Customer Service is Where Brands Meet Truth

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A vast majority of American customers are dissatisfied with the service they get, according to a new survey, whether when they’re seeking help with a problem or even simply trying to buy something (80% of respondents said they’d abandoned a purchase process).

Of course, the research is intended to sell technology services, as it was sponsored by a maker of automated and mobile customer service programs, and it indirectly encourages brands to use more social media (another prerequisite of most marketing research these days).

I draw a different conclusion: Customer service is where brands meet truth, and dissatisfaction is evidence that there’s usually a wide gap between the two.

Much of our latest thinking about branding is based on very old ideas of selling emotional and associative benefits. Brands are sexy, fun, and a host of other things that aren’t outcomes of product or service function but rather attached to brands to make them more exciting and enticing. This attachment used to be accomplished through advertising; now it’s done via social media conversations.

Though conversations always were the lingua franca of branding, social media tech has moved them front and center with the expectation that today’s ideal customer is self-motivated to buy for the reasons he or she has identified as most important. Brands aren’t responsible for those conclusions anymore. Buyers do the attaching and recommending. The job of determining what’s relevant, let alone true, has been outsourced to customers in the name of empowerment.

By definition, this risks that the reasons for a purchase, or performance expectations, may not necessarily match the reality of what was transacted. That economy car isn’t fun to drive in the way it appeared in that hilarious YouTube video. Nobody in your online community told you that the pair of environmentally-responsible shoes you bought were actually pretty uncomfortable to wear. The computer software hasn’t made your life more organized, or your time more productive. That cologne or perfume doesn’t make you attractive to the opposite sex. Neither do those snack chips or bottles of beer.

The guiding principle of 21st century shopping is caveat emptor, and the drama of its resolution plays out in customer service experiences.

If I’m right, it means that the answer isn’t to beef up customer service but rather tone down all the branding blather that displaces real, truthful communication and understanding between businesses and their customers. Market all the sex and fun you want, but retake the responsibility for understanding and, when necessary, modulating or outright lowering customer expectations (or raising them when your delivery warrants).

Branding today is a narrative of experiences, not an esoteric promise of fantasy. Less of the latter and more of the former would mean improved customer satisfaction. Full stop.

As for the abandonment issue, I can’t resist asking this question: Are today’s customers really so much less interested, capable, and willing that the slightest blip in a purchase experience is enough to send them fleeing? I’m not advocating making purchasing difficult — on the contrary, it should be as easy and automatic (and unconscious, a la subscriptions) as possible — but could quickness to abandon have something to do with a low motivation for purchase in the first place?

I’m just thinking about how damn hard it used to be to buy almost anything.

First, you had to figure out what you wanted, and there was no Internet to check. Then you had to find your product or service, and physically get to the place where it was retailed (risking the possibility it might not be in stock). Shoppers had to endure shopping elbow-to-elbow with one another, so think Black Friday crush only all year long (well, not that bad). There used to be real societal strictures against buying things you couldn’t afford, or doing so on credit, so getting to actualizing purchases sometimes required a moral journey. Not everyone had credit cards so if you didn’t have the cash, you couldn’t but it. And don’t get me started on getting service if or when something went wrong.

Now, think about how willing we are to do certain things that are incredibly difficult, if not outright unpleasant. Managing my web sites comes to mind, which I do via WordPress, various themes, and two different hosting companies. Figuring out how to make the sites work took hours that were really unpleasant, and every now and then an update requires me to go back and fix stuff.

Yet I stick with it every time because I both want and need to get it done. Anybody who works out regularly knows what I’m talking about.

So is purchase abandonment really caused by difficulty in what is still mostly wonderfully painless and quick for most products we could name? No. I’d say it’s because we marketers have failed to convince our customers that our stuff is worth even the slightest effort. They’re easily dissatisfied with buying experiences because they didn’t really want to buy in the first place.

I wonder if that’s also a truth that brands run into. It would mean that the problems with customer satisfaction originate in how we talk to them from Day One. By the time they crash into reality it’s too late.

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