The price of everything, the value of nothing and customer service

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By Leo Valiquette

Customer service, and the lack thereof, is a recurring topic on this blog, and for good reason. As public relations and marketing consultants, we appreciate the profound impact that a poor experience with your brand can have on a customer’s willingness to come again or refer your products and services to others. We may not be customer service experts, but we are active consumers who regularly engage with the front-line staff of numerous brands. And it’s what happens on the front lines that matters most.

Francis said it best in a past post, Kudos for empowered customer service:

“My consistent points are that the cost of acquiring customers is almost always far higher than the cost of keeping them, that effective customer service is the only sustainable competitive differentiator, and that most customer-service operations fail by forcing their agents to be powerless automatons more interested in getting the customer off the line than actually servicing them.”

If your customers do not feel well-served on the front line, your marketing messaging, no matter how well-crafted, will not save you. Your brand reputation is built, not by words, but by the actions of your team at every point of contact, from the reception desk to order fulfilment and after-sales support. The purpose of the words crafted by the marketing team is to evangelize the great service you provide. As marketing consultants we can’t create something from nothing and in the age of social media, what smacks of hypocrisy can come under harsh, and very public, criticism quite fast.

The gatekeeper and the barista

On a rainy day some time ago, I was parked at a public lot downtown for a meeting. I don’t carry much cash, but the lot allows you to pay with credit or debit (as they all should!). However, when I returned to my car and attempted to exit, I discovered that the system for electronic payment was down.

“No credit, only cash!” the manager of the lot said with a certain curtness, as if the whole situation was somehow my fault.

When I told him that I didn’t have any cash on me, he grew somewhat belligerent and suggested I might have to return to my parking spot and go in search of a debit machine.

Did I mention it was raining?

When I refused to do any such thing, he reluctantly allowed me to leave, but not before taking down my license plate number and demanding to know when I would come again so he could settle accounts.

I have made it a point to never use that lot again, and it is not for the sake of that contentious $12.

After leaving downtown, I went to my local Starbucks, where I will often work during the afternoon. Again, debit and credit was down. But the baristas had decided that cash only wasn’t fair, since not everyone had cash on them. But rather than shut down for the afternoon, they had decided to give their product away for free.

That’s right, free. And they did it with a smile.

The staff at Starbucks realized, and rightly so, that a few hundred dollars worth of free product would buy them a substantial amount of goodwill.

I don’t suggest that you give volumes of your product away for free. Or maybe you should, depending on what that product is and the nature of your business model. But the important lesson here is to consider what best serves the long-term interests of your business, especially in a trying situation. Don’t foster the perception that nickels and dimes matter more than your customers’ convenience and satisfaction.

Image: Tiny and Mighty

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