What causes hostility towards brands?

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When my former colleage Augie Ray posted recently that he has “given up on Amazon until they become a better employer and corporate citizen” it set me thinking. I realized something about how I patronize different brands. When I favor a brand, it’s often due to aligned values — I’m willing to spend more at Patagonia, for example, than at many of their competitors. Yes, they produce a quality product, but I also respect, and am willing to compensate them, for their principles.

I once commented that some companies seem to engage in “concerted acts of hostility” rather than “random acts of kindness.” And, unlike Augie’s principled stand against Amazon, I realized that when I have blacklisted brands, it’s almost always due to negative customer experience – or concerted act of hostility. There are companies that I refuse to patronize. For example:

  • I once rented a car from Hertz to drive to Miami airport. When I missed my flight, I ended up driving back home. I went back to Hertz, was given the same car, which hadn’t even been cleaned yet, and they charged me for two one-way rentals (which was significantly higher than returning it to the same rental center, even though I ultimately did).
  • Avis isn’t any better. They recently charged me for an extra day when returning a car that was 20 minutes late. They failed to take into consideration the fact that I received it late — waiting in line for more than an hour to pick it up — two days previously.
  • Uber has pissed me off in so many ways, but the final straw was when I ordered from UberEats when my son was in hospital. The driver drove in the opposite direction for 20 minutes to deliver a different order, and took more than an hour to actually get our food to us. When I spoke to customer service, initially they hung up on me. When I dialled back, they denied that he dropped off another order, finally admitted that he did, and then told me that our food was delivered within their permitted window. The food was cold and congealed. The customer service was just cold.
  • I live two doors away from a hotel in Palm Beach – The Tideline. It has a beautiful outdoor patio which we should love to frequent. We used to go their occasionally for breakfast or lunch, but the service is so bad that it was hard to keep going back. The final straw was when my son and I were sitting at the Sushi bar eating dinner, and were informed that we wouldn’t be able to order for 45 minutes because they had just received a large order. This had happened to my wife and I previously (although not in the middle of our meal). Beause it had happened before, and we had previously been told the cause, I asked them if it was because the owner had put in the order. And, they confirmed it. So, the billionaire owner of the hotel would rather interrupt a patron’s dinner so that he can be served. I’m not spending any more of my money at his establishment.
  • I once drove more than an hour for an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. After waiting another hour to be seen, I was told that the doctor I was waiting to see was not an ENT specialist – which is why I had set up the appointment to see him. The RN was pleasant about it, but we canceled the appointment. I pointed out to the receptionist what had happened, and she didn’t seem to care. Nobody ever followed up with me either to apologize or to schedule with an actual ENT specialist.

To complicate matters, I do know that my expectations are higher for the Cleveland Clinic than for other hospitals. This is mainly due to having heard from their executives while I was at Forrester, about how much emphasis they place on customer experience. When they failed to meet basic courtesy, yet claim to value CX, I gave up on them.

I had a similarly nuanced experience with JetBlue. I used to hold them to a higher standard due to the experiences that I had enjoyed. When they let me down, badly, on a subsequent occassion, I stopped flying them for a while. Then, when I began to fly with them again, I changed how I thought about them. I now think of them as just another uncaring airline. They’re no worse than the others, but I no longer think of them as better. And, then there’s brands like Comcast, that I’d love to avoid, but I live in a condo which has a monopolistic relationship with the company. I live with them, but loath them.

I don’t have the answers on this one, but I’m intrigued to explore further. Do shared values lead to higher loyalty, while negative experiences lead to hostility? Certainly for me, that’s the case, but what’s your experience?

 

Good customer support can instill loyalty

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Although I own a lot of Apple products, I don’t consider myself a fan-boy. If anything, I’m constantly on the edge of giving up. Every time my Apple products don’t work the way they’re supposed to (isn’t ease-of-use a big part of the promise?) I start thinking about giving the Pixel phone a go or trying to work with a Surface or chromebook.

Usually, inertia takes over. I realize the effort it would take to manage and migrate my photos and music, and there’s the need to re-learn which way to scroll and which corner to click to minimize a window. None of it is insurmountable, but the magnetism of the new just isn’t strong enough to overcome the habits of the present (with a hat tip to Jobs to be Done research for this description).

But then I had a great customer support experience that guarantees my loyalty for the foreseeable future and raises the bar for the support team of every other company that I ever interact with. Without boring you with the technical challenge, I contacted Apple’s customer support team and, after some time, my case was escalated to a manager. As well as regular troubleshooting, at a couple of stages I had to send logs for him to forward to engineers.

When we first spoke, he told me that he would remain on my case until it was resolved. It took several days, but he was true to his word. What shocked me was his communication and tenacity. He told me exactly which days he was working and when he would follow up. He arranged specific times to call me and then called me at those times. He explained as much technical detail as I wished to know – and didn’t overwhelm or bore me with the rest. In short, he owned my case. He wouldn’t let go until it was resolved and I was satisfied.

My expecations of every company’s support are now so much higher, and my appreciation for Apple has pushed thoughts of Google, Microsoft, or Samsung to the very back of my mind.

How do you show you care?

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A few weeks ago, I was in Miami and needed to order lunch for my family. We had flamed out a couple of times with different local eateries, and I once again looked online for highly rated lunch places near us. I came across a sandwich place — Super Subs — that was close by and got four-and-a-half stars on yelp. But something seemed iffy about it. So, rather than call in an order or use a delivery service, I decided to drive there to either order or find an alternative.

When I got there, the store was bustling. There were some people sitting on stools around the perimeter, and it initially felt like you needed to be a regular to have any chance of decent service. Then, when it came time to give my order, I realized how wrong I had been. It wasn’t that they were treating regulars differently. They were treating every individual as though they were the most important person in the world. The questions were endless – they wanted to get every aspect of my order exactly right. They wanted me to avail of extras – not upsells, but additions that I might want and alternatives I might prefer. And, all of this was done with a huge smile and in the server’s second language.

While I was waiting for the order to be prepared, I noticed a sign to their customers. The language and grammar wasn’t perfect, but the sentiment was. It basically informs customers that mistakes made by Postmates (although Doordash also seems to deliver from the store) can’t be avoided by the store. The sign pointed out that “they only care about their delivery charge and we only care about your food being ordered correctly.” Here’s the thing — I believed them. I’ve had enough mediocre to lousy experiences with Postmates, Uber Eats, Delivery Dudes, and others to know that they don’t care. My experience with Uber Eats was so poor that I refuse to use the service again.

But, having experienced Super Subs first hand, I knew how much they cared about getting my order right. There was something so authentic about their store, their note, and their service. As they pointed out, they are not in control of their brand when a customer orders through an intermediary, and yet, they sometimes get the blame. That’s life, but their little sign brought a smile to my face. It reinforced the notion of authenticity and emphasized how much they care. In the era of social media, none of us fully controls our brand. But, we can be honest and authentic, and trust that this resonates with customers.

Oh, and next time you’re in Miami, check out Super Subs — just be sure to call in the order yourself, or to visit in person!

Customer feedback: do you really want to know about my experience?

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Companies try all sorts of ways to get customer feedback. You see those emoji button stands as you exit airline security. Every fleet truck I get stuck behind seems to be emblazened with a “How’s my driving?” sticker.  And, last week I took my first ride on Florida’s new express train, the Brightline. On the multiple screens laid out in each train car, the messages alternated between ads, service information, and one message that encouraged passengers to “share your experience!” providing a hashtag for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. OK, Brightline, since you asked, here was my experience:

  • I was supposed to get a $10 coupon for registering. I never received it. When I explained that to the lady at the ticket counter, she took down my name, email, and phone number, but a week later, I haven’t heard anything from anyone. And, she was pretty rude and patronizing.
  • I tried purchasing tickets on my home computer, on my mobile browser, on the app, and at the kiosk in the station. None worked. The rude, patronizing lady succeeded in booking us on the train. By the time we got upstairs to board the train, we were, late for it. Our tickets didn’t work at the turnstyle. A very nice security officer got us through the gates and radioed ahead to hold the train for us.
  • Although our train car only had about 15 people in it, my son and I were given seats that were four rows apart. There was nobody else at the table which I was allocated, nobody in the seat beside him, and nobody in the 6 seats between us. There was also no way to change our seats in the app, so we just both sat at my table, and nobody questioned us.
  • On our return journey two days later, we booked the “Select” service, which Brightline bills as its “first class service”. This time the app did work to buy tickets (but still no coupon). Thanks to a collosally incompetent Lyft driver we missed the train we had booked. Brightline staff kindly and efficiently booked us on the next train — which was an hour later. We went to the Select lounge, where our advertised “enhanced experience” was supposed to include “an ever-changing lineup of enticing bites throughout the day and evening.” Neither my son nor I had eaten dinner (thanks Lyft driver!) and when we got to the lounge, all of the food was gone. Despite advertising “champagne, premium wines and beers, handcrafted cocktails, juices and soft drinks,” a lounge employee was removing everything except the beer, juice, and soft drinks. When I asked about food, I was told that food was only served until 9 o’clock. We got to the lounge at about 9:04. But, nowhere in Brightline’s ads or promotional literature does it say that food was only served until 9pm. And then, the lounge employee was about as rude and patronizing as her colleage from two days ago. I bought food for my son at Brighline’s over priced cafe — although the only reason we had booked “Select” was because we hadn’t eaten. Finally, a very kind employee at the cafe responded very appropriately to our story and put together a plate of cheese and cold-cuts for us.
  • I bumped into a manager and explained our plight. She was rude and patronizing. Maybe she trained the other two employees.
  • The WiFi wasn’t fast enough for my son to play Fortnite. That was a negative for him and a positive for me.

In Brightline’s defense, it is relatively new. But it’s not that new. The West Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale segment opened in January, and they extended to Miami in May. I’d have thought they’d have worked out the kinks by now. My wife had taken it the week prior to my son’s and my trip and she loved it. Maybe that led to a hightened expectation on my end. And, some elements worked great. Melba, the cafe member in Miami that put together the charcuterie plate for us was a sweetheart. The security staff in both the Miami and West Palm stations were efficient, showed empathy, and frankly displayed better customer service than most of the service staff. And, the on board experience is clean, efficient, and pleasant.

But, I came away underwhelmed and disappointed. I’ll give Brightline another go — it’s not like driving to Miami is fun! But, Brightline, I offered my feedback to your employees and to one of your managers, and for the most part they were rude and patronizing. Since you asked for feedback on social media too, I’m happy to share it there. But there’s a lesson for companies to reconsider how they treat feedback — when you get it directly, in particular. If you genuinely want feedback, you might want to invest in some employee training and introduce some processes to capture the feedback and evolve your experience. If it was just an excuse to display your hashtag, I messed that one up for you. Sorry.

Crocs and boors and friends, oh my!

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A couple of weeks ago, I bought my son a pair of crocs. Typically, I’d buy something like this from Amazon, but the size and color he wanted wasn’t available so I bought them directly from the Crocs website. Since then, I have received an email every single day from Crocs. The first one – apart from the order confirmation – was a welcome email thanking me for my support and promising to keep me posted on all their “best sales events, new product releases, unique discounts, and special offers.” I had no idea how diligently they would deliver on that promise to keep me posted. And, not that I buy crocs very often, but so far all they’ve done is train me that paying full price is a really stupid idea because I’m likely to get a 40 or 50% off email every day.

Except that I won’t get that email. I unsubscribed. I don’t want to get their lunch special, or to ‘stay connected and share the crocs love’, or even to ‘get comfortable with 50% off.’ Crocs has acted like what Nick, Josh, and I call a loudmouthed boor. We compare these boors to someone that comes to your house and won’t shut up –  talking about what’s important to him, without making any effort to understand what’s going on in your life. And, once a boor thinks he knows you, he’ll text you, email you, show up in your Facebook feed, and follow you all around town. If that sounds like your company’s approach, unfortunately, you’re not alone.

The alternative is to act like a friend – someone who considers what’s going on in your life and how they can help you. We interviewed Susan Fournier –  who next week will become the next dean of the Questrom School of Business – for Marketing to the Entitled Consumer. Together with Jill Avery of Harvard and John Wittenbraker of market research firm GfK, she penned a great HBR article that dives deep into the different types of friendships that people have with brands. We provide a synopsis in the boook, but the full article is well worth a read if you’re trying to shed your boorish ways.

Why do brands so offend to make offense a skill?

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16th-century imaginary painting of Henry IV, National Portrait Gallery, London

In Ireland, secondary school students take two national exams when we are about 15 and 18 years old. The Junior Certificate helps determine where students will track for their Leaving Certificate, which then determines entry for college programs. They both take place during a three-ish week period in early June, and I don’t think I’ve ever studied more intensely than preparing for those exams.

Maybe that’s why I remember random German phrases, obscure mountain ranges in Eastern Europe, and snippets of poetry as Gaeilge.

This weekend, a famous speech from Henry IV, Part I (which I studied for my Intermediate Certificate, as the Junior Cert used to be known) came to mind in relation to a phenomena Nick and I call the “transference of entitlement.” We use this phrase to describe the effect of experiences we have with one company that set expectations for other companies. We usually think of it as a steady build-up of expectation rather than something triggered by a specific event. The reason Prince Henry’s soliloquy came to mind though was the result of back-to-back experiences that I had with car rental companies that couldn’t have been more different, and “like bright metal on a sullen ground” one of the experiences glittered, while the other offended.

Budget/Avis – the company that used to ‘try harder’ – offended. When picking up a car last Thursday in Boston to go visit our daughter, we stood in line for an hour and a half to get to the counter to pick up the car we had ordered (I know, I could have skipped the line if I joined the loyalty program). When we got to the counter, the agent didn’t apologize, or even reference the time we had spent in line. He was surly and just acted like he didn’t want to be there. Then, when we dropped the car off on Sunday we were about an hour later than we had scheduled. By the time they checked us in, they registered us as an hour and a quarter late (yes, there was a long line again). And, as a result, they charged us an extra $95. I was so incensed, but had the good sense to let my wife discuss it with them. I don’t think I would have been particularly diplomatic. My wife handled it very well, and ultimately they removed the charge. But, we were left with a bitter feeling towards the brand.

We went from the Avis return counter to the Alamo counter to get a new car to drive to New York to visit my wife’s family. The lady checking us in couldn’t have been more pleasant. When I questioned the price she quoted versus what we had been quoted online, she seemed genuinely concerned, and when it turned out she had been right and I was wrong, she remained pleasant and gracious. Returning the car in Manhattan was a smooth process where all of the employees were friendly and responsive. I left with a significantly enhanced impression of the Alamo brand, and it even restored a bit of my faith rental car companies.

Maybe if I hadn’t had the Budget/Avis experience, the Alamo experience would have been unremarkable. But, coming so quickly in succession, the positive Alamo experience seemed to “show more goodly and attract more eyes; Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

I’ll stop torturing the analogy, but suffice to say that your customers’ perceptions of your brand experience is influenced not only by what you do, and not only what your competitors do, but by what every company does. The transference of entitlement is driven by our experiences with every brand – good and bad. When those experiences come in close proximity, the benefit or harm is only accentuated.

 

Nobody’s perfect (even Amazon)!

What do Zyrtec allergy medication, Hunts tomato sauce, and Barilla pasta have in common?

The answer? Search for one (Zyrtec) on Amazon, and you’ll get recommendations for the other two. Or, at least, I did. Website recommendations really stand out when they miss the mark. Of course, relevance is relative, but as one of the companies that brought recommendations to the mainstream, we expect Amazon to be better.

In our research, we have asked scores of marketers, experts, and consumers which companies they think are most consumer-first, and almost everyone we’ve ever asked mentions Amazon — often as their immediate and only response. It’s remarkable, therefore, when Amazon is only average.

Amazon returns

And, while it’s possible that its because we live and breath consumer-first marketing that we notice an ineffective product recommendation, but I was really taken aback recently when returning a product to Amazon.

Some quick background: My son is in 7th grade, and beginning to slowly think about the high school applications he’ll need for next year. We bought a few different test prep books from Amazon, and when we realized that two were almost identical, we decided to send one back.

The returns process online was nice and easy, and then I got surprised – and not in a good way. Amazon often offers free return shipping for Prime members (and subsidiary Zappos pretty much pioneered the idea of ‘buy, try, and return’). I think of free returns as a ‘nice-to-have’ not a ‘need-to-have.’ After all, why should the retailer pick up the cost of my decision not to keep a product. I appreciate when a company provide free returns, but I don’t expect it. What shocked me was that it cost the same to return the product via UPS as returning it to an Amazon Locker. Of course, an item still has to be picked up from the locker, but doesn’t Amazon want customers to use the Lockers – to get used to visiting places that have them (such as Whole Foods), and to get used to using them so that outbound shipping costs would be lowered – by delivering in bulk to one location?

Maybe if this was another company I wouldn’t have reacted so negatively. Nick and I often talk about the “transference of entitlement” in which experiences we have with one company set expectations for other companies. In this case though, Amazon helped to set the level of entitlement, and then needlessly failed to live up to it.