July 17th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

We’ve all had bad customer service experiences. I, for example, will never forget the time I tried to quit a gym that billed me twice every month for no apparent reason. When I tried to explain their error, they made jokes about my weight and suggested that maybe I should be going twice as often. Great service, right?

Though perhaps not as emotionally scarring, tech journalist Ryan Block’s recent phone call with Comcast was equally as frustrating. He was calling to cancel his service, but instead of getting a courteous “Thanks for being our customer, have a nice life” response from Comcast, Block endured an 18-minute long conversation with a service rep who simply refused to help him.

Here’s a taste of the conversation, courtesy of Slate:

Rep: I’m just trying to figure out what it is about Comcast service that you don’t want to keep.

Block: This phone call is actually a really amazing representative example of why I don’t want to stay with Comcast.

Rep: OK, but I’m trying to help you.

Block: The way you can help me is by disconnecting my service.

Rep: But how is that helping you! How is that helping you! Explain to me how that is helping you!

All in all, this looks terrible for Comcast, which is actually in the middle of negotiating a $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable. Turns out, regulators are reluctant to approve the bill because they’re worried the “merger between the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 largest cable providers would lead to worse service, since the combined company would have even less to fear from competitors,” The Hill’s Julian Hattem writes. A valid concern, I would say. (Realistically though, how much worse could it get?)

Why Block didn’t hang up and just try to reach another rep is beyond me, but either way, Comcast appears to be in the wrong here, and for multiple reasons. Companies have protocols and scripts for their service representatives so that they know what to do in different scenarios, such as a cancellation call. A little persuasion is expected, of course, and a company can’t be expected to send up a white flag right away. Some try to win customers back with special offers or promotions, while others ask customers what they didn’t like about the service. All of these are totally acceptable, but there’s a fine line between persuasion and harassment, and it seems like the Comcast rep hopped right across it. Does his behavior represent the kinds of customer interactions that Comcast promotes?

Furthermore, the whole idea of having to call a company to cancel a subscription is bizarre to me. In this day and age, I should be able to go to the company Web site and cancel without any embarrassing encounters or awkward phone conversations. Consumers that want to end their ties with a company will do so no matter how difficult it is, so making the process impossible won’t win that customer back. It’ll just make new customers more reluctant to sign up.

The one thing Comcast actually did right throughout this whole fiasco is apologize, and do almost immediately. Block’s call went viral yesterday, and though the damage was done, letting his move go unanswered would have been devastating for the company’s reputation. A quick apology won’t solve a problematic employee culture if one exists at Comcast, but securing some distance between the brand and what could just turn out to be an employee gone rogue is a step in the right direction. If Comcast really wants to repair its image, though,  I’d recommend rethinking their cancellation policy. Just look at Netflix; that’s all I’m saying.

July 10th, 2014 by Maria Minsker

Air travel is notoriously awful. From overpriced on-board amenities to flight delays and cancellations, airline companies pride themselves on making customers miserable while they’re trapped inside a metal box in the air–or on the tarmac–for hours. In May, for example, on-time arrivals dropped from just over 79 percent to 76 percent and flight cancellations jumped from one percent, to almost two, USA Today reported this morning. Lost baggage claims grew as well, rising to 3.34 reports per 1,000 fliers, as compared to 2.96 during that month last year and the 2.92 reports per 1,000 fliers in April, USA Today reports. And, unsurprisingly, passenger complaints are up: in May, there were 1,280 complaints from disgruntled fliers, a 31.3 percent jump from last May and a 1.7% increase from April.

But, as it turns out, turning an air travel nightmare into a positive customer experiences isn’t that difficult when employees have the right mindset.

Earlier this week, passengers on a Frontier Airlines flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver was forced to “circle in western Nebraska” and eventually land in Wyoming because of bad weather conditions. Stuck on the runway for over an hour with some very frustrated passengers, the crew eventually ran out of on-board snacks and was getting desperate. So the captain took matters into his own hands.

According to some passenger accounts, Captain Gerhard Brandner made an announcement and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, Frontier Airlines is known for being one of the cheapest airlines in the U.S., but your captain is not cheap. I just ordered pizza for the entire plane.” Apparently, he ordered over 40 pizzas, with at least one pie per row of passengers. 

Sure, ordering pizza for angry passengers probably isn’t a part of Frontier Airlines’ customer service policy handbook, but who cares? Time and time again analysts agree that most of the time, it’s up to company executives to set up a culture in which employees have the authority and the initiative to do what it takes to delight customers, but it’s ultimately up to employees to deliver that satisfaction. Brandner made the right call here, and Frontier Airlines looks better for it. Cheap or not, that airline is getting something right–it’s instilling the kind of dedication and devotion to customer service that other airlines should strive to inspire among employees.

“If the need arises,” Brandner said later,  ”you need to take care of your passengers. They are my responsibility the moment they step on the aircraft until they get off the aircraft.” That’s good customer service for you. 

July 3rd, 2014 by Maria Minsker

As products blur and brand names loose their grandeur, it’s services that sell nowadays. The services economy is ushering in a market opportunity that represents over 50 percent of U.S. GDP (that’s nearly four trillion dollars, folks!), but that doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing for online service providers. To stay afloat in a fluid space, it’s crucial to constantly re-evaluate and improve the service that’s being provided, and find ways to derive new value from an old offering. So how can brands keep up with the services economy? Here are the top ten stats to keep in mind, courtesy of Avangate, a commerce solution provider for online services.

1. Over 63 percent of U.S. adults use online services everyday. More than 50 percent are willing to pay for them.

2. Different factors influence consumers’ decision to pay for a service–free trials (for 58% of consumers), the option to cancel at any time (for 49% of consumers), and the ability to upgrade and add services at any time (for 33% of consumers) were most lucrative offers.

3. The emergence of the Internet of Things is allowing brands to package products and services together for greater value. Roughly 80 percent of consumers that buy wearable technology use it for fitness.

4. Over 55 percent of consumers would be more inclined to purchase wearables if they could extend their functionality with added services.

5. Unsurprisingly, customer support plays a huge role in the services economy. Among the top service complaints, unrelated services (for 54 percent of consumers), difficult to reach live support (for 49 percent of consumers), and inflexible purchasing options (for 41 percent of consumers) were the big offenders.

6. About 61 percent of consumers said that instant and 24/7 support was the biggest missing feature from online service support.

7. When trying to reach customer service, 62 percent prefer dialing a toll-free number…

8. And only 3 percent prefer social media.

9. Over 90 percent of consumers do not remember to update the credit card they keep on file with their online service providers…

10. And 40 percent find updating to be a hassle, and only do so when prompted.

June 30th, 2014 by Sarah Sluis

At any one time, Facebook has 1,500 possible items it can insert in users’ News Feeds. It inserts just a small fraction of that total. Apparently, it’s okay for Facebook to change that algorithm to improve engagement and earn the company plenty of money, but it’s not okay for Facebook to choose posts that would make those reading their News Feed feel more cheerful—or depressed.

A recently published academic study has drawn negative reactions and cries over a lack of ethics. Researchers, working with Facebook, actively manipulated feeds to show posts with either more positive sentiments or more negative sentiments. The idea was to test if emotional states could be transferred via social networks. Psychologists have already established that the principle of emotional contagion works in person. As a result of the study, they learned emotional contagion also works online, which likely confirms the gut feeling of most people who have used social networks.

Why are people mad? Because psychologists made thousands of people feel sad without their informed consent. I’m happy that there are such strict standards for psychological research. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to participate in Milgram’s famous study or the Stanford Prison Experiment. But I wouldn’t have minded if Facebook manipulated by News Feed and monitored my posts afterward. That said, informed consent would have been nice.

To probe a little deeper psychologically, maybe people’s anger here is misplaced. Many people are uncomfortable with how social networks shape our relationships and eavesdrop into the goings-on of our lives. This study is something people can point to, a flash point that allows people to express the more subtle sense of unease they feel with services like Facebook.

People may be upset about this study, but if anything, it’s the tip of the iceberg. For just a hint of the kind of observations and correlations that can be found in social networks, look no further than the dating site OkCupid, which  often releases data about what affects people’s popularity on their site. Things like tattoos and views about religion and relationships affect compatibility ratings and how likely someone is to initiate communication with others. It’s even possible to game their system in order to get more dates and find love, which one PhD. Student tried (It worked!).

This was a psychological study with published results. Facebook is under no obligation to share what’s behind its algorithm. I’m sure the Facebook News Feed and Data Science team, which the researchers thank in the study, probably have manipulated News Feeds far more, and to greater effect, than the researchers did. Facebook states that one factor in their News Feed algorithms is “How much you have interacted with this type of post in the past” [my emphasis]. Of all their criteria, this is the one that allows Facebook the most flexibility to create different predictive algorithms and unusual groupings. Is it just a coincidence that my News Feed today is cluttered with people all expressing the same opinion about a recent Supreme Court ruling? Or that if I click on one baby picture, a cascade follow?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, because Facebook doesn’t share the specifics. That goes counter to what many in the industry are advising: transparency as a way to earn consumers’ trust. OkCupid’s nerdy transparency is just one example of how this leads to success and earns them great marketing in the process. For Facebook to be transparent would be much trickier. They must look at situations like these that lead to negative press and start quaking from the reaction that would happen if their algorithms were released.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously stated “privacy is no longer a social norm,” but it appears that statement doesn’t apply to the privacy-busting network itself—just yet.

June 27th, 2014 by Leonard Klie

W4THWith Independence Day just a week away, brands are, no doubt, gearing up for their annual Fourth of July sales. They’ll run ads featuring the flag, Uncle Sam, fireworks, marching bands, a red-white-and-blue color scheme, or some other patriotic, all-American symbol to woo  customers looking to save a buck or two to their stores, to buy their product, or use their service.  But are they missing the mark? Can brands buy a piece of patriotic flare.

A new Brand Keys survey of iconic American brands has revealed what consumers consider to be the most ‘patriotic,’ with Jeep, Levi Strauss, Coca-Cola, Colgate, and Disney leading the pack. Apple, Amazon, Google, American Express, Facebook, and eBay all moved onto the list this year.

To determine which brands actually led when it comes to patriotism, Brand Keys did a statistical ‘drill-down,’ part of a larger brand values survey, to identify which of 225 brands were more associated with the value of ‘patriotism.’

“When it comes to engaging the consumer, waving an American flag and actually having an authentic foundation for being able to wave the flag are two entirely different things, and the consumer knows it,” according to Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys.

It’’s not surprising that many brands in the top 50 could be considered American icons, even though they might not necessarily make all of their products here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
The rankings in no way should give the impression that other brands not on the list aren’t patriotic or that they don’’t possess any patriotic resonance. Rational aspects, like being an American company, or being ‘Made in the USA,’ or having call centers based in the USA,– all play a part in brand identity and consumer appeal as well.

Still, Passikoff urges brands that want to differentiate via a value as emotionally charged as patriotism, to blend the image with believability, According to Passikoff, marketers should now know that “brands that can make an emotional connection with the consumer always have a strategic advantage over competitors.” So don’t just wave a flag for me next weekend during your sale, let it fly proudly throughout the year, and you’ll be rewarded.


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