Posts about customerism

If pigs could fly

Ed Cone tells a story of an airline’s exquisite stupidity. He shows a picture of the jammed seats behind his jammed row 11 and the empty seats ahead and says:

What’s going on? An industry that has forgotten about customer service.

Almost nobody opted to pay $30 bucks extra to sit in “economy plus,” which promises a few inches of extra legroom. When it became clear that the flight would be packed six across from row 11 back while row after row sat empty in the front, people asked if they could move up. The flight attendants said no, you have to pay for those seats. Not very customer-friendly or situationally aware, but comprehensible.

So a guy asks if he could pay on the spot. Nope. People were laughing at the United’s cluelessness, but it wasn’t very friendly laughter.

When the drink cart came by I bought myself $5 worth of stress relief and asked the flight attendant (politely) why she could sell me a drink but not a seat. She looked at me like I had two heads and said they are in no way set up to take reservations, you have to do that with a service representative.

I started to say I didn’t want a reservation, I wanted to hand her $30 and move up one freaking row, but it felt like I was on the phone with Bangalore and couldn’t get a supervisor, so I just shut up and drank.

To recap: They don’t know how to allocate their seating categories, they aren’t going to let people spread out across a half-empty plane as a courtesy, and they turn down the chance to upsell on the spot, even though they do commerce in the aisles all the time.

What a stupid industry.

They’re so stupid they think their business strategy is to imprison passengers. They’re so stupid they don’t know how to take passengers’ money. They’re so stupid they don’t realize — or apparently care — how stupid they are. Too bad the all-powerful internet couldn’t give us all wings.

Dell, Starbucks, and the marketplace of ideas

Just as I was researching a column for the Guardian on Starbucks’ MyStarbucksIdea and Dell’s IdeaStorm — both of which use Salesforce.com’s Ideas platform — I got an email from Business Week asking me to write about Starbucks. So here’s a twofer: my Guardian column about this new platform for customers to share ideas (and my wish that it would come to government) and the Business Week story about Starbucks.

Here are some added quotes from my interviews.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com on the platform:

* On the genesis of Ideas: “We started using the technology ourselves to talk to our community about what they wanted from salesforce. We called the site ideas.salesforce.com, and we noticed right away that this was a powerful way for us to connect with our community and to make sure that we were delivering the right services and features at the right time. Our product managers have to deliver highly-ranked features and work with Ideas if they are going to succeed in our company. It’s like a live focus group that never closes. I love it and look at it all the time. After using it for a while, we decided this had to be part of our portfolio, so we acquired the assets of the company that built it (called Crispy News), and the employees work at salesforce now.”

* On whether this is really new. “I believe that these days, the rapid communication that is enabled by wikis, blogs, Twitter, YouTube and you name it ensures that no matter what kind of company you are, your customers are having a conversation about your products and practices. The question that every company has to ask is: ‘Do I want to be part of this conversation? Do I want to learn from it? Am I willing to innovate on the basis of it?’ If you harness the power of this community, you will benefit. If you turn your back on it, you get further and further out of touch while competitors flourish. So yes, I think this is a new kind of communication for a new age of customer engagement.

The dead-end suggestion box and the auto reply are symbols of corporate indifference and are no longer tolerated. Customers expect a higher level of responsiveness now, and they will go where they find it. We learned this when we were pioneering Software as a Service. We had to stay connected with our customers or they would not continue their subscriptions. We needed to hear their ideas, or we would miss out on their creativity. And most important, they needed to talk to each other. Dell and Starbucks are pioneers in understanding this.

* On response to Dell’s IdeaStorm: “…But the response was mind-blowing. To be honest, Michael and I were both surprised at both the volume and the content. It was absolutely fascinating to watch, and for Dell, it has opened a new chapter for a terrific brand. Michael was kind enough to share his experience with Howard Schultz at Starbucks, and then we helped them build mystarbucksidea.com

* What about government starting ideastorms? “That is simply a killer idea. We are in an election year of course, and I would like to see both parties use technology to better connect with the electorate. Salesforce Ideas is democracy, as the saying goes, red in tooth and claw. But you have to invest in a conversation–it’s not going to work unless there’s a real back-and-forth.”

Picture 14

From Chris Bruzzo, CTO and CIO of Starbucks and the leader of the MyStarbucksIdea project:

* On customers’ relationship with Starbucks: “Anybody who works for Starbucks… it’s this universal experence that people open up this to-do list that’s in their head. THey have very specific, detailed ideas. That’s a phenomenon. All these ingredients were in place. Howard [Schultz, the returning CEO] said to me we have to reconnect with customers and drive our company, Starbucks, as an entity to having a ‘seeing culture.’”

* On this platform: “Our goals were to collect ideas and to understand which ideas have the most momentum and passion in our customer base
But it was also to open up a dialogue with customers and build up this muscle inside our company in having a give-and-take conversation with our customers. As compelling as the ideas themselves are, it’s almost as compelling to us from an objective standpoint to be able to have this kind of running dialogue with our customers: to close that loop in an authentic way and show the commitment on the part of Starbucks to responding to what we’ve heard, which is about putting those ideas in action or building those ideas together with customers and coming to a new place.”

* On integrating it with the company: “We were not going to simply have this be an opportunity for customers to share perspectives. We were truly going to adopt it into our business process — into product development and experience development and store design. In order to do that, I thought it was critically important to have real experts form the teams that were building our experience selected on the basis of their characteristic and trained to not only have the conversation but the advocacy for what customers were saying via this new channel. So that literally customers would have a seat at the table when product decisons are being made. They have champions inside the company that are advocating for that.”

* They launched it that the annual meeting, where 6,000 people showed up and started sharing their ideas. There’s still some debate whether people should be able to vote down, as well as up, the ideas. For now, Bruzzo says, “it’s a happy place.”

* After I saw one of the “idea partners” say there were things Starbucks was working on in secret related to the Starbucks card, I pushed Bruzzo on really being open. He said: “Onee of the things we have to worry about is IP and competitiveness. We will invest significantly to make enhancements to the Starbucks card platform, for example. We want a head start.” But he acknowledged the issue. “This is an evolution. The community is evolving and so is Starbucks. We’re going to have to rethink when we would disclose broadly about a particular strategy because we have a vested community. There are advantages to having that kind of transparency because it creates more engagement… and we actually get to iterate on our solutions while we’re building them. What we do wit the Starbucks card is likely to be a different process than it would have been without this community. I think it is changing and evolving our views of confidentiality and competitiveness.”

* Surprises? “That coffee classes perked up as much as it did. That shows a level of interest in coffee expertise that some of us were surprised at.”

* What about ideas that don’t work? Some customers are pushing for separate lines for brewed coffee (that is, faster lines without all the froo-froos). “The idea partner is in there saying we actually tried this here and there and these are some of the things we ran into. What do you guys think of that… If it fails our customers who are on MyStarbucksIdea ought to participate in being accountable for it.”

* What’s next? RSS and the ability to track an idea’s progress.

* Advice to other companies: “Don’t underinvest in adopting it into your business process. Take it seriously. See it as an important part of how you run your business…. Go for it. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t attempt to perfect it. Learn. Iterate. Your community is incredibly forgiving actually if you show a real interest to listen and respond.”

Fly FU Air

Over at Seeking Alpha, where they reposted my recent rant about airlines, there’s a classic example of industry insiders in denial bitching at me: How dare I expect decent, civilized service. Water? You want water? Sit down and shut up. This is exactly the same reaction I get from whining real estate agents every time I dare to question whether I get 6 percent’s worth of value for the service they don’t provide. Head, meet sand, insert. It’s going to be fun watching them self-destruct. Couldn’t happen to better industries. Except perhaps cable and other protected monopolies and oligopolies. Bye-bye now. Bye-bye.

One person you don’t want to piss off

Michael Arrington just told his Twitter fans that Comcast has been for 36 hours and he’s told after a half-a-lifetime on hold that it’s California-wide. Others pipe in with their troubles. I go looking at the news and find more problems on the East Coast. Here you can watch the Comcast revolt spread across Twitter. Arrington is vowing “expend significant energy over the next three weeks trashing comcast.” Heh. Can’t wait to watch that. I also told him via Twitter that he should join forces with Bob Garfield at ComcastMustDie.

I’m willing to bet a few dollars that this could be the start of the first (or an early) consume revolt spread on Twitter (as the Laceygate revolt spread at SXSW): the instamob. I wonder whether Comcast is monitoring Twitter and whether it will be man enough to come in and explain what the hell is happening (without hold music).

Comrade customer

Peter Himler, a PR exec who blogs at the refreshingly bluntly named The Flack, just told the story of his trip to Moscow and talks with big executives there about the empowered customer online. They didn’t much take to the idea:

My presentation focused on how the changed media landscape and the empowerment of citizens as journalists have caused a major re-think in how companies engage their customers. One attendee found it incredulous that a blogger would have the audacity to denigrate a company’s reputation, as was the case with the Comcast repairman video or Jeff Jarvis’s rants against Dell. Another asked whether it’s even legal to write negatively about a company or person. I cited the First Amendment, but also referenced the lawsuit brought against two former employees by Apple for divulging trade secrets.

It makes sense that a culture with a heritage of political totalitarianism would move into a culture of corporate totalitarianism: Better living through Gazprom. But I think the internet may well cause corporate dictatorships to fall faster than political ones.

Starbucks listens – at last

Following Dell’s Ideastorm, Starbucks has no opened a forum — also powered by Salesforce.com — where customers can make suggestions then discuss and vote on them. Starbucks, of all companies, with its loyal and opinionated customers, should have been doing this years ago. Every company should be doing it now.

If auto companies had this five years ago, we’d all have told them to force their radio manufacturers to include a damned 39-cent plug so we could hook up our iPods. If airlines had it today, we’d tell them how to get out of their customer-service mess. Why does listening to your customers sound like a web 2.0 idea? It should be a business 1.0 necessity.

Already, there are clear themes coming out in the Starbucks discussion. Many customers are suggesting — and many more are agreeing — that our frequent-sipper cards should have our regular orders embedded in them so we could swipe the card at the door, make the order, pay for it, and avoid that damned line (making that damned line shorter for everyone else). Others are also suggesting they want to do the same with their iPhones. This genius comes not from MBAs or executives but from customers. If you’ll just listen.

More customers want express lines for simple drip orders or sandwich purchases. More want employees manning the cash registers instead of running around taking orders in advance and then messing them up (well, that’s my variation on the theme). Note the underlying chorus: those damned lines.

One customer gives decorating advice to avoid the stores wearing down and looking so ratty, as so many do.

One suggests what I’ve long wanted: a drain at the cream station to drain that excess coffee. Yes, it’d be expensive to retrofit that, but shouldn’t it be part of the spec for new stores now?

Get rid of the tip jars, says one customer — but others in the comments disagreee. That’s what is great about these Salesforce storms: out of the conversation will come some measurement of consensus.

There are calls for whole wheat.

Lots want free wi-fi (which means Starbucks hasn’t done a good job of telling people that it’s coming with its switch from T-mobile to AT&T).

This customer wants softer music. It is, after all, our office.

And, of course, stop the Vente madness.

What an incredible wealth of information, ideas — and caring — from customers. All you have to do is listen.

I believe that Salesforce’s Storms are an important new infrastructure for customer conversation — a forum mixed with Digg mixed with a suggestion box mixed with a company blog. I don’t understand why companies aren’t falling over themselves to at least offer their customers this opportunity. Too often, it’s because they’re scared of what their own customers will say. Except now, they’re saying it on the web anyway. That’s the lesson of Dell and now of Starbucks.

Love the customer who hates you

I have a column in Business Week’s customer-service issue arguing that customers who complain about you are doing you a great favor. Here‘s the foreshortened version that fit in the magazine. And here‘s my longer draft. Snippet from the draft:

Here’s some free advice: Go to Google, enter any of your company’s brands followed by the word “sucks,” and you will see the true consumers’ reports. Brace yourself, for it won’t be pretty. Wal-Mart’s unofficial Google Sucks Index turns up 165,000 results; Disney 530,000; Google 767,000. What’s yours?

Now don’t get mad at these people. Instead, help them get even with you. For these angry customers are doing you a great favor. They care enough about your product or service to tell you exactly what went wrong. Other customers may just desert you and head to the competition. But these customers are telling you what to fix. Listen to them. Help them. Respond to them. Ask their advice – and they’ll give it to you. . . .

You see, this is about more than putting out blog fires or quieting complaining customers. It’s about more than customer service; indeed some say that customer service is the new marketing (that was the title of a conference this month in San Francisco). No, this is about collaboration with your customers in every aspect of your business. If you enable them, they will provide customer service for each other. They will help design your products. They will sell your products. They will create your marketing message – they always did control your brand.

So when you reach out to that kvetching blogger you found online, you’re engaged in customer service as well as PR, market research, marketing, sales, and product development. You are reinventing your company – and, if you get there before your competitors, your industry. That is why you shouldn’t relegate this vital task to one department or some interns or consultants. You need to reorganize the company around this new relationship with your customer, finally putting that customer at the center of everything you do because – thanks to Google – you can. If you don’t, well, you’ll suck.

: Also in the current Business Week: a collaboratively annotated and updated version of Steve Baker’s and Heather Green’s popular cover story on blogs.

All cable companies must die

I never cease to be amazed anew at how cable companies think it is their job to make their customers’ lives difficult.

I challenge any cable executive to publicly go through the experience of being a customer at their own companies and tell me straight-faced that it’s pleasant and efficient and worth the money and effort.

Today, I drove a half-hour to the only Cablevision “store” within the area to get a cable card for our new TiVo (shhh; don’t tell anyone that I’m only now getting one). I walk in and face a wall of ladies who look more bored and angry than prisoners. I am told that they won’t give me a cable card. I must make an appointment and wait a day for the damned cable guy to come to our house to stick it in the slot. It wastes them money. It wastes me time. It wastes some more of my three free months from TiVo. It inconveniences me. It’s just stupid. I walk out angrier at Cablevision. But I’m stuck with them because Verizon tore up my street two years ago — exaggeration — to lay fibre but still has not hooked up Fios. I’m a prisoner and Cablevision knows it. But that is any excuse to treat customers this way>

For Christmas, I wanted to get my father broadband and so I contacted Bright House in Florida (with whom I used to work) to get a gift certificate. They don’t do that. Can’t I just give you money? No. So I order the service but only on the condition that the installer will hook up the wi-fi router I was wrapping for under the tree. Yes, they said, that’s included. I tell them not to tell my father and to wait until after Christmas to contact my father because, of course, it’s a present. The next day, the phone rings. They called my father. Good work, Bright House. Scrooge. I tell my father to reschedule but instead they cancel the entire account. They were going to bill him for his own present. They also tried to charge him $149 to hook up that modem. I spent a good hour and a half calling Bright House and having fits before they finally switched the billing and agreed to do what they said they would do and hook up the modem (saving the company, by the way, the expense, time, and effort of running a cable halfway around the house; I saved them money by buying a router and they complained).

And, of course, we mustn’t forget Bob Garfield’s jihad at Comcast Must Die.

The only solution to this is true competition and openness. At CES, Brian Roberts promised a Cablevision 3.0 with the customer at the center — all of you who believe him, raise your hands — and a new standard for TV devices. We’ll see.

Jeremy Allaire of Brightcove (no relation to Bright House) sets a higher standard for a fully open alternative. We must be able to plug any device we own to the connectivity coming into our homes and get to any content. It’s that simple. I shouldn’t need to call them to beg or go to their distant offices or ever, ever, every wait all day for the damned cable guy. Connectivity is electricity.

Rather than telling Comcast that they can’t grow any bigger, the FCC should be telling them one thing: Open up.