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Building brands with one hand; killing them with the other?

21 Oct 2014  |  Bob Wootton 
Building brands with one hand; killing them with the other?

Companies spend millions building and protecting their brands, but then ruin it all with terrible customer service, laments ISBA's Bob Wootton.

The IPA recently published a study, by the godfathers of effectiveness, Les Binet and Peter Field, called 'The Long and the Short Of It'. It's an excellent and definitive examination of the past thirty-two years of the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards to determine the effects of long and short-term advertising strategies.

One of its key conclusions is that brands deliver greater and more sustainable profit than mere products. So brands are profitable, but they're delicate too.

I was at a dinner recently when the customer interface became the subject of discussion, and that debate really got me thinking.

In my world, companies spend millions on building and protecting their brands, and I spend my working life doing my best to protect their interests.

So why would many of those selfsame brand owners embark on parallel activities which are damaging, corrosive even, to their delicate, hard-earned brands?

Ask anybody you know and they will surely have a ready story about a 'customer experience' with a customer help line or call centre.

Whether the recounted 'experience' starts with a harmless customer query or a complaint, say about service delivery, the tale will invariably involve frustration, escalation and ultimately dissatisfaction with how they were handled.

Customer service is big business both globally and in the UK. According to Cognito, in 2013 there were 5,675 call centres in the UK employing 1,125,000 people. That means nearly 4% of the UK workforce are employed in this part of the industry.

Many of the large businesses which effectively make up the fabric of consumer society - utilities, retailers, banks and so on - obviously need to have ways of dealing with their customers. No issue there.

And there are millions and millions of them, so these systems need to be capable of sometimes handling very high traffic, particularly at times of stress or crisis.

Moreover, although there will be commonality - (most) people don't phone their bank to grumble about their gas supply, for example - each contact is likely to be somewhat different, so the systems have to be flexible and capable of directing customers quickly and efficiently to the right people.

Ok, that's the spec written and it wasn't too hard, was it? But what about the delivery?

Back to those large businesses that make up the fabric of consumer society. All claim to be customer-facing these days because that's the right thing to say. The mantra of "we really value each and every opportunity to engage with our customers" usually surfaces in the same breath.

Fair enough, but why then do so many make such a hash of it?

- Automated option-based telephone systems, several/many minutes' waiting time, few or no options for callbacks

- Call centres, often offshored, populated by people with insufficient grasp of the customers' local geographies or customs, and often language - but usually with plenty of time on their hands

- The requirement to provide personal information before being allowed to proceed which customers would rightly expect to be passed and put on operators' screens as the call is progressively channelled towards the right customer service operative

- All this going on while the customer is pressed for time because they're probably making calls from their workplace or in a break during office hours.

Remember, these are invariably either new or existing customers, not strangers. Yet many companies have seen commercial opportunity and turned their customer operations into businesses, charging at premium rates and keeping people waiting.

Most phones show call duration nowadays, so it's easy to see how long you've been kept waiting and figure out the cost.

And now, there's the rush for data that can be used for marketing and retargeting, or brand stalking as some prefer to see it nowadays.

Some frankly terrifying stats to confirm what you're fearing. The average Brit:

- spends up to 27 minutes waiting each time they phone a call centre. This accrues to 22 days over a lifetime

- wastes up to £385 a year - or £30,780 over an average lifetime - paying for time spent waiting when phoning call centres, according to a new national survey. (Sources : OnePoll, 2013)

- spend up to 6 ½ hours a year waiting on the line when phoning call centres. The summary of this poll comments that, "This significant length of time could have otherwise been spent flying to New York, running a marathon or watching the original Star Wars trilogy."

- 66% of UK consumers polled in 2012 believed that customer service had either stayed the same or deteriorated over the past three years. Only 3% thought it had improved a lot and 22% a little. (Sources: Cognito)

Look here if you want to see some major UK utilities' performance. It's grim.

I was in The Drewe Arms in Drewsteignton, north Dartmoor, with an old client, now a friend the other day. The landlord was holding for his telephony provider's customer service line on his mobile whilst serving his admittedly few customers as the landline was down and he was losing meal reservations.

Given that I was writing this piece, I asked him how long he'd been waiting - 43 minutes and counting and I'm quite used to it was the reply. Only one instance, but as I say, everybody seems to have many more than one.

This has led to an evolution in customer behaviour.

Most people have figured out what strategies work and get you connected quickly. With utilities including mobile telephony, you either dial the sales number (they answer that line very quickly!) or better, follow the channel for cancelling your contract (which is populated by operatives who are empowered to help and not just suck your time).

Better still is to do away with calls to a customer line altogether and go straight to Twitter. That gets a really rapid response, as companies are clearly and rightly very concerned about their reputation and do not want customers bad-mouthing their brands, products and/or services being dragged through the mud in full public view.

If you're not doing these things already, I recommend them.

What beats me is why so many companies continue to invest in but not improve systems that are so patently destructive to their brands' standing. It's universally-agreed that word of mouth is the most powerful marketing channel of all, so why would you invest in something so corrosive?

It's one thing for the likes of HMRC - 'services' that are unlikely to have many fans regardless and may therefore albeit misguidedly conclude that they have no need for any customer ethic whatsoever - but it's another entirely for any company that practices, let alone claims it understands, marketing.


Bob Wootton is director of media & advertising at ISBA.
@bobwootton / @ISBAsays


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