The Human Shortages of Relationship Marketing

Too often I find myself obliged to remind a customer service representative (CSR) at a company I call for assistance, that I have been a customer of that company for some years already; in that I suggest that they should be able to find information about my past dealings with them in their (computer-based) records. Usually I expect that on disclosing my identity, the representative will give at least the impression that he recognizes me and is able to relate to past information relevant to my present inquiry. The responses are mixed. Frequently, my impression is that the person on the other end of the line is too lazy to bother looking for the information, does not care enough, or is unable to locate relevant information as we talk.

In our modern technology-driven world, employees facing customers, especially at large companies, are not expected to remember and know individual customers. But they can help themselves by referring to a computer-based information system (e.g., CRM, reservations, technical support) to trace the calling customer and personalise the conversation. This conduct lets the customer feel that the CSR is familiar with him or her. At large companies problems usually appear when CSRs fail to locate relevant information and to use it intelligently and effectively. At small-medium businesses, problems may emerge already in tracing the customer, whether because of lack of will or inability to find necessary information. It is especially insulting and infuriating when a person at a small-medium business (e.g., a hotel) seems unable to recognize me as a frequent or constant customer and cannot say something about our last interaction (e.g., “I see that during your last three visits at our hotel in the past two years you stayed in room XX. Would you like to have this particular room again?”)

Gaps between the appreciated principles of relationship marketing and how they are practiced by businesses repeatedly occur because of a human factor rather than technology. In spite of training and supervision, it cannot be taken for granted that employees facing customers will be committed to treat customers kindly and respectfully, and serve them helpfully, just out of obligation to the company. They certainly cannot be committed more than the top management. Employees have their own personal concerns, pressures in and out of work, and ambitions. Their interests do not necessarily agree with those of the business owners or its management. Achieving a desirable treatment of customers demands education, persuasion of mutual benefits to the company and the employees, material rewards, and other kinds of moral encouragement and support. Making employees feel that they belong in an organization, and believing that if they treat customers better this will somewhere on the road improve their own well-being (e.g., accomplishment, role and social status, salary, self-image), needs continued investment and nourishment.

In a recent Customer Experience survey by Temkin Group, 143 companies in the US were rated, and subsequently ranked, with respect to the perceived experiences they have provided to customers. Evaluation of each company was based on three components: functional, accessible, and emotional aspects of the personal experiences customers have had with a company. It is immediately apparent from the results that the top ten ranking companies in regard to their experience overall are retailers, led by Amazon.com. Retail is thereof the best performing industry in the viewpoint of its customers, followed by hotels and investment firms. Sadly, the worst performing industries, with scores mostly poor and very poor, are health plans and TV services providers. Furthermore, the leaders of four industries — Internet service, wireless, PC makers, and TV services providers — obtained ratings that are on the border between poor and very poor (58.8%-62.1%). In comparison, Amazon.com as retail leader obtained a score of 81.3% (“excellence” defined as 80-100%), followed by Marriott Hotels (74.1%).

With respect to the particular components, it is reported that nine companies received an “excellent” score on functional experience, ten achieved “excellence” for accessible experience, but none rated as excellent with regard to emotional experience. This may hint to a weakness in experiences involving  human interactions between employees representing the company and its customers, because it is in such interfaces that emotions are most likely to be evoked (i.e., causing negative emotions like anger and frustration).(1)

The new paradigm of relationship marketing attempts to restore to some extent the kind of relations customers used to have with their vendors and service providers decades ago, and may still do with small private establishment to-date. With the growing scale of markets, and correspondingly the businesses serving them, customers and companies have drifted more apart. Advanced database management and communication technologies allow companies again to get better in touch with their customers. But over-reliance on technology and customer analytics and negligence of the human aspect tends to make the management of customer relationships too technical and too automated, cold and unappealing. It is hard to believe that customers can establish genuine personal relationships with their wireless (mobile) phone company, insurance company, or a supermarket chain. It is not clear if many customer even want so. It is a new brand of relationships. But for relationship marketing to succeed in the long run its practitioners must preserve a positive and pleasant human discourse with their customers.

Small businesses, with an owner possibly aided by a small team, may still keep close and personal relationships with a few dozens of their customers, at least the more loyal and constant customers, with little information technology. As a business grows it may allocate its customerbase among a few account managers, each of them able to maintain closer relationships with a group of a few dozens customers. But as the business grows bigger, and its customerbase expands (say reaching a few hundreds customers), it is more essential to employ tools of information technology to assist employees facing customers (e.g., account managers and CSRs) to cater better to the needs and preferences of their customers. It is therefore unfortunate that enterprises who grow into midsize companies do not take necessary measures to allow employees retain closer and more ordinate relationships with the customers.

One aspect of relationship marketing is keeping a sensible balance between human competence and computer technology in creating productive yet pleasurable customer experiences. It holds true whether a company serves on a regular basis a thousand customers or a million customers. On part of the employees facing customers, it requires them to demonstrate professional aptitude (e.g., domain knowledge, proficiency in using information, responsiveness), and certain personality traits that can contribute to dialogue (e.g., reaching-out, extravert — sociable but not dominating, courteous, open-minded, enjoying to help people). The task of management is to strengthen those propensities and encourage behaviours of employees that help in building long-lasting relationships. It means, for instance, guiding less talented or less skilled employees in ways to improve, and support the more talented and service-oriented ones when they face difficulties in serving less convenient customers. Bruce Temkin (Temkin Group) gives a strong emphasis to the role of employees in achieving superior customer experience, commanding investment in them on different levels to gain their collaboration. He sees employee engagement as one of four customer experience core competencies on which a company needs to excel in order to  be considered a customer-centric organization: Winning the support and conviction of employees is crucial for stimulating them to create productive and enjoyable experiences for customers.(2)

Many companies may find that the human factor is the more difficult challenge in executing relationship marketing. Electronic interactive self-service applications can help in some circumstances but cannot be a primary solution. While some customers may feel happy enough resolving their issues in this mode to order and receive service, many others may still find it difficult and frustrating to access what they want. What kind of relationship does one truly have with a company like Amazon.com, where you enter some specifications on a website one day, and receive books or CDs by mail after a few days or weeks? Even when considering the friendly tools and customized computer-based recommendations they provide, customers would often like to know that there are real people behind it. Moreover, customers may seek assistance from a forthcoming human agent, communicating on the phone, by e-mail, in an online chat or face-to-face .

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)     

Notes:

(1) Information on the Customer Experience survey by Temkin Group was originally accessed in a guest blog of Bruce Temkin (managing partner) at  1To1 Media (Peppers & Rogers Group). The findings cited are based on this blog post and on two posts at Bruce Temkin’s personal WordPress blog “Customer Experience Matters”: “The 2011 Temkin Experience Ratings” http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/2011-temkin-experience-ratings/  and “Customer Experience Industry Leaders”  (http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/customer-experience-industry-leaders/ )

(2) “The Four Customer Experience Core Competencies: Assess Your Strengths and Gaps”, Bruce Temkin, White Paper, June 2010, Temkin Group [The four competencies are Purposeful Leadership; Employee Engagement; Compelling Brand Values; and Customer Connectedness.]

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