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Customers Can't Get No Respect

by Alf Nucifora

A recent article in the New York Times, "Companies Find They Can't Buy Love with Bargains," poses the question of why consumer brand loyalty is weakening in spite of overall improvements in product performance, innovation and value, at the same time as prices continue to decline (think Wal-Mart, Target and JetBlue). In this day and age of One-Day Sales, factory outlet stores and 50% retail discounts, consumers have become somewhat inured to the phenomenon of every-day low prices. And, that's to be expected. It's now a fact of life that economy-pricing is no longer the compelling point-of-difference that it was a decade ago given today's highly competitive brand universe.

Customers Want More

Let's be honest, today's savvy buyer is always looking for a good deal, whether it's a discounted price or enhanced value from the transaction. But, in consideration of brand loyalty, that same buyer is seeking customer empathy or intimacy with the brand. The irony is, most brands don't even attempt a false or fake empathy, something that most customers would settle for in a pinch if it was communicated in an appropriate fashion. A number of recent personal incidents best illustrate the contention.

The Case of the Silent Real Estate Agent

Within the last sixty days I sold my home at a significant price point. At a 6% commission rate, my Agent will derive a heavy return on a limited investment of money and time, probably in the order of 400% (even after splitting the commission with the Buyer's Agent). I do not begrudge my agent his/her commission. I clearly understood and accepted the financial ramifications going in. What I do find unusual is the lack of a single phone call from my agent following the signing of the sales contract. Any contact between us has been with the administrative assistant who facilitated the preparation for closing. It would have been nice to have received a congratulatory phone call, email or card or perhaps a cheap bottle of champagne…anything to acknowledge the success of the transaction and an appreciation for the business. Such treatment may not be mandatory, but for a 5-figure commission deal, demanding a significant degree of what Naisbett would term "high-touch," it certainly would have left a positive impression, perhaps even have lead to repeat business and referrals down the road. People fail to understand that customer empathy requires an investment leading to long-term return.

The Frustration of Key Pad Punching

I've witnessed a similar lack of empathy with well-established brands that interface with the customer through boiler-room call centers. Why is it when calling most financial institutions I am made to punch-in a slew of data only to be asked to repeat the same data again once a live operator comes on line? Don't they realize how annoying and frustrating it can be to that harried customer who is most likely calling with a negative frame of mind, attempting to address an irritating billing problem after a lengthy period on hold?

Call Center Blues

Then there are the Indian call centers. As a recent 60-Minutes program revealed, you can teach Indian operators the fundamentals of American pronunciation and accent. Conveying empathy is a different proposition. That requires an understanding of the consumer mindset, of the unique fashion in which we, demanding Americans, respond to pain, aggravation and failure to fix the problem according to our high, even unreasonable expectations. I have great respect for India, its people, its culture and its remarkable foray into the technology universe, but my heart sinks when I dial a U.S. company and hear that my problem is about to be addressed by an operator in Bangalore reading from off a computer screen. I suspect that U.S. companies will eventually get the message and return their boiler rooms to U.S. shores in spite of the significant savings that come from such outsourced labor. Consumer empathy will demand it.

A Host with Bad Manners

And finally, my ex-web hosting company, which, because of problems with its over-taxed servers, unilaterally decided to restrict my incoming email, flow until such stage as they could get their house in order. I genuinely understand the problems caused by spam as it clogs up the email channels. I can even understand restricting the volume. But, to do so without the common courtesy of a warning message is unconscionable. It took a half dozen phone calls and the application of third-degree torture to get through the initial haze and maze of misinformation and arrive at the truth (a confession from a technical support operator who revealed what was going on in direct contravention to company policy). The upshot is that I now have a new web host in spite of a prior relationship going back more than five years. When will technical people understand that good technology by itself is not the complete answer? What price does one place on the emotional relationship…the glue that ultimately binds the consumer to the brand for a lengthy period of time. Better still a lifetime.

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