Late night thoughts on customer care (by yag)

Before I came to Microsoft, I ran a consulting firm called Flash Creative Management with my partner, David Blumenthal. One of our first projects was to find software for a department of a large publishing company. The person in charge of the department was Joanna Brandi. Joanna now runs her own company and specializes in customer care. She also has a regular newsletter that I subscribe to. In the latest newsletter, she had the following story:

It was a hot steamy summer night in south Florida. I went up to the office to do some research on a speech I was preparing for the Mail Order Gardening Association. It's my practice before I customize a speech to do some groundwork so I can understand my audience and their world. The client had suggested I spend some time on the web looking at various gardening sites and getting a feel for what was state of the art at that time. It seemed like a fun project so I didn't mind doing it on a Saturday night, since I was otherwise unoccupied.

When I lived up north I did quite a bit of gardening. Since moving to a condo in Florida my green thumb had gotten moldy. It seemed I could only look with envy at those who could create gardens on their low light porches and keep flowers blooming year round.

So, thinking this could be a dual-purpose research project, I set out eagerly to learn. The first site I entered was bright and cheery. The box on the upper left corner that asked, "What zone are you in?" drew me right in. Hmm, I noted, "engaging." It asked for a zip code and quickly diagnosed "Zone 9." Okay, I figured, I'll go look for what grows in my zone. Feeling proud of myself so far, I entered "shade" and "hot" into the area that asked for my growing conditions. I entered "flowers" into the box that asked me what I was looking for.

Up popped a list of 60 different flowering plants that would grow on my porch. Eureka! I had struck gold. My active mind began envisioning lush and fragrant foliage surrounding comfortable wicker furniture. As I read on I realized I could install a water garden and into my imagination came the gentle sound of the tinkling water. How serene, how peaceful, how lucky was I that I just happened on this Garden of Eden in the middle of my work project.

An hour into my research, excitement rising, my hand slipped down and found my purse and I adeptly removed my credit card with one hand while still scrolling down to view even more flowers! I was heady with ideas, I was intoxicated with the notion that in no time I could have the porch of my dreams. No, not "porch", I thought, I'll call it a "lanai" like they do in Hawaii.

I'll have one of these and one of those, and several of the other. The first item I clicked on returned with the bad news "Out of stock." Okay, well that's okay I'll try another flower, perhaps a salvia, impatiens or viola, all will look lovely in a pretty container. "Out of stock" "Out of stock" "Out of stock."

My fingers starting furiously hitting the keys, going from one item to another. My jaw tensed up, my eyes narrowed. I could feel my blood pressure rising as it got hotter and hotter in my office. "What the heck? How could they? This is ridiculous! " I found myself shouting out loud to no one but me. My joy turned quickly to anger and my relaxation turned to stress as I discovered that 40 out of the 60 items that could be grown on my lanai were out of stock. I moved from the height of elation to the low of defeat.

It was Saturday night and I had been seduced. I was not feeling good.

Needless to say I didn't buy anything from the company, and had a rather interesting opening story to tell at the conference where I'd be speaking. The internet an anonymous medium? I don't think so. Even though the owner of the site assured me that in July there aren't many flowers left on ANY website, I didn't buy it. If that's the case shut the site down or put warning signals all over it, so people won't get emotionally involved. Little did I realize at the time that my own studies would lead me to the conclusion a year later that the customer is always emotionally involved. Whether you want it that way or not, the customer's emotions are the determining factor in whether or not they will come back to do business with you. Loyalty is an emotional attachment.

Every interaction your customer has with your company causes a physiological response in their body. Every interaction. When they call you on the phone, open your invoice, read your catalog or peruse your website, the interaction causes them to have an experience with you that involves emotions, hormones, neurotransmitters and other assorted chemicals that either do the body good, or do the body harm.

Recent research tells us that when a person experiences positive emotion it increases the levels of good chemicals, like endorphins, in their body. When a customer experiences a negative emotion like frustration or anger, it increases the levels of destructive chemicals, like cortisol, in the body. Positive emotions = increased immune response. Negative emotions = decreased immune response. Remember the Customer Experience is the sum total of the feelings evoked as a result of any interaction at any touch point in the organization. It's based on the perception of the value delivered, both tangible and intangible. Bad feelings don't make for good experiences.

Anyway, this story resonated with me. I look at what we’ve been doing to become more open and responsive, and I feel pretty good about it. I look at what’s happened all the years before and the lack of trust with many people, and it just fires me up even more to make sure that we, as a company, do whatever we can to earn that trust back. As people have been discussing, we do our best to do the right thing – that’s something that I see here every day – it may not always look that way out there, but I’m hoping that with the openness that’s gaining more and more ground in the company, that we’ll get the benefit of the doubt over time – and that we’ll be able to make these decisions with you – so that you can understand our reasoning when we make decisions that affect us both.

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