Innovation, Member/Customer Engagement, Organizational Culture

When Customer Service is a Tease it Defeats the Purpose

In LA for a few days. Thought I’d help my daughter find a good deal on a car lease. Spent a day looking online, to avoid battling the traffic in downtown LA before narrowing down the dealerships worth visiting.

A pop-up window at a Mazda dealership’s website gets my attention. A picture of an affable, eager, smiling and well-scrubbed young face beams at me from my computer screen. “How can we help you?” the script under the Face asks. 

Why not, I think. An online chat could be less cumbersome than a phone conversation and would still help us filter dealerships.

The Face seems to be oozing empathy and concern: “please let me know what you need and I’ll try to help. What exactly are you looking for?”

I start listing some of my daughter’s criteria for her ideal car. Encouraged by his follow-up questions, I volunteer more criteria and before long I blurt out little bits of personal information: my daughter’s new job; why she needs to save during a career transition; how she plans to use the car!… After all, he plans to “study” our needs, research their inventory, incentives and options and get back to us with a number of options we could further explore together. I picture a motivated salesman, eager to understand our needs and capable of thinking beyond the obvious to come up with resourceful solutions. Why shouldn’t I make his job easier?

Could we come to the dealership tomorrow to take a look? he wants to know. Yet, he somehow fudges the details. He does not give us a specific time for an appointment; is unable to share his direct phone number and e-mail.  In fact, as it turns out, we will never actually meet Scrubbed Face in person. He is not a salesman at all but a member of the “chat team.” This means that he never gets to know his customers, follow up on their experience, develop relationships with them or grow in his understanding of how to best meet their needs. Neither will the sales team benefit from his interactions with, and first impressions of, customers. The two operate in completely different spheres that never converge.

He quickly assures me that the criteria I had spent time outlining and clarifying for him would be immediately communicated to the sales team through a detailed report of our conversation.  They would be reviewing it and getting back to me with specific suggestions and, probably, more questions.

My first e-mail, directly from the sales team, is a form e-mail, thanking me for my interest in their business. A “real” and supposedly personal e-mail from a salesman follows.  He thanks me once again and includes a link with “other options I may wish to consider.”  I click on it and land on their inventory page with the same list of new and used cars I saw when first visiting the site and before my conversation with their chat team. I take it this is the result of their “study” of our needs and criteria I outlined.  When we finally chat by phone with a live salesman, he has absolutely no information about us or our needs.

What had just happened? I had wasted 10-15 minutes of my time explaining my needs with the same results I would have had, if had I simply walked in without any previous communication.

The effect it had on me surely defeated their purpose. I felt deceived, patronized and embarrassed at having been duped into taking a pointless conversation seriously.
Okay, so the story might be boring but it rings a bell for me. Chances are the dealership proudly points to interactive features like this one as great improvements on its customer service, without understanding their impact on the customer’s experience.  Similarly, association executives often extoll disconnected features, such as quicker responses or better interactivity, as indicators of member focus and improved customer service, without any concern with how these are linked together to benefit customers, grow the value of their experience and develop their organization’s capabilities. Were customer problems solved more quickly and effectively? Was the organization learning and increasing its understanding off, and hence value to, customers?  It seems that neither the dealership nor the associations in my research evaluate such features in terms on my experience.

How many times are members disaffected, cynical or indifferent when, for example, they:

    •  enthusiastically respond to mass questionnaires about their “vision for the association,” only to realize that their input was perfunctory and not essential to the association’s planning

    • are inundated with communications about the association’ value without experiencing outcomes that make a real difference to what matters to the

    • are constantly told about how much the association values them, yet are rarely engaged in meaningful conversations with association staff, asked about problems facing them or invited to provide input on new products or initiatives.

No wonder today’s consumers are impervious to and intolerant of marketing “hype” and impatient with promises without outcomes.
In truly customer-centric and market responsive companies there is no promise that does not translate into results. This is because:

    • Instead of designating customer relationships, market knowledge or membership growth the specialized purview of specialists or departments, everybody has responsibilities for understanding and delivering results to customers and is evaluated on outcomes vs. performance.

    • Customer knowledge is shared and acted upon

    • Staff collaborates in cross-functional teams to create and deliver customer solutions

    • The emphasis is on long-term, growing relationships and effective solutions rather than single, disconnected features.

In my brief encounter with the Mazda dealer, I would have benefitted from help with desired outcomes rather than features.  Yet, this would have required the active cooperation between sales and chat staff, technology and personal relationship-building toward the same goal.