Do call centres define brands?

Who ‘owns’ the answer systems we have to navigate through when we call a company? Given customer service is a major factor in the perception and reputation of brands we use and relate to it would be understandable if the CMO was in charge but I suspect this isn’t the case in many companies.

I’ve had some very mixed experiences recently and at times I’m staggered at the useless, time consuming systems that seem to take the caller round and round in circles.

Starting with a good example I had a problem with M&S this week after ordering flowers on-line. I’d made a mistake when I was filling in my details, so my fault. I called the contact number on their website, it was answered immediately and my problem was sorted out within minutes. The person on the other end was friendly, efficient and understood precisely what had gone wrong. Full marks for M&S, and guess what, I will default to M&S every time I want to send flowers to someone.

Same experience with Vodafone. On the ball, top of their game and quick to resolve queries.

However BT. What a nightmare. I switched to BT a year ago and it was a big mistake. It has been nothing but problems from day 1, far too many to bore anyone reading this. As my contract is coming up for a new year I have been trying to talk to someone about my options. It is almost impossible to get through to anyone and I think it is a question of chance if contact can be made with a real life individual.  And even if this achieved there is a 99% chance the person contacted isn’t in the right department so off you go again. My latest experience was a pre-recorded voice promising to call me back within the hour. It never happened. Next call is Virgin Media.

It feels to me BT has become so complicated with very sophisticated answering systems they’ve forgotten that the average man  or woman in the street simply wants to speak to someone who will fix things. I feel very sorry for older people who might find the system daunting and just give up.  Two days ago I finally managed to get someone only to be told their IT system was down and they couldn’t access any files. Never had a return call.

I have had a similar problem with EDF. They have sent me a letter claiming I owe them money but I pay my electricity monthly so I called to figure out the true position. Same experience as BT, I just can’t get to someone in EDF who can deal with my query. They were good in the past but I think it was before EDF, the place I called was in the west country and they were chatty, friendly folk. Never a problem and very helpful. Now EDF have a million dollar IT system that is designed to stop people like me talking to them.

The point is pretty obvious. One of the fundamental changes the Internet has driven is our ability to deal with companies direct – a great progression from the old days when the only way was to send a letter to the complaints department. This has led to most of us making our mind up about a particular brand/supplier based on the calibre of their contact performance whether it is on-line or direct over the phone. Both must be excellent because we all make comparisons and then change our behaviour.

There is a long standing definition of marketing by Philip Kotler*, the leading American academic, where he says something like  ‘marketing should be involved with all customer impinging activities of the organisation’. He wrote this long before the Internet was even thought about but his principles have never altered in terms of how an organisation behaves towards its customers. He talks about ‘the customer is at the top of the organization chart’, also ‘look at the company through the customer’s eyes’. This might sound like the ABC of marketing but it obviously is not at the heart of BT and many other organisations.

The issue I would guess is what is driving the decisions on call centres? The move out of the UK to foreign soil must be only about cost and can’t be about customer satisfaction. I don’t want to speak to someone in India who hasn’t mastered English and is working off a script. I want to speak to someone like my nice man from M&S who also sounded a little older – polite, warm and friendly. The drive to automated systems must again be about cost reduction, cut the number of bums on seats. What is though the true cost of these moves? I bet nobody attempts to build in the cost of lost customers who get fed up. I called up Barclay’s recently to query something on my account and it was a call centre in Asia. The man who took the call was pretty useless. I couldn’t understand most of what he was saying because of his accent, he obviously had a script, he didn’t know how to deal with my question so I gave up in the end. Barclay’s have redeemed themselves with me because their on-line banking is very good and it means I don’t need to ring the call centre. Lucky for them as I was all for closing my account after the call centre experience.

It seems to me the quality of these experiences is a reflection of the ‘marketing orientation’ of the organisation in question. Even if the heads of IT and call centres are not the CMO, a company like Vodafone seems like it is marketing saavy and therefore joined up. Just like M&S, Apple, and many other great exmaples. BT, on the other hand, feels like a monster of divisions, not joined up and with people with power operating independently. The point is this is perception in both cases, may not be accurate, but  it is what we take out of the experience.

Anyone playing in the first division of advertising knows that ‘take out’ is key. Response is the magic consequence of good communication. Bill Bernbach on storyboards said ‘you can’t draw a smile’, it is in the eye of the man behind the camera and the director. In the very last few seconds of the TV ad for Virgin Atlantic the female flight attendant takes off a shoe and hops along the wing of the aircraft. It is a lovely shot and one of those moments than can evoke a warm response that is ‘on brand’ for Virgin.

My advice to all of those people managing call centres is go on a course about admired advertising to learn how to get a great response when customers call them up.

P.S. One hour after writing this I spoke to a chap at BT and he solved everything, was chatty and very helpful. Although the experience has not been good overall, down to one person who delivered.

* Philip Kotler, Marketing Management. Prentice Hall. S.C. Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwest University, USA.

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