Thursday, 23 April 2009

Marketing, customer service: why "little people" should matter to brands

Leona Helmsley famously said, "Only the little people pay taxes".

Too many PR / marketing / customer service departments seem to share a similar mantra:
"The little people don't count, so they don't merit a decent level of service".

This attitude is shortsighted and counter-productive. You may think someone is "little people" because they're a private individual consumer - they're not a large corporation, so why should you bother to give them reasonable service, or even the time of day?

Well, that attitude may backfire on you.

Here's a story from personal experience.

Google seem to be really trying to make a push into enterprise these days, offering productivity solutions for business with Google Apps etc and a dedicated Enterprise blog.

Now a few years back, I was directly responsible for acquiring an enterprise search solution for my company. Then, Google's enterprise search product was in its infancy, but I was a big Google fan (still am).

The powers that be were considering what was then more established software and, knowing how conservative they were, I felt I ought to look into Google's enterprise product in more detail before I formally brought it up with them.

So, on the side, in my own time and from my personal rather than corporate email address, I tried to contact Google. I needed to check compatibility with my company's document management system, as there would be no point even mentioning Google to my superiors if Google's product (which is now known as the Google Search Appliance) couldn't hook into that.

Guess what? Google never replied to my email. So I tried again. Still no reply.

So I gave up trying to contact Google.

My company acquired another product instead, on which it still spends a fair amount of money on subscription and support every year, and that was a lost opportunity for Google to add to its Google Enterprise customers list a large multinational which, to this day, still doesn't use any Google-originated enterprise products.

(Before anyone tries to send me eager marketing emails, please note that I'm no longer in that position. I don't specify software or hardware or have any say in their procurement now, so please don't spam me!)

Why the little people matter

So, this is why the little people matter, and why they should be courted and considered just as much as the supposedly "big" customer:

1. The "little person" might not actually be a little person - they might be an important person, you just don't know it (yet).

E.g. they could be a CEO of a big corporation, looking to buy something in a personal capacity.

Or a journalist, pretending to be a little person to check how you treat average consumers.

Or someone in charge of procurement for a big outfit, who again wants to test what your customer service is like for the anonymous user.

Or they could be a CEO or corporate buyer who just doesn't want to be targeted for marketing calls or emails just because they've made one initial enquiry, so for their preliminary investigations they've deliberately just used a personal or disposable email address.

2. The "little person" might have influence over someone who does "matter".

Their partner or close family member or best friend could be an important CEO, purchaser, journalist etc.

You just don't know if that could be the case.

3. The "little person" could have influence over public opinion.

Think of what happened famously with Dell, etc: your enquirer could be a journalist, a well known blogger, or just someone who tells all their friends and family, Facebook contacts etc or posts a funny viral video on YouTube about how badly you treated them - and the damage to your reputation could spread fast and be hard to contain.

4. Don't forget the "reverse halo effect": a single bad experience can bias a person against a brand for life.

And they can similarly spread that negative view to all their friends, family, the world. (With thanks to Dirk for bringing the phrase to my attention.)

As an illustration of the reverse halo effect, again from personal experience, I now refuse to buy any Dyson vacuum cleaners or indeed any of their other products.

When I first got one of Dyson's bagless vacuum cleaners a few years back, I loved it. Then I had to buy a replacement filter, but I just couldn't get to fit. It wasn't just me - a big, strong, clever friend also tried and tried and tried (with much cursing), and couldn't get it to fit either.

But when I called Dyson customer service about it they were downright rude, saying in quite an offensive way that it was my fault, my stupidity, it certainly wasn't the filter, and needless to say offering me no help whatsoever in getting it to fit.

Result: the vacuum cleaner went to the dump (OK OK don't hit me, nowadays I'd offer it on Freecycle!), and that I talk Dyson down whenever I can. Like now. And previously.

Because Dyson weren't willing to exert themselves to be halfway polite to a customer who needed help, and were (presumably) also too mean to fork out about £5 to send out a working replacement filter, they turned a hitherto loyal, enthusiastic customer into a major detractor.

I really don't care how innovative, efficient or cost-effective their products may be; I'm just not going to support any brand which allows their employees to take that kind of attitude to its paying customers.

Another, slightly different example: as regular readers know I often cover consumer issues in comms, but following a change in personnel (and the inevitable "rebranding", not for the better) the Communications Consumer Panel (formerly the Ofcom Consume Panel) no longer reply to my emails.

Clearly a blogger whose blog receives over 3000 unique visitors per day on average and is syndicated through Newstex is "little people", not worthy of an acknowledgement never mind a reply. The Panel are so high profile (not!) that they don't even have a page on Wikipedia. Ignoring bloggers will certainly help them there, won't it. And yep, it's very unlikely that ACE will contact them again for their views on anything.

Good practices

There's another reason to treat the "little person" well, of course: it's just good practice to provide a certain base level of courteous, helpful service to your customers or potential customers.

But that really should be a given.

Cynically, I think it's more productive to focus on the stick rather than the carrot of "good practice".

So why am I posting this anyway?

In a recent series of pre-sales enquiries (for a tech product, what else), I was asked whether I was looking to buy for myself - or was I a corporate buyer?

I'm convinced that the moment I replied "For myself", my query was moved to the slow lane.

I did get a reply eventually, a few weeks later. But before they had classified me as "not corporate", the reply had taken just 2 days.

Now I don't know what goes on at corporations behind the scenes, so I've no idea if (in the Google example) ignored my emails because I seemed to be an individual asking on my own behalf, or if there was in fact some other reason (email glitches? though two or three glitches is a bit of a coincidence...).

Similarly, I don't know if in the other example I mentioned they really did slow-track me because I said I wasn't a corporate buyer, or because they had some other, entirely legitimate, reason.

But I do know that from a business point of view, it really isn't a good idea to make a habit of ignoring or giving below par service to a potential customer just because you think they're little people.

After all, you don't know what goes on with them either, behind the scenes. They may really be a Ms Big, or be able to influence a Mr Big or Jo Public. Or just be potentially a very good customer and source of revenue, if you only want to think in terms of dollars or pounds.

A friend started off working on the sales floor of a very well known London department store. A consummate salesperson as well as manager, my friend always took great care with purchasers of even small items in the store. As a result, my friend got repeat business. The young woman with whom my friend painstakingly spent time over the sale of a single handkerchief as a gift would reappear a few weeks later with family in tow to buy furniture and household accessories galore, specifically seeking out my friend to assist with those purchases. My friend is now very senior management, and no surprises there.

Which goes to show, it surely pays to provide a minimum decent standard of service to all your potential customers, whatever their presumed status or transactions.

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