #

    A great, insightful blog post – I love how you threatened to use Uswitch! Would love to read more about your customer service experiences with other companies.

  2. debbidoo 2nd May 2008 at 10:55 am #

    Thanks Alex – I think if someone is providing poor customer service, they need to know about it. Whether Scottish Power will do anything now that they’ve lost this customer remains to be seen…

    I’ll definitely keep adding customer service stories to the blog. Likewise, if any readers have good stories, please feel free to add them!

  3. Debbie 3rd May 2008 at 11:05 am #

    Debbie, a great blog post. I get really disappointed when I don’t get any feedback. Luckily, most of my customers tell me their opinions. I fight like hell for my customers, but sometimes I just cannot get everything as perfect as I want. But the main thing is to communicate and discuss in an open and honest manner.

    Thanks again

    – Ling
    LINGsCARS.com

  4. Ling Valentine 3rd May 2008 at 11:07 am #

    Here we go, I made a mistake. I put YOUR name in the “name box”, Debbie :) Sorry.

    – Ling

  5. debbidoo 3rd May 2008 at 3:32 pm #

    Ling, I think the thing is to ask from time to time. Ask customers to fill in a quick satisfaction survey… as long as it’s only a little one, most people probably won’t mind doing it, especially once they know you’ll act on the information they give you.

    Keep up the fight Ling, it’s worth it!

    Debs

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