Brand Live and Die Face to Face

iStock_000004520845XSmallThe more I dig, the more I’m convinced that a big part of a brand’s success is the quality of its customer touch points, specifically, the face to face ones. Consider this overwhelming evidence:

The more emotion there is in an experience, the more vividly we remember it. It’s known as imprinting. So if we have very positive or very negative experiences, we remember them longer and more completely. Let’s say we visit a restaurant. If we have a terrible experience, we’ll remember it forever. If it was an amazing experience, again, we’ll remember it forever. If it’s mediocre and falls in the middle, it will tend to fade away.

Our memories are altered by the context in which we remember them. Let’s go back to our restaurant example. Whatever our experience, we will tend to alter it if we’re talking to a person who also had an experience with the same restaurant. If they had a great experience, but ours was negative, we’ll tend to alter our memory to make it more positive. Alternatively, if we had a positive experience, but someone else’s was terrible, suddenly we’ll alter our memory to make it less positive. This doesn’t tend to swing memories all the way from good to bad, but it alters and reshapes memories to better fit the context of recall. And over time, it can erode a once very good memory, or build up a rather negative one. Memory is not an accurate snapshot of an event, it’s a malleable story. So consistency of experience is important.

We get a much richer channel of communication when we’re face to face with a person. Studies have shown that receive only 7% of our communication from the words that are used. The other 93% is a combination of body language and tone of voice. So no matter how carefully you script your frontline customer encounters, the success will depend on the person delivering the message. We have very finely attuned credibility detectors.

The quality of the face to face interaction is the biggest factor in how satisfied we are in a product experience. Malcolm Gladwell used the example of doctors being sued for malpractice.

“Believe it or not, the risk of being sued for malpractice has very little to do with how many mistakes a doctor makes…. Patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care and something else happens to them.

“What is that something else? It’s how they were treated, on a personal level, by their doctor. What comes up again and again in malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored or treated poorly. ‘People just don’t sue doctors they like,’ is how Alice Burkin, a leading medical malpractice lawyer, puts it. ‘In all the years I’ve been in business, I’ve never had a potential client walk in and say, “I really like this doctor, and I feel terrible about doing it, but I want to sue him.”

Medical researcher Wendy Levinson found that doctors that weren’t sued spent 3 minutes more with patients than those that were (18.3 minutes versus 15). But it wasn’t just time, it was the quality of time. More simply, it was the tone of the doctor’s voice. Recordings of interactions with doctors were recorded and then were played back for study participants, who then put the doctors into two groups, those that would be sued and those that wouldn’t be. The recordings were altered so participants couldn’t hear what was said, all they could judge was the tone of the voice. And even with this, they were able to judge with amazing accuracy which doctors would be sued. It wasn’t what was said, it was how it was said.

When you look at corporate examples, the power of person to person connections are clear in cases like JetBlue and Saturn. In both cases, the extraordinarily high level of customer satisfaction was due primarily to the quality of the face to face encounters. JD Powers rated the Saturn among the highest vehicles in terms of satisfaction not because it was a better car. It was because their dealer network didn’t follow the typical industry model, which was more like a school of piranhas. JetBlue’s employees had a mandate: make flying coach suck less.

Why is this important to remember? Because of the coming workforce crisis. The baby boom is shifting the majority of our workforce to the end of their working lives, and there’s a severe shortage at the entry level, typically the recruitment bed for service based businesses. This means good people are going to get tougher and tougher to find.

Also, there’s a move to cut costs by streamlining and outsourcing those vital customer touch points. Self serve customer service models are becoming more common, and in many cases, they’re backed up by a customer help line that’s been outsourced to an overseas call center. The call center has been provided the appropriate scripts, and, in most cases, adequate training on how to field a complaint. But, as we’ve seen, that’s really only 7% of the problem. The other 93% is connecting with a person who really cares about your problem and is trying to help you. That’s something you can’t script.

Let me give you an example. My wife and I recently flew to Lisbon on British Airways. We had to connect through Heathrow. I booked my flight directly through BA, but my wife flew on points, so that flight was booked through a partner airline. Both flights had less than an hour layover in Heathrow, and we had to change terminals. I didn’t really notice this at the time of booking, but soon, my partner airline notified us that they had moved my wife back to a later flight to allow her to make the connection. As anyone who has connected through Heathrow will tell you, the odds of making a connection with less than one hour is slim to nil.

I called British Airways to get my flight pushed back and was connected to what was obviously an overseas call center. The person on the other end, if they were considering a medical career, would be a sure bet to be nailed with a malpractice suit. The manner was brusque and indifferent. He informed me that they could change the flight, but there would be a $200 change fee, about 1/3 of the total cost of the flight. Plus, I would have to pay any difference in fares. I tried to explain to the person that the layover time wasn’t adequate and that BA screwed up with the initial booking, but to no avail. Finally, I hung up in frustration, to allow myself to cool down a little.

I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to cough up the extra $200, and phoned back a week later to make the change. This time, I got a much friendlier person who looked up my reservation and informed me that my flight had automatically been pushed back because an hour wasn’t an adequate connection time. I asked when this had happened and what had triggered the change. They said it was a flag that was automatically put up in the system so many days prior to a flight and had nothing to do with my previous call. It was the system correcting itself.

Everything worked out okay with BA, and the flight was actually one of the best transatlantic flights I had. But the poor quality of one encounter left an overall negative impression rather than a positive one. And, as reinforcement of it, when I was talking to a friend who had recently flown to Spain on British Airways, they had had exactly the same problem. Our respective memory retrievals quickly turned into a BA-bashing spree.

Realize the importance of person to person, and if you have to short cut anywhere, don’t short cut here. It’s the most important part of your business.

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