Monday, February 06, 2006

Personal Service?

One of the often heard comments from people about their experiences with businesses today is that it is often impersonal. When they do business with a big company they feel like a number in the wilderness. Their concerns are a part of an endless waiting list, or their phone communication is handled by messaging systems and voice mail. In some instances, such as email, communication is handled by auto-response systems.

In response to these complaints some companies have tried all sorts of alternative business processes. From club card savings to special personalization on mailings. In another attempt, some companies, like grocery store chains, wish to bring back the time when small grocery store clerks knew their customers personally. So now they have their cashiers call you by name, if you have a club card or pay by credit card.

"Thank you, mister Hamilton. Please come again."

"Hope you enjoyed your stay, Jim."

I have no problem with this specifically, but apparently many people are offended by this. In yesterday's Washington Post, there is an article ("Let's End This Name-Calling" by Don Oldenburg) that discusses this phenomenon. It is somewhat understandable that some people are concerned about security issues. But the most cogent remark made, by a dissatisfied person, is that most people realize that the "name-dropping" is not really sincere. This person understood that companies who do this are not really interested in him, but trying to attract him with a gimmick that promises a real relationship. In other words, the relationship is faked to manipulate customers' loyalty.

This brings up an important issue in marketing. For some people marketing is the reasonable application of false data (lying) and manipulation to achieve a desired result (profits or customer loyalty). But that is not good marketing. Good marketing entails matching realistic promises to real people (human beings with emotions, wills, thoughts, and experiences) from an authentic business identity, which holds authentic ideals. And it does so to achieve realistic and honest goals.

This does not mean that a company needs to have a relationship with everyone, or deny profit-making. It just means that relationships need to be the cornerstone of that businesses operating procedure, if it desires to project the image of having good customer relationships. If not, the company would do well highlighting an area they truly excel in. And it also means that if it wants to be perceived as caring more about its customers than its bottom line, then it has to actually care more about its customers than its bottom line. Otherwise, it is better that it doesn't say that it does, when it really doesn't.

Distant relationships are okay, and profit-making is okay. (That is why you are in business, right. Otherwise you would not be in business very long, unless you are a non-profit organization.) But lying or hypocrisy is not okay. If you want to really attract good customers or build customer loyalty, improve on customer service and build on what you do best. Don't be something you are not. Most customers will smell it a mile away.

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