Tag Archives: customer service

The Problem With Context

15 Sep

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill


Credit

“I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context”: Gordon B Hinckley

Growing Up, my marketing 101 lesson taught me “Customer is King”. The Father of India, and probably its best known global personality, Mahatma Gandhi, said – “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”

However, It could be argued in today’s world that the all important C word is being replaced with another C word – Context. So, now, Context is king – mainly, because Context is what allows an organization to understand its (first C word) Customer better.

We as prospects, shoppers, switchers; movie goers, diners, Home owners, Business people, car drivers, facebook users, are today cumulatively generating Yottabytes (10^24) of data, which is going to increase very soon to Brontobytes (10^27)! Intelligent organisations are (or atleast are thinking of, and if not, then should be thinking of) investing in technology, infrastructure and analytic decision processes to use this data for higher revenue generation as well as cost optimization. Context, the accumulated historical data generated by people, places, and things, is almost a mandatory component of these analytic processes.

In simple, laymen terms – context makes up the circumstances in which an event or an idea is set, and that therefore is what makes something clearer to you —

– Does listening to a special song make you think of a special person or a special situation? That’s context! (As “The way you look tonight” was Julia Roberts’ and Dermot Mulroney’s “special song” in My Best Friend’s Wedding)

– Think of nursery rhymes – when you delve deep into them or take them out of context of being repeatable pieces of music for kids, they are fairly disturbing! (Jack broke his crown? Humpty couldn’t be put back again? Whoaaa!!!)

For the traditional marketing folks, context analytics is a bit similar to behavioural + psychographic segmentation in the good ole fashioned days, and not just demographic – so, you add parameters of date/ time/ purchase event/ mood/ place/ company/ actions/ attitudes/ usage etc., and layer them in – to create better profiles of people/ events/ data….

When you marry Context with Data, you trigger unique, new relationships between hitherto unrelated data points – this helps you derive trends and patterns – and generates new business opportunities. Context makes data become richer, more meaningful. Someone very famously once said “Context is worth 80 IQ points”

Conversely, without Context, business conclusions might be flawed. It’s the old analogy of “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad”

So, is data and context a marriage made in heaven?

I would say, it is certainly high on the “will not make the divorce courts within the next 6 months – ok, 2 years” side of the coin, but, like all relationships, it needs work! One of the thing that contextual analytics ends up doing, counter intuitively, is still not giving the whole picture (A bit like the blind men and elephant story – where, depending on CONTEXT, each blind man ascribed a different name to the elephant – thus describing a piece part of it, but no one realized it was an elephant)

blind men elephant relativity

So, what then is the secret sauce required to turn this marriage into one made in heaven?

a) Disruptive Discovery: An inherent flaw in most predictive analytics algorithms – whether based on big data or not, is that their results are incremental – because what you know/ what has happened/ inbuilt assumptions – i.e., CONTEXT are what predict the future, they will to a certain extent pre-determine the outcome of the prediction.

As a friend said, facebook always recommends Metallica to me when because like Iron Maiden – it doesn’t realize that I also like Jazz! Similarly, Amazon always shows me more Nora Roberts – as I bought some romance once, and leaves a huge opportunity gap because it doesn’t realize that I have bought say a Khaled Hosseini elsewhere!

Not sure how many of you read this hilarious piece that was circulating recently on how “liking” everything on facebook for 2 days turned the news feed into a strange animal! Much recommended for an empathetic laugh

A good case study in how pre ordained behaviors, or context, or for that matter assumptions, to a certain extent skew actual results can be read here (a pithy commentary on Windows 8’s failure)

b) Response Timeliness: This one again is a bit counter intuitive. Experts and proponents of context analytics would say – but PART of context is the real time nature of the tracking! One is continuously refreshing data with newer and newer inputs, that turns the context richer and richer that then gives better and better outputs — and on and on and on.

The tragedy, however, is that while most organisations are (or atleast are thinking of, or if not, then should be thinking of) collecting and processing data on a real time basis, the RESPONSE to a lot of this data is NOT real time – why? Mainly because it CANNOT be! They don’t have the capabilities – this is the classical bottleneck/ the Blackwell’s limiting factor/ the critical path in the Gantt chart!

As a parent, I realized very early on that the concept of “quality time” that was created to essentially rationalize lack of adequate time spent with kids by working parents was a lot of bs. It fell into shambles the minute my tearful 1 ½ year old asked me – “when I fell down and was bleeding so much, where were you”!!

As business people, we also know the value of being at the right place at the right time. This time criticality determines a lot of what we do – how we behave as consumers – what time we eat, when we exercise, when we buy… – but also how we plan say marketing promotions, or budget calendars, or for that matter the pitch to the HR guy for a raise!

As one of my fav musicians George Harrison said:
“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

What this then means in the big data world is, that when a customer sends out data – you translate it into a signal/ information/ wisdom – and then you jolly well figure out a way to respond to it at the time that the signal is asking for a response! May be immediately, may be a few days later – but, figure it out! Use the context, to not only tell you parts of the elephant, but the whole mammoth! So, its not only to find out what you can sell to the customer and where – but when/ and how quickly to lend a sympathetic ear/ when to fix a broken washing machine or a crashed site!!

Unless you can gear up your response mechanism to be time dynamic and responsive, all that context married to your data – is going to —- to use the marriage analogy – not produce a baby!!!

c) The Human Touch – AI, the Internet of Things and all automation notwithstanding, atleast for now, we humans are just wired to need human intervention

a. This is because technology is still flawed – Watson notwithstanding, most humans actually instinctively and judgementally can scan a wide breadth of data and more or less give reasonably accurate judgements – after all, that is what experience and seniority lend to a man.

b.Man is a social animal after all – most of us want, nay need, human contact – a good case is customer service. Automated responses just don’t cut it for many – they want to talk to a real person, the more serious the issue, the higher the need for human contact (maybe shortly that “real person” will also be a drone, but that’s besides the point).

After all, how else but due to a human would you see these 2 really delightful examples of ‘customer service” interactions – one by a Netflix representative, and this one by an amazon guy.

Make no mistakes, human beings could just as easily make bad mistakes – like seen in this http://www.theverge.com/2014/7/15/5901057/comcast-call-cancel-service-ryan-block!

But, by and large, if one could only afford it, human beings would be the best response mechanism.

All in all, its great to see the progress made due to big data and the Internet of Things etc, but the organization who can take the best of the context plus data marriage, and add the disruption, the time criticality and the human interface element would be the one on which I would put my money!

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Ok, I’m convinced – technology alone can’t do customer service!

5 Sep
Vimbar Promo

Vimbar Promo

I am a big proponent of technology. By education, then a large-ish part of work, and ofcourse just by being a modern urban consumer, I interact with and appreciate it all the time. Having said that, there are times when I wish that it were possible to find that optimal mix of “human” vs “technology” in our day to day dealings.

In an earlier post, I had actually argued that one needs better technology to enable better customer service. This one is almost a contradiction.

I don’t do rant posts generally. This one may look like a rant – and it’s not really (not high enough stakes I guess), it’s just disappointment that even a company I really like and admire, with a winner promo, gets the “last mile” fulfilment wrong! 😦 (See another earlier post on Customer Service and man vs. machine, which has another example of last mile not working)

Background: A popular dishwash brand recently ran a promo – recognising that dishwashing in India is generally done by domestic helpers, who all now have prepaid mobile phones (India has anywhere from 3/4 of a billion to 900 million mobile subscriptions – roughly 70 – 75% of total pop, and 95% of these are pre-paid). The promo essentially offered 10/- mobile recharge – with varying degrees of certainty, depending on pack sizes. So, the 10/- bar had 1 in 3 probability of winning, and the larger ones had everyone winning.

I picked this up, and the delight on both my helpers’ faces when I explained the scheme to them was to be seen to be believed! They got very excited and ripped open one of the 12 packs I had bought after understanding from me how the scheme worked. They turned the wrapper inside out/ left and right/ asked me to do the same….no unique code anywhere! Ripped open a couple more packs – same result. Big disappointment! So, I got the consumer care mail id from the pack, and wrote in my problem. First time ever, actually! The mail trail post that is self explanatory!

Happy Consumers

Happy Consumers

August 29, 2014 9:02:58 AM:
ME:
Hi,
I bought the 10/- vim bar which showed the 10/- recharge scheme. Bought 12 – thinking would give it to my domestic help.
She got HUGELY excited – so its a cool scheme 🙂 But, we couldn’t find the code – the pack said, Find code inside and then call the number. But, scratching the pack doesnt reveal a number – there is no number embossed on the bar itself (which is what I had expected), and there isnt anything printed on the inside of the pack – neither was there any slip or something with the number.
Would you please let me know where the number is supposed to be? I guess I can go to a retailer to find out – but since I shop most often at a supermarket, not sure the sales guys will know abt it…
THanks much
Regards

August 29, 2014 9:16:17
ME: (In response to very prompt email that came from care center)
Given below
On Aug 29, 2014, at 9:03 AM, wrote:
Dear Consumer,
Thank you for contacting the Levercare team. Your query is important to us and will be dealt with one of our team member within the next 48 hours. Kindly note your reference number 4001957190 as an acknowledgement of your email and quote this for all further communications.
If your query is related to one of our product, we request you to provide us with the below details such that we can help resolve the query better.

1) Name with Surname : Sangita Joshi
2) Contact Details (mobile / land line) : xxxyyyy
3) Complete Address : mmmnnn
4) Product Details (name, variant & size) : Vim Bar – 10/-
5) Batch Code of the Product (number stamped on the back / base of the product) : xxxyyyy
6) With a full description of your query: I bought the 10/- vim bar which showed the 10/- recharge scheme.
Bought 6 – thinking would give it to my domestic help……

September 1, 2014 3:17:01 PM
ME again, in response to email in string below!
Doesn’t look like you have read the actual query 😦
On Aug 30, 2014, at 5:08 PM, wrote:

Dear Sir/Madam,
Thank you for contacting Consumer Care cell of Hindustan Unilever Limited.
Kindly provide me the following details to log your complain:
Your Mobile Number :
Missed Call number dialled :
Date & Time of Entry :
Mobile Number Portability :
Service Provider :

THEM:
September 3, 2014 4:46:29 PM
Dear Sangita,
Thank you for contacting Consumer Care cell of Hindustan Unilever Limited.
To help us investigate this matter further, we need this information from you. Could you please email us back with the following information?
Your Mobile Number :
Missed Call number dialled :
Date & Time of Entry :
Mobile Number Portability :
Service Provider :

ME: No action! What do you expect! It looked like getting into an endless loop, and I don’t really have the desire or the time to keep following up.

Lesson learnt: Automation will only achieve so much – you need at some point in time to escalate to the next level, which I assume is actual – human – people! (To be fair to the guys, maybe their business logic does escalate – but after another round of complaints – I don’t know/ am not willing to find out!)

The underlying business issue here is that of correct segmentation/ tiering of the customer – which then allows the organisation to respond to the customers per importance/ urgency. It’s the criticality vs. doability matrix. So, at first level, assign the cheaper technology options, but build in intelligence (context) and then response mechansims such that you are able to identify the increased attention (or not) that you need to provide the customer. In absence of this, you have disappointment/ disillusionment, maybe disinterest in future purchases! (I will for sure never pick up the 12 bars I did together – and my helpers may even switch brands the next time they go grocery shopping for me!)

I think great recent examples of human aided (what else, roll eyes…) customer service were as seen by Amazon and Netflix ! Truly commendable!

My ex business partner Debjani Deb has recently built this really cool product that does exactly the above – but for in mobile app support! Her company ZineOne essentially tiers app users by context and criticality, and helps organisations therefore offer appropriate levels of customer service to their customers. (Think how frustrating it is in the mobile app world, when you are looking to undertake a real time transaction, say book movie tickets HERE and NOW, and have the app crash on you! If you are stuck in a traffic jam just outside the movie hall, you NEED to purchase that ticket RIGHT THEN! A customer service response even 3 hours later will not help you, AND will lose revenue for the movie company! ZineOne’s product helps the booking app detect that your situation is critical and needs escalation – thus improving overall customer experience! Love it!)

Coming back to my slower/ less time critical Packaged Goods industry, my helper did find the unique code in another bar, called the number, (see, I really liked that the company had thought enough about their target audience to say “give missed call, and you will get a call back!”) got the return call, answered the survey, AND found out that she was the unlucky 66%. This end of the fulfillment was really nicely done – she loved the importance of receiving the call, of punching out numbers for the survey and the ease of the whole exercise.

So, the “marketing/ sales promotion” guys had done their job well – the customer care people just didn’t get their act together quickly enough!

Another common organisational anomaly!

As for me, I ended up buying some recharges for my 2 girls just to get them over their disappointment – so, no big deal 🙂

Customer Service and Man v/s Machine

29 Jul

Over Staff Under Serve

This one is almost a rant post! It also takes over from my earlier post on customer service.

Why is it that front desk people do NOT prioritize the customer standing in front of them over jobs that can be done later? This applies to the bank teller who is typing on his desktop (maybe even playing games, for all I know!) while I am standing in front of him (thank god for online banking!). It applies to the retailer check out person who is busy counting cash when I am in front of her. And it applies to the receptionist at the clinic who is talking on the phone when he is supposed to be taking down my details for the doctor!

This is not a higher order skill thing – it is basic common sense and courtesy. But, clearly, does not exist in most people! This one really has me mad actually – with the best automation in the world (refer online banking/ e-commerce), many people still prefer human interaction – precisely BECAUSE of the “touchy-feely” factor. Then it is unpardonable that frontline people let them down! At this rate, the gaps in technology will soon vanish and people will really start preferring the dehumanized / roboticised world popularised by many sci-fi movies!

I can even sympathise with this scenario for countries that are sparsely populated. But in India, which in another 15 years will be the most populous country in the world! this makes NO sense! We do need to keep our people gainfully employed! After all, this is the country where parking meters have people manning them! It is the country where 10 laborers can be seen weeding a 10 X 10 patch of grass all day long! (We almost mirror Roosevelt’s New Deal in our efforts at job creation!) Then WHY would you not make your people facing employees better attuned to customer service?

new deal

Maybe has to do with warped sense of priority and the inability to sequence! So, needs to be turned into a process – just like say Fast Food companies do – (see earlier post with examples of the Darshinis in India)

One of the “new venture ideas” I have been evaluating has been a Retail Training Institute. And the FIRST thing that it will train the frontline check out folks will be on this sequencing (and the second on how to pack merchandise in shopping bags! – heavier things first and softer ones on top! – duh!).

Sales Promotion vs. Trade Marketing; Paying vs. Incentivizing; and the Power of Relationship in Sales

25 Mar

dealer display

As I entered my grocery shop yesterday, I saw what used to be bread and butter (pun intended) for me a couple decade ago – but a sight I hadn’t seen in a while. It was a “merchandiser”/ “sales rep” clicking away at a very nice end cap shelf display – the brand in question was Kelloggs. Clearly this was either a display contest – designed to have participating retailers give up some of their precious shelf space up to a brand in a bid to enhance impulse purchase – the payoff being, like a lottery, the possibility that they win a prize and therefore money and more importantly prestige; or was “bought shelf space”, more the norm, but a fair drag on the brands’ trade marketing/ sales promo expenses.

But that’s not the story – the story was the action of the retailer personnel immediately after the merchandiser type finished clicking – they immediately got down to restoring the end cap to its usual position – this time with some nuts/ dry fruits (depending on where you are reading this ☺ – english is a funny language isn’t it? or maybe american is… )

So, either the Nuts guy had payed more money, but the retailer wanted to participate in the contest; or the retailer was scamming both companies – greedy pig (but hey, he’s not running a business for charity ☺ ); or the nuts guy had payed more money, and the sales rep/ merchandiser had prevailed upon the retailer to “just put up the display so I can show my bosses” (remember, depending on the company’s scheme – he either gets money or prestige too!) . All scenarios are likely, but for a low margin branded product that relies more on the “pull” created by advertising/ branding than the “push” created by the retailer actively promoting its brand, it is probably the last one that is applicable.

Reminded me of my years in trade sales years ago – with Leo Mattel – a joint venture company that sold toys – more a “semi durable” category. So while there was an “impulse” element to purchase sometimes, it was also equally pre meditated sales (say for gifts); and certainly purchase occasions were not too frequent/ replacement cycles were large. I used to tour the Delhi market with a young “sales rep” on my scooter – this guy was BIG – 6 feetish, heavy – and hence my arms and shoulders always ached whenever I took him around. He was also, and I hate to sound prejudiced, but its true, blessed with one of the ugliest faces I’ve ever had the fortune to see. But every retailer that he took me to – had ONLY nice things to say about young Chakrapani – “Ma’am, please do not remove this guy from our sales beat” – basically the guy was SO good at customer service, and the retailers – an admittedly tough breed in new Delhi – found him so endearing in his mannerisms, that as one guy told me – Ma’am, I have to only look at Chakrapani’s face, and I can NOT say no to him ☺. So, Chakrapani would have done what my Kellogg’s sales rep in M.K Ahmed was doing – but he would have prevailed upon the retailer to keep the display on for longer. Sorely on the basis of his relationship!

Having said that, in an impulse purchase item, its not really a bad thing to have a front display for even a few minutes – atleast for those few minutes, the brand has grabbed eye balls! Its like when a regional sales manager in the then Gillette told the then CEO as he complimented the sales team on an excellent field visit, “but you do know that these have all been window dressed for your arrival, right?” Pradeep gave a hearty guffaw and said – yes of course, but for the 2 – 3 days that this window dressing is up, more people will tend to buy our products than they would have otherwise! And true enough, even in the less than half hour that I saw action on the Kellogg’s display, 3 ladies were fingering the K for Kelloggs boxes, and I saw atleast 2 sales being made right in front of me at the checkout!

So, yes, the relationship is very important in sales, the money tradeoff while important will not ensure action necessarily – after all, the next brand may come in and offer more money! A sales guy needs to be building those relationships at all points. This is true whether you are selling Kelloggs and Razors, or Engineering services and tech products –

As Vrinda, one of our sales people in EmPower told me, the true test of my rolodex is if when I leave this company and go to another, I can call every name here and ask them to try my new product/ services, and they will say yes! (the equivalent in the FMCG world is Balbir, a rambunctious sales guy telling me – you are truly a powerful sales manager if every retailer on your field trip greets you with cashews ☺ – nuts anyone?

For a POV on the “other side” of the coin – the dealer salesman, read this old article of mine here

Customer Experience “Through the Looking Glass” – It’s the Last Mile that makes the Difference.

12 Feb

3d

Caught a matinee today – awful really. Made far worse by the 3D glasses we had to wear. This is probably the nth 3D movie I watched – and not a single time has my experience with the glasses been anything but horrible. Isn’t it a huge pity that technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, the 3D tech has made movie making/ watching so supposedly pleasurable – but the entire experience is completely and utterly spoilt by one tiny detail – the glasses (oh btw, these glasses are rented – so I pay for them – which adds insult to injury!)

This experience reminded me of an article I’d written nearly 10 years ago in a newspaper (you can read it here) on how so many products fail – not so much because of the products themselves – though such examples abound (including in the article) – but because of the other elements (4Ps a-la-Kotler) of marketing – it could be distribution/ advertising/ pricing…and increasingly nowadays…customer service.

OK, since it looks like this is becoming a “nostalgic” post, I pulled up another article I’d written in the same newspaper even longer ago (actually that was my first published piece ever – so I still remember the thrill it gave me to look at myself in print!) ON customer service – or, the lack of it, in durables. (again, if you have time on your hands, you can read it here). Two things struck me – a) my writing style hasn’t really changed much! 🙂 b) In the customer service world, things havn’t changed much either! Witness bad quality 3D glasses!

horsemeat

Think about it – with the advent of social media, there’s this big hullabulloo about customer service; customer experience; reputation – these are now very dynamic/ very fragile/ very potentially viral properties. While Twitter is the new customer service helpdesk, it is also the crisis escalation firebell! One Dell Hell, One United Broke My guitar, or, recently, Findus/ beef lasagna/ horse meat controversy, and you’re stuck with a big big big problem on your hands. People are now getting paranoid about reputation. But you know what, this whole customer service shindig – hinges on really SMALL things – the last mile almost. It’s the guy at the cash counter who is counting bills while you are waiting/ the system that asks you for your problem for the nth time as you complain about bad internet bandwidth for the nth time when each time you’ve explained the origin and history of the problem/ it’s even the barman who didn’t smile when he handed you your pint, and most importantly, it’s the rant tweet that went unattended for 2 days when you complained about the above!

That’s why companies are investing in listening, and then responding. There are “Social Media Command Centers” being set up – not only to proactively engage with customers, but to respond to customer service issues. But it’s a scary thought – one rogue tweet that went unattended – and your command center is useless…

So what does one do? Apart from the obvious ones like – get a listening program in place (but how do you find out what’s important), have someone manning your social media properties for customer service related issues (but how do you make sure that one rogue tweet/ youtube video is not unattended), have a proactive policy of crisis handling?

The answer is the 5 Ts

Social CRM

Technology – I’m talking futuristic here – lets get Social CRM stuff – this is the utopican (currently) smart help desk that knows you when you buy/ call/ chat/ tweet/ rant – and can connect all the dots (see my older post on this by clicking here – I do believe that sCRM even as a concept needs much understanding currently – many people think its just an evolved form of listening. Its NOT!)

BB_TWELP-Pin_v2_brf3

Training – Seems really obvious. The best tech cannot obviate human beings – and human beings cannot be let loose unbridled in the social media world – just like any contact center operation, social media helpdesk management requires policies and training – continuous, iterative, dynamic, flexible training. Best Buy did this best with their Twelpforce – they mobilized almost their entire organization as customer service agents, trained them but had the appropriate tech platform backing them.

Tracking – Make sure you have ways of finding out who can potentially be the bomb – so influencer identification strategy is important – keep a trace on big people on social media, and track them continuously. Remember, “influencers” can trigger virality quicker than mere mortals. Remember also however, that someone else’s pussy cat may be your influencer and vice versa!

Triggering Mechanisms – Make sure you have ways of putting in place traces of issues that are escalating – so a virality alert – that makes you get on the crisis fighting mode sooner rather than later. It could be a spike in negativity/ an unusual pick up in a competitor’s chatter/ unprecedented buzz on one site..just keep an eye on the trigger

and finally,

Transparency – Lets face it – the best will and technology in the world, may not be able to avert a customer service disaster. The best thing to do in such cases is – basically eat crow. Open your kimono, say you’re sorry, get the ranting raving customer be atleast a sympathetic ranting raving one. After all, most folks realize good intentions and appreciate that if you goof up and own up that u goofed up, a lot is saved!

As for my matinee movie, I read here back in August that we should be able to watch 3D movies without glasses soon – may the day arrive sooner rather than later. Samsung/ Sony – you guys listening?