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Why Is Being A Customer So Painful?

by Alf Nucifora

The recent announcement of AT & T's pending acquisition of BellSouth cannot be good news if you're one of the unfortunate customers of either entity. BellSouth subscribers will now join a combined behemoth of 71 million local phone line users, as well as 10 million broadband subscribers, and close to 50 million Cingular wireless customers. Welcome to the monolithic ant colony, an impersonal world where increasing product and service confusion meets expanded boiler room service, all presumably in the name of one-stop-shopping and a reduced monthly bill. Time will tell, but odds are the consumer will eventually pay the price, in satisfaction, if not in price, which prompts the observation that it's not always easy being a customer.

It's been a painful month

The question must be asked, "Why is the customer-brand transaction so often fraught with so much difficulty and angst?" It can't just be me. In fact, the research verifies that it isn't only me. In the last thirty days, I've had to do battle with a cross-country moving service that destroyed furniture, lost items, delayed delivery because the driver was arrested and spent time in jail in mid-transit, and has taken a year to address, but not resolve the dispute. Add to that the printer who did an outstanding job producing expensive ($5 each) presentation folders only to have them damaged by the rough-house express delivery company because of poor carton packing and failure to mark the cartons "Fragile". And let's not forget our friends at the cellular phone company. Eight calls, forty minutes of phone time and I still got eight different instructions from eight different people in response to an inquiry that should have been resolved in an instance. To add insult to injury, I was trying to help them by returning $600 worth of stolen phones that had been fraudulently charged to my stolen credit card.

From out-of-stock items on the supermarket shelf, to cold fries in a fast food restaurant, the customer always seems to get the shaft. If there's a lesson anywhere in this litany of complaint it's simply this…if you want to keep them happy, and returning to buy again, keep it simple…and be responsive. Peter Sealey and Steven Cristol in their book Simplicity Marketing, drive home the point that customers will increasingly seek out brands that provide ease and simplicity in communication and transaction. That means simplicity in securing brand information, whether it's an extremely user-friendly website or an arresting and compelling ad campaign. Simplicity is ease of purchase, with a harmony and fluidity that makes the transaction almost seem invisible, and memorable for the satisfaction it delivers rather than the pain and difficulty that it provokes. What we know is that consumers will continue to put their faith in brands. They have to. Product proliferation and competitor overload, coupled with the time constraints experienced by today's harried consumer, clearly indicate that the successful marketer who seeks customer loyalty over the long term has to reduce the complexity in the marketing process. That means a clear and precise (and ideally unique) brand perception in the marketplace; packaging, in the broadest sense, that illuminates and enhances the product or service and contributes valuable information and understanding to the customer's "buy or not-buy" decision process; customer-easy sales and delivery processes that are speedy, responsive and flawless; and a customer feedback and communication channel that addresses complaints and concerns and is driven by the philosophy and need to maintain customer fealty.

On the subject of responsiveness, focus group interviews across industry sector and customer category, from C suite to C store, confirm that it's still the dominant demand. Whatever we're buying, we want it now! It's how we eat, drive, shop and entertain ourselves. For the marketer, the lesson is clear. You can never be too fast. Speed (and satisfaction) in the transaction is an unrivalled competitive advantage for a brand. Conversely, slowness and lack of responsiveness are the kiss of death.

Marketers would also be advised to remember the need to acknowledge customer individuality. In spite of our outward embrace of democratic principles and egalitarianism, none of us really wants to be viewed as an anonymous unit within a mass demographic grouping. Each of us craves our fifteen minutes of fame, our need to be a player, and to be recognized for our importance as customers who spend the money that supports the brand that drives the profit. We respond best to micro-marketing, not mass-marketing because today, we, not the brand, are in command. You will attend to our needs, address our concerns and make us happy…or pay the consequences. You have been warned.

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