customer advocacy headsI used to think that the best way to get your customers talking about how great you are was to be, well, great! – give your customers something to talk about.  Be great is the sense of having a product that customers really value.

This seems self-evident doesn’t it?

The problem with this thought is that it is still framed in terms of the brand or product.

It *sounds* like being customer focused, but is actually still product focused.  Your customer is the recipient of value, and the product solves the problem.

Customers don’t really think of it this way.

The company or product focused view of how much your customers do or don’t find your products “sustainably attractive” is one of the key problems that stands between success and failure: the success or failure of both the brand and their customers.

The idea of a tight nexus between your product’s success and the produce itself, or even the company itself, has produced a huge range of techniques, processes and other products on how companies can implement Customer Advocacy and measure it using scores like Net Promoter Score (NPS).  Many companies have gone down this path and put formalised frameworks in place to foster Customer Advocacy, both for real, authentic advocacy but also to generate the faux impression of it.

The problem is that it is fundamentally misguided, and addresses neither the “Customer” part of the name, nor the “Advocacy” part either.

What you are left with is best understood through your own experiences as consumers of other services that you use in your lives: insurance, banking, telco’s and other utilities are likely to be bombarding you with questions that ask you “how likely are you to recommend us to your friends?” and a text box for you to give a reason.  Seriously? Do these answers (if you give them at all) seem genuine to you?

The core reason (and one of my biggest mantras here) is because most product vendors do not understand their customers nor how their customers engage with their products.

I’ve experienced this over the last 5 or so years (possibly more) as the customer of a well-known telco, and also someone who worked there for many years going back further.

The company, to its credit, has invested heavily in people, processes and technology to help transform the company from a traditional “customer hostile” government utility and later “privatised” but still essentially a monopoly player.  Customer Advocacy and NPS has figured highly in this transformation, and I witnessed its introduction from the inside (albeit primarily in a separate division), and all the while experiencing service touchpoints as an actual customer.

Whilst these service touchpoints have improved their capabilities quite dramatically over the past 5 or so years, using them is still very unsatisfying.  My starting point is the old fairly “customer hostile” service touchpoints and equivalently hostile backend processes (like lack of follow-up from product or technology teams, broken appointments, incorrect advice or problem diagnosis).

What we now have after years of investment are service touchpoints where the support representatives are falling over themselves to be friendly and co-operative and exhibit great zeal in their commitment to fixing your problems.  The experience is pleasant, but the outcomes are just as customer hostile and ineffective, made even more so by the high expectations set by this friendliness and zeal.  And there are these never-ending references to the payoff at the end of the transaction: that all important rating at the end of the call.  And the same old questions.  Honestly, for a non-American who has travelled there extensively, it reminds me painfully of the relationship between a diner at a restaurant and their service staff.  A pleasant experience that is all to obviously (in many but not all cases) pointedly directed at the end-of-transaction payoff (in this case the tip).

In the telco’s case, I don’t feel like I’m having my problems fixed at all: I feel like I’m dealing with people who are working really hard at making me feel great during a transaction.

The point about excellent customer service isn’t so much about the superficial experience of the transaction.  It is, of course, about the outcomes.  Did I get my problems solved?  Was my time used carefully and wisely?  Did I feel like I was being looked after by someone who had my interests at heart, not their own?  And, lastly, did the transaction feel pleasant?

In many cases the answers to these questions is mostly “No”, or “sort of”.

Similar feelings are created with the non-human service touchpoints, especially the online service centres.  There has been a huge push towards “self service” by just about every organisation on the planet.  This is great in some areas, like the provision of account information and records, always assuming that the User Experience design enables people to navigate their way through the system (which is a large assumption).  But there’s not so fine a line between the desire to make it easier for customers to self-help, and the desire for companies to save costs.

In many organisations, including the nameless telco in this story, these self-help operations are frustrating and difficult for anything except the most obvious and common interactions.  All too frequently the assumptions are that customers will solve their problems and go away happy.  Users who are dealing with pathways that are sub-optimal, non-standard, or that flat out don’t work as advertised find themselves lost in these assumptions of universal satisfaction.  Often it is like hitting a brick wall and not being able to find the simplest of things.    It appears as if the need to minimise interactions with live people has become more a prohibition.

All of this comes from believing that you are solving a customer’s problems (in this case the post sale support type problems) without understanding things from the customer’s viewpoint, or really understanding what they need or why.

It’s fundamentally a living, breathing demonstration that the companies in question do not understand their customers, and merely project their own ideas onto what the customers should want or what they should do.  It can only happen if the companies are locked into believing the unbelievable, and maintaining the unmaintainable models of how customers use and value their products.

If they had this understanding, customers would genuinely recommend the products to their friends and family; and companies would know that because it would be obvious when the customers bought the products.

There will be more said on this topic, but in the meantime have a look at Project Action Principle #2