5 Questions on Customer Service and Brand Advocates

Scott Pulsipher, COO of Needle, talks providing a better experience to consumers.

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As more and more major brands look for newer, less intrusive ways to engage with consumers outside the world of traditional advertising and press placement, many turn to brand advocacy and influencer marketing.

Big questions remain about both the effectiveness (and the ethics) of the practices, which are constantly changing. The line between the two is fuzzy at best.

We talked to Scott Pulsipher, president and COO of “customer engagement” provider Needle, for his take on trends in the space.

1. What is the biggest challenge in customer service and how it affects general scott pulpisherperceptions of a company/brand?

As consumers, our expectations about how a brand will engage with us and create a great customer experience at every interaction, are accelerating faster than companies’ ability to deliver.

Simultaneously, our desire for connection — even in digital channels — is growing.  But companies seem to be moving in the opposite direction from a customer service POV.  Everything is being approached and measured from a cost POV, like customer service is a fulfillment center.  The focus is on efficiency metrics, not people — which leads to fast, non-personal experiences and forces customers to serve themselves first before getting help.

Some brands are getting it right: for instance, I believe the Ritz-Carlton empowers every employee to do the right thing at the moment they’re met with a customer need or request. I also had a recent experience with Delta in which the agent understood my problem and solved it for me quickly.

Unfortunately, my colleague had a very different experience while on the phone with Delta at the very same time.

This underscores what I view as a two-part challenge.  One is getting the experience right the first time; that’s why “first touch resolution” is so critical.

But really, how many Nancys are there?  The second part of the challenge is scaling that kind of expertise, capability, and judgment at a CS agent level.

2. How have you identified and/or worked with brand advocates in the past?

Because advocates are already talking about the brands they love and the products they use with their networks, it’s pretty easy to identify them. We usually find them in social channels or other places they gather: a brand’s Facebook page, a popular blog in that category, or an affinity program.

One benefit advocates bring is the ability to create near-immediate trust and emotional connection with the customer in a way that most employees often can’t. Advocates – unlike other shoppers, employees, or experts – bring a level of authenticity and credibility that forms the basis for a truly great experience.

Thankfully, the internet has given customers lots of modes and means to find the information and help they need any time.  Enabling customers to interact with a trusted, credible advocate at the “moment of truth” is the trickier part.

3. What surprised you most about your own customers’ expectations?

There’s a lot of coverage about how people trust strangers more than companies. And that’s not a surprise, especially given how technology has enabled us to connect with people.

What surprises me is how slow some companies have been to come to the same conclusion.  There’s clearly an understanding about the value of engaging your best customers from a marketing POV — promotions, content, rich media, social marketing, etc. But that is seldom differentiating, and often plays to the lowest common denominator: a low price deal.

It’s not how companies – whether online only or multichannel businesses – are going to differentiate themselves in the next era.

It seems that companies are missing a big opportunity from a brand POV.  They’re holding on to a lack of distrust in their own best customers and external experts, and that doesn’t align with an advocate model.

I’m also surprised by how, in the age of CX, there’s so much focus on the near-term impact of individual experiences.  Companies are measuring CX like ad banners or content programs, when they should be focused NPS, LTV, loyalty – even indicators like the % of site traffic that is direct and visit frequency are better indicators of customers’ loyalty and affinity.

Chasing more traffic that is usually lower converting, and saturating the market with more offers, are quickly becoming antiquated ways to build a competitive, differentiated ecommerce business.

4. Tech tools aside, what do you believe to be the most important aspect of working with advocates/fans?

You have to align your motivation and rewards model with what advocates – wherever they live – are most passionate about.

Don’t assume that they’re motivated by money or that they’ll treat it like a job.  External advocates, in particular, aren’t wired for that.  They do it because they love the brand, the lifestyle, the products.

5. What suggestions do you have for companies/clients with reputations for poor customer service?

First, I’d suggest getting to the root of why your customer service is perceived as poor. It’s most often one of three reasons: product, experience, or trust.

If it’s a product issue, you have to fix it: make your product awesome, intuitive, valuable, simple to buy, and easy to use. Period.

If it’s an experience issue, the hope that CS can make a positive impact is a lot higher. Figure out the things you have to change — in CS or anywhere along the customer journey — to make it “one touch” for your customers.  Don’t make them solve the problem or hunt for the answers they need.

Here’s an idea: instead of putting someone on hold, have your CS agents gather all the information they need to get to that one touch solution and call the customer back when it’s resolved.  That happened to me recently, and I was blown away.

If it’s a trust issue, you have to think about who your customers really trust, and then connect them with those people on their channels.

I also believe that “one touch” may be less important than a trusted, credible, timely, truly personal interaction — especially in the discovery phase.

This is one of the places where advocates make a lot of sense.

What do we think?