Return to: GROK Dot Com 9/15/2001

The Technology Gap: Part II

Yep, I haven't finished venting yet. As I said before, it takes a fair bit of aggravation to get me going like this. But I really have had it with e-tailers who hide behind technology to do a job that properly belongs to a real human.

By now, you know about my terminated order (see The Technology Gap: Part I) and my insistence that when problems present themselves, the simple intervention of the human touch might save you from losing a customer. I'd like to turn my attention now to those insipid, syrupy and totally useless e-mails many e-tailers automatically generate in response to their customers' queries.

I like being thanked and appreciated as much as any Earthling, but only if the words have substance. If I read one more touchy-feely "our customers mean everything to us and we greatly value your business" that is not backed up by superlative service, I'll scream! I should warn you - Martians can scream really loudly.

Take my recent experience with Netflix.com. I loved the idea and the site really sings with expressions of concern for its customers. I was sold immediately, and they didn't even have to work that hard to get me. Filled in my information, set up my rental queue, got my first batch and sat back in a DVD Zen state. Then an email informed me there was a problem with my credit card. Obviously technology-generated, it asked me to amend my information or supply a new card, and that my pending order would be held for 10 days. Notice I had no pending order. Hmmm - but O.K. I did what they asked and discovered the expiration date was listed incorrectly. I corrected it, then replied to the return address on my error announcement, letting them know what I had done.

The email bounced back. Turns out, you can't reply to one of Netflix's billing error letters. You have to go to the website and locate the appropriate customer service e-mail contact. So I did, sent the email again and got another machine response: "Thank you for your inquiry." It wasn't an inquiry. Meanwhile, their system burped yet another "get your act together or else" email to me. It took three days and four e-mail iterations before I finally got an email that looked as though an actual human had written it and informed me everything was resolved. Good thing I'm both a motivated and an understanding customer. Someone fainter of heart or shorter of fuse would have cancelled his or her membership long before! My point in all this? A whole thirty seconds of speaking with a human on the phone and this problem would have evaporated (not to mention the human could have gone beyond “solving” into real relationship building). Not only did they never call me, I couldn’t call them either. There’s no phone number, toll-free or otherwise, that I can find on their site.

Grok Caveats:

· Always have a functioning reply address in any communication you send, particularly if you want your customer to resolve something.

· Have a human being who sounds like a human being respond.

· If you are in the process of resolving a problem with a customer, don't send additional "or else" letters until you know the disposition of the first attempt.

· Have a way folks can call to speak with a real human when the going gets tough.

Then there was a little to-do with MLB.com. What an amazing offer they have: listen to streaming audio broadcasts of any baseball game aired on radio anywhere in the US, and the entire season costs only $9.95. I have a little baseball-nut buddy and went immediately to sign him up. It was pure hell negotiating the order process, and I don't know how many times I submitted and resubmitted the information, including my credit card number. At one point, with no confirmation whatsoever, I was told the account already existed. You can probably understand my concern and what motivated me to write a detailed letter (no customer phone number here, either) asking the status of this MLB Audio account. And did I get a pertinent response? Nope. Two weeks later, I got this:

Dear Fan,

Thank you for your e-mail. For your convenience we have progressively strengthened our Audio Frequently Asked Questions section. After evaluating your e-mail(s) we came up with a detailed and comprehensive list of questions and answers. We urge you to check our new Audio FAQ page as we are hoping that this will answer any and all of your questions.

Please visit this page at FAQs . As new issues arise we will update our FAQ's accordingly. We are currently looking into ways of making information more available to our users. Thank you again for your patience and your continued support of MLB.com.

Best regards,

Brendan & Jason

Customer Relations, MLB Advanced Media

Bless Brendan and Jason and their "progressively strengthened" FAQ, but my name is not "Fan," and I still don't know Thing One about the status of my account!

Grok Caveats:

· When you are responding to a customer-generated query, address the reply to the customer: Dear Grok or Hi Grok or Whuz Happenin' Grok.

· Provide a personalized response to a personalized question. If the FAQ didn't work the first time, why should the customer have confidence it is going to work the second time? Sometimes, in the name of service, you've got to repeat yourself.

Now hear this: no human is going to stick around for long if she doesn't feel she's being heard or her specific concerns are being addressed. You simply can't send out the same form letter for every problem. Customer service letters your customers can't reply to is not customer service.

Here's what you can do: Get a flesh-and-blood, thinking, feeling human being to monitor your in-coming mail. Think of this person as your Customer Service Gatekeeper - the person who can direct queries to the appropriate answering agent. Sometimes that agent will be the system, with its form-letter responses. Other times, the agent MUST be another flesh-and-blood, thinking, feeling human who can provide personalized replies and solutions that don't come across as complete non-sequitors. It doesn't take much brain-power to figure out if your customer is trying to solve a problem you've notified her of, she is NOT making an inquiry. This customer does not deserve to pawned off to The System.

Now, here's the ONLY first-response automatic form letter I'll ever find acceptable (modeled on an experience I had with Cafepress.com):

Dear Valued Customer (even better, use her name),

This is an automatically-generated letter to confirm we have received your e-mail. You can look forward to a response from us within 24 hours. If your circumstance requires personalized attention, we will assign a customer service representative to you who will stay with you until the issue is resolved to your satisfaction.

Sincerely ….

Can it be done properly, with a minimum of fuss? Absolutely! BCF Direct (Burlington Coat Factory) generated this automatic reply to an e-mail question about the exact dimensions of a rug:

Subject: We have received your message

Thank you for contacting BCF Direct Customer Service. We have received your mail message, and you will be contacted by a Customer Service Representative within two business days. We

handle all issues on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Please do not re-send your message unless you do not hear from us within two business days. Our business days are Monday through Friday.

Thank you for your patience.

23 hours later, they supplied this response:

The dimensions for this rug are 2 feet 10 inches by 3 feet 6 inches.

Thank you

Not your most touchy-feely, hyper-personalized exchange, but perfectly suitable (even though they did use the passive voice!). BCF Direct impressively underpromised and overdelivered. Guess what? They got the sale! And that's how everyone stays happy.

Take a few minutes to think about how you would like to be treated in these situations - we all are consumers, after all. Then, delight your customers, as you would like to be delighted: give them humanized, personalized service, and knock yourself out in the process. Given the alternatives of disgruntled customers, even more disgruntled ex-customers, and bad viral press, wouldn’t it be nicer to be remembered for carefully attending to the details!

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Return to: GROK Dot Com 9/15/2001

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