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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Create More – Crisis

Improvising in a crisis

Have you noticed that in a crisis consumerism doesn’t work? However effectively the bureaucrats and politicians marketise health- if half your arm is hanging off you tend not to pull out a directory and look for the supplier offering a positive caring image with decent service differentiation and all competitively priced. One of the main reasons is that fortunately for most of us crises happen so rarely that we don’t have a script. We don’t know what to do but usually we have to do something. So we improvise.

Which is yet another reason for addressing people’s creativity rather than their propensity to consume. Service businesses does this all the time anyway – they have to. Philip Crosby the quality control expert pointed out that half of all complaints are the customer’s fault. But it is the client company which has to pick up the tab. To anticipate what the customer is likely to do when the customer usually has no idea – they are making it up as they are going along. I once heard a story about a British Gas customer in arrears who attempted to pay his gas bill with a goat. Which he took into the showroom in the centre of Dundee. ..

A week ago I ordered 2 256MB memory chips for the computer which were couriered to me within 24 hours and which I had to install myself. When I installed them the laptop wouldn’t boot up. I tried 3 different permuations all without success and then rang the retail support number. They arranged for me to call the supplier’s resident memory expert who checked that these were really the right chips, took the batch number and arranged for me to return the chips with a view to supplying replacements from another batch. Yesterday morning faced with having to sort out a courier company for the chips I tried again – this time the chips worked. So I have now to respond to the email I was sent with the return code number on it to tell them I won’t be returning the chips for a replacement after all. This was a relatively complicated transaction involving two companies, 2 different websites (displaying inconsistent information), and 3 different communication channels – web phone and email. No one could have predicted the fault – I still don’t know what went wrong. No one could have predicted my behaviour in trying a second time – least of all me – and the retailer and vendor were entirely dependent on my understanding and accurate reporting that the chips hadn’t worked. And while they could make suggestions they couldn’t force me to do what they wanted. The outcome similarly was unpredictable – that the chips would work OK the second time. But this is a fairly typical example of what service companies have to deal with every day. My perceptions of the companies involved were materially affected by how the ‘crisis’ was managed. Whether or not the chips worked I still had a clear perception of both companies and how they handled the issue – I thought they did rather well.

So there are some basic learnings here:

  • Crises are complicated – they aren’t easily converted into flowcharts -which means that you need good customer facing people who grasp what is going on.
  • Customers are unpredictable and can do surprising things – in the end I tried fitting the chips again because it seemed less hassle than trying to find a courier. It wasn’t because anybody made me do it or even suggested that I do it.
  • Crises have a distinctive timeline. They don’t go away if the client company stops answering the phone or answering emails. And if the customer doesn’t agree with the script they have been given or (which is more common) isn’t given a script at all – then they are capable of anything. They don’t do nothing – and wait for further instructions. After the chips arrived the clock was ticking – I knew I had to do something resolve it if I didn’t want to be out of pocket with product which was unusable.
  • The number of communication channels escalated. As an aficionado of multi channel comms I still tend to think about integration in terms of pushing consistent messages through channels – but inbound pull traffic is what makes things really complicated.The idea that the customer can resort to one of a number of channels in any sequence is terrifying especially as they expect the issue to be professionally handled which ever channel they have used and increasingly they expect the company to be aware of all the preceding interactions.
  • The outcome was unpredictable – no one would have guessed that the chips would work the second time I tried them. And the system needed to take unpredictable outcomes into account

Always bear in mind the effect of the crisis on perceptions of the brand. When I worked on direct marketing for RAC Roadside Services we had customers for whom the idea of breaking down was so horrendous that loyalty mailings reminding them of the benefits of being covered undermined the whole point of being a member which was not having to worry about the awful possibility of breaking down and what might happen. And we had no easy way of separating these out from those who tended to leave because no one reminded them how valuable it was to have roadside cover and in their first -3 years they hadn’t had a breakdown. In the event we took a decision to mail them all because we didn’t think we’d upset the nervous ones sufficiently to make them cancel or switch. But we had to recognise that we were undermining a core benefit – peace of mind every time we mailed.

There are also some basic things a company can do:

  • Give your staff permission to solve the problem. A lot of companies have very simple procedures which means that their staff have to say no most of the time. Not very clever – if only because staff often then apologise for their own company and the fact that their hands are tied.
  • Develop basic scripts as ways through and make them available. But don’t force people to use them in your selection of channels – they won’t co-operate.
  • Don’t allow the product to get in the way of the solution. Really basic this but it can happen. Macafee who produce antiviral software provide upwards of 4 channels of customer support but in practice none of them work (including email). One of their channels which they plug heavily is online chatting with their support staff but this only works if you turn their anti-pop up software off first. Egg on face or what if it is this that you’re trying to get working?
  • Brands that are good at managing crises are more valued than brands that deliver products and services- the handling of customer service issues exists alongside the original product and service delivery and often comes to assume a greater importance than original perceptions of the product. We all have stories of hero brands that have provided extraordinary service – this is fertile territory for building loyalty and word of mouth.
  • Take ownership of customers’ own lack of experience. I heard an ad for Direct Line this morning offering claims on botched DIY jobs. Which sounds like suicide accepting all the risk of underwriting buying the wrong materials and then not using them properly until you realise that Direct Line have already taken most of the low risk out of the market and need new blood. And after all they can always say no when you apply!
  • Get complaints out into the open and deal with them. I am still amazed by how little marketing departments know about what hacks off their customers – usually because it’s in a different department. We explored getting RAC customers to fill in a satisfaction form after 3 years and invited them to tell us if there was anything they had been unhappy about. The client was very nervous about this because her department didn’t have the capacity to write to more than a few thousand unhappy members. Our argument was that they were spending a fortune recruiting new members. Surely it was more cost effective to let existing members let off steam instead of lapsing and then to send a standard letter of apology out.

So remember if you want to market to customers in a crisis then don’t try and exercise command and control. In effect you have to let the customer take the lead – don’t force their hand and organise your inbound channels in response – not the way old style marketing likes to operate. But there really is no alternative. If you don’t what you are doing is adding to the chaos, undermining your established service standards. It will cost you money, time and customers.


Designed by Matthew Pattman