Here are some things I heard and learned at yesterday’s “Customer Service Is the New Marketing” conference, which was quite good:
(1) My anecdotal experience of great service and a generally great experience shopping online for shoes at Zappo’s — your order seems to show up at your door before you’ve even finished deciding what to buy — turns out to be the product of a fanatically service-oriented corporate culture. Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh presented the evidence. Early on the company learned that offline advertising was mostly not paying off, so it focused on growing its repeat-customer business. The results are evident in the chart of year-to-year sales increases, which are headed toward $1 billion this year. Interestingly, the Zappo’s trend is linear — there’s none of the hockey-stick-shaped mega-growth that Web companies often shoot for. On the other hand, something tells me that Zappo’s is unlikely to suffer as much as other online companies in the next downturn.
(2) Robert Stephens, founder of the Geek Squad (now a part of Best Buy), described how he built his company’s brand identity — they’re the guys in black-and-white cars who do tech-support housecalls — by borrowing bits and pieces of pop culture (old gas station logos, old photos of NASA scientists in black ties and white shirts) to invent a persona for his “agents” that’s some sort of cross between the FBI, Ghostbusters and the Matrix. Stephens is an art-school dropout (“everybody’s creative in art — nobody’s creative in computer support”) and takes a certain flip, almost Situationist pleasure in inverting business norms. (Or maybe he just never outgrew adolescence.) I’ve never imagined I’d never be a Geek Squad customer — I’m pretty much the resident, if uncredentialed, geek squad in my home. But it seems that I’ve been missing a great theater-of-capitalism show.
(3) Marc Hedlund, founder of personal-finance site Wesabe, talked about the company’s decision to provide its CEO’s personal contact information right on the home page. Since they’re asking people to upload financial information, they figured it would help build trust. Turns out that most of the calls the CEO gets are people just checking it out to see if it’s really him at the other end.
(4) Heather Champ of Flickr showed a chart of the site’s “oh crap” moment: in June 2007, when Yahoo shut down Yahoo Photos and moved everyone over to Flickr, the site’s growth chart took a sharp upward shift — it’s now approaching two billion photos, with 3-5,000 uploaded per minute.
(5) Hedlund also talked about finding blogposts about his service and responding to questions or complaints as he finds them on the Web. Of course, he admitted, he’s running a startup with 12 employees and a relatively small customer base today. How do you handle this when you get big?
One thing I’ve seen over and over is that, if you do this sort of job right in the early stage of a service, and you establish a level of openness and responsiveness in the formative weeks and months of your site’s community, you put yourself on a sort of “virtuous cycle” or beneficial trajectory: over time, as you grow and responding to everyone becomes less realistic, other people — your enthusiastic users — pick up the slack for you. Whereas if you screw up the early stage — if you establish a sense that your company or site is unresponsive or inattentive — it’s extremely hard to change that later. So the argument that “being responsive doesn’t scale” is an unhealthy one: Be as responsive as you can for as long as you can!
(6) In the final panel on “customer service as community,” I heard the presenters agree on two different points that struck me as contradictory.
Gina Bianchini of Ning declared that too many people today think that, when they’re posting as employees, they have to “write professional business-speak that makes them sound like an asshole.” People should feel free to express their passions and be genuine — otherwise they sound like corporate tools.
That’s true enough. But only a few minutes before, Patti Roll of Timbuk2 (they make shoulder bags beloved by bike messengers and others) told an anecdote of how easy it is to get agitated and confrontational when people attack your product in an online forum. That doesn’t help your company; you just have to learn to, well, be professional.
Hmmm. The “professional” demeanor in speech (and online speech) — however impersonal, and depersonalizing, it can often be — exists precisely to help people who represent a brand avoid the temptation to scream at jerks (who may well deserve it). So really the challenge in navigating these waters is to find a voice that is personal enough to not sound fake but professional enough to help you avoid getting into a flame fest.
Which is all somewhat more complex, and harder to pull off, than I think the discussion allowed.
There are no revisions for this post.