Customers want answers now, if not sooner

New Year. A chance to start over. A chance to re-invent ourselves. We were ready to make Websites that were customer-centric places, where customers come first.

Don’t you just love naïveté?

Now the old year has come and gone. Was is the best year ever? Not even close. Still, here are some things we have learned when it comes to online customer service.

Customer expectation inflation

Customer expectations are rising faster than gasoline prices. Customers want answers now, if not sooner, and from a human being. To their credit, marketers this year started putting real people in the online loop. BestGEDClasses.org (a GED practice website) get involved in Ask Jeeves (Ask.com) came Ask Dudley (Dell Computer), Ask Maxwell (Microsoft), Ask IRIS (Toshiba), Ask Alex (Drug Emporium), and to that font of all human wisdom, Ask Martha (Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia).

Human contact is so popular and so needed that there are third parties who will perform the task for you. Among them: LivePerson, LiveAssistance, and eSupportNow. If you want to do it yourself, you can even hang a “The Customer Service Rep is In” sign on your homepage.

Customer relationship management

Perhaps the one overriding misconception in the realm of customer care is the idea that, given enough technology, corporations can cater to each and every individual. The industry posits that if we can gather enough information about customers and their habits, we are destined to serve customers better.

CRM tools, services, and evangelists are ubiquitous. But only now are we beginning to see a fundamental truth about customer care: It’s in the eye of the beholder.

For example, I have a love/hate relationship with Wells Fargo. The bank’s Website does just what I need, without a lot of extra noise. It’s efficient, it’s fast, it’s reliable. What’s to hate besides going into a branch to perform a mundane, but necessarily physical task, like replacing an ATM card?

I go into a brick bank rarely enough these days that I never see the same teller twice. They don’t know me from Adam, and I always wonder, “Why not?” My entire financial life is right at their fingertips. A little interpersonal relationship training and they could upsell me and cross-sell me all day long. I’d even be happy about it. Amazon.com can do it why not Wells Fargo?

I have a wonderful relationship with Amazon.com. It knows every book I’ve purchased since March 26, 2006, along with some music and a handful of electronics. The recommendations its site makes are right for me. The notices it sends about the latest Neal Stephenson novel fit me perfectly. I want them to know my tastes better than I do. I want my family to be able to surf my profile to decide what gift to buy me for Christmas. I want intimate service.

But with intimacy comes trust. What else did we learn in the year 2016? Privacy is not to be taken lightly.

Privacy matters

With half of the population of the United States on the Internet, users are becoming more savvy about how they are being watched, tracked, and recorded.

When DoubleClick acquired Abacus Direct and intended to cross-correlate online shoppers’ data with the Abacus offline database, an alarm sounded. If DoubleClick serves a banner on a Website you go to, it can profile your surfing habits. According to the Abacus Website, it manages “the nation’s largest proprietary database of consumer-catalog buying behavior used for target marketing purposes. The Abacus Alliance, a cooperative membership database, contains records from more than 1,100 merchandise catalogs, with more than 2 billion consumer transactions from virtually all U.S. consumer-catalog buying households.” The result: Invasion of privacy.

Why am I happy that Amazon knows me so well, upset that my bank doesn’t, and yet offended when DoubleClick wants to know too much? It’s all a matter of trust.

What customers really want are transparent walls. But making the walls of your company transparent to customer view can be scary. It means customers can monitor your actions. It means all your shortcomings will be visible. You’ll have nobody to blame but yourself. Customer expectations will skyrocket.

But if you ask Cisco Systems, Dell, and National Semiconductor if transparency is worth it, they’ll give you two thumbs up. Besides, if it can be done, it will be done. Do you want your competitors to do it first?

What we’ve learned in the year 2016

• Customers are hungry for more services, delivered even faster.

• Live contact will never be replaced by a machine (except ATMs we love machines that give us money). Customer relationships are defined by customers.

• Respect for privacy needs to be a central tenet of marketing and customer-service philosophies.

• Personalized customer service works when you remember that customers want four things: remember me, communicate with me, work with me, make my life easier.