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    Operations   >   Library   >   Customer Satisfaction

"You guys picked [Company] as a top ten online store. You have to be joking... Where is their privacy statement? There isn't one. Where is their returns policy? There isn't one. Where is their online Help? Ooops. You mean the thing up in one corner that says 'help'? Have you tried it? Did anyone ever try to get help from [Company]? I got yelled at once and was told they did not support [Product] any more. And I got an e-mail answered once after six daysóbut hey, I got an answer. And now for the second time they've lost my password. And they'd like me to pay them another $29.95 [to renew an annual subscription service], but I only subscribed in November 1999."

Because we sponsor awards for Web support sites, the ASP has lately become a magnet for complaint letters from cranky customers. Almost always, the complainers feel so betrayed that they can't wait to share their experiences with strangers. And almost always, their complaints reflect genuinely irritating treatment from companies that seem clueless about how angry their customers have become.

Is there really an epidemic of customer abuse? More likely, we're seeing what happens when software companies (and others) interact in new and more open ways with their customers. In pre-Internet days, resellers and other intermediaries handled most day-to-day customer touchpoints. When customers did interact directly with the parent company, it was largely through formal channels like tech support and the sales organization, staffed by professional communicators.

Then along came the Web, and suddenly the number of customer touchpoints spun out of control. Like the author of our complaint letter, customers started to experience glitches--things like insensitivity about privacy, poor online support, billing snafus, the returns policy--that never before had much impact on the customer's total experience. In fact, by traditional measures, our complaint author looks like a reasonably loyal customer, someone who buys products and services and occasionally contacts tech support. Clearly, traditional measures no longer tell a complete (or sometimes even remotely accurate) story about the interactions that now shape customer attitudes.

Of course, there's no way to go back to the old days of tightly controlled customer interaction. It's inevitable that companies will continue to interact with customers in dozens of ways, and that many of those touchpoints will be a source of bitter unhappiness. Still, there are a few ways to make sure the unhappiness is minimized:

  • Speak with a single voice: If there's one thing that really ticks off customers, it's capricious rules and Jekyll-and-Hyde inconsistencies. Customers don't want to see marketing copy that's warm and inviting--and then run into customer-be-damned policies from shipping and accounting. They don't want to get into turf wars between customer service and tech support over who "owns" their problem. And they get really irked when they see promises on the Web about response time on shipping, e-mail queries, and credit card refunds that employees routinely ignore.

  • Fix processes, not problems: Resolving complaints with an apology and a refund isn't enough: Every complaint letter is also a potential red flag about a process that probably should be redesigned. In effect, customers are continuously beta testing a company's business practices, and the glitches they find are often symptoms of seriously broken systems and outdated cost assumptions that may affect hundreds of other people.

  • Don't hide contact information: We continue to be amazed at the number of Web sites that bury the company's address and phone number and the names of senior management. Of course, publishing the CEO's e-mail address may generate a lot of unwelcome complaint mail. But it's also a way to make sure top management really knows what problems need to be fixed.

  • Be careful about setting expectations: Surprisingly, we rarely get complaints about bureaucracies like Microsoft and IBM, which have a reputation (deserved or not) for stonewalling their customers. Rather, most people seem to write us about companies that have set high standards for service and responsiveness. It may be unfair, but customers tend to be the least forgiving about companies that almost get it right.