Click to Start – The Gift Which Keeps On Giving

In Australia there is a terrible tendency to equate service with servitude. Perhaps it’s too much ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, or a natural extension of the jingoistic creation of the larrikin Australian lacking respect for authority and his colonial superiors.

Whatever the cause, there is no question that Australians have a lot to learn about providing truly effective customer service.

The web site, established early in 2002 to track bad service, recorded 12,000 gripes in the first 30 days. Top of the list are the usual culprits: phone companies and the banks.

The only slight comfort I take is in knowing that even the largest businesses have succumbed to the syndrome. And those which include customer service concepts in their key branding messages are often the worst. Coles supermarkets have spent years trying to convince shoppers they are ‘Serving you better’. News flash, they’re not. (What is it about the deli counters which particularly embrace this dichotomy? It’s a war zone in the early evening, and coincidentally, is the only time of day when they don’t utilise the electronic ‘take a number’ system).

These days incidences of good service are notable, and we seem resigned to the normality of poor service. It’s a depressing scenario, but there is an upside – get your customer service right, and, however unfortunate it might seem, you’ll stand out.

There’s lots of talk in the marketing world, including the arts, about buzzwords such as ‘relationship marketing’ and the like. Whatever the jargon, it’s new words for an old concept – be nice to your customers and they’ll be nice to you.

Some of things which annoy the crap out of me:

  • I once spent 15 minutes hacking away at the web site of one of the largest performing arts centres in Australia, trying to find their phone number so I could call a friend who worked there. The ONLY number I finally found was for the carpark contractor;
  • Web sites which not only don’t give a contact details, but restrict what little contact there is on offer to me filling out a form.
  • People and organisations who don’t return my phone calls or emails. The implications are simple – either you don’t want to talk to me because you have a problem with me personally (can’t think why), or you just don’t want to talk to me full stop. (A recent survey of Australian businesses found that 25% never replied to contacts made via their web sites. How stupid can these businesses be?)
  • Automated phone systems – ‘Push 1 for the Box Office’ – my question is simple – "Why can’t you just ANSWER THE PHONE!"

    We’re all human, and we by nature crave contact with other humans. Dealing with a technological interface is the diametric opposite, and inevitably the machine always wins (tried using Telstra’s automated directory assistance service recently?). With technology like the web, we need to be careful to remember human needs.

    The crime is that technology is very often capable of a terrific support role in providing human to human customer service.

    One day I’m going to write an article about how easy it is to merge personalised emails using Microsoft Word, Outlook and Access – software tools ubiquitous on desktops in many arts organisations. Which is why I get seriously cranky (and make it known) when arts marketers persist in sending me emails with 500 names in the CC or To field (next time use the BCC field  PLEASE).

    And on a related subject, why is it that small (and big) arts organisations continue to post media releases to us? There’s one which sends us sometimes three a day, all in different envelopes, $1.35 down the drain. A big tick to the people who email their releases to us. A black mark to those who continue to fax the releases, often from interstate paying STD rates (they don’t even wait for off peak evening).

    Oh and I mustn’t forget the envelopes which arrive each day, containing just a DL flyer for some show or other. No letter, no explanation, no ‘sell’, no nothing. They’re usually the ones which ring our editor a few days later complaining about how we haven’t written a story.

    Without exception every arts organisation bleats about a lack of money, then a bunch promptly choose the most expensive way of communicating their information, and ignore the basics of personalisation.

    Without question, my absolute favourite example in recent times of a company which quite clearly doesn’t want to have anything to do with me is the Commonwealth Bank.

    They recently junk mailed me with a brochure advertising business banking services. It started badly with the brochure, and went downhill rapidly. The brochure was conceived as a childrens’ story book, with a character discovering the ways Commonwealth Bank could help finance his business activities. The idea of portraying small business owners as ignorant children clearly required a long lunch in the advertising agency’s creative department.

    But the cream, with cherry on the top, was the form inserted into the brochure. Entitled ‘Request for Contact’, it was a long form for me to fill out, so that one of their business bankers could contact me. Amongst the ‘minimum details required for contact’ were all of my contact details, business turnover, staffing numbers and previous history with the bank.

    Once I had completed the form, and faxed, mailed or handed it in ‘at any Commonwealth Bank branch’, presumably someone would, eventually, make contact with me – at their convenience rather than mine. And no, the form did not have a contact phone number so I could call and tell them how stupid the form was. That’s a bank which won’t be enjoying our company’s patronage any time soon.

    Small businesses are the largest segment, and employer, in the Australian business world. That the Commonwealth Bank takes us so seriously that a prospective customer needs to fill out a form just to make contact, is an unfortunate demonstration of why some Australians have a long way to go before they stop confusing service with servitude.

    We all have our favourite restaurant or cafe, which sets itself apart. Where the staff call you by your first name, remember how you usually have your coffee, and take a genuine interest in your needs and wants. We reward that service by returning day after day, and if you are anything like me, you experience withdrawal symptoms when the overworked owners close for their annual Christmas break.

    Good service is about communication, whether delivered in person, on the phone, or via the Net. Good service is an artform in itself – and funnily enough, as most artsworkers who have had the obligatory secondary career in hospitality will know, can be as pleasurable to give as it is to receive.

    Call your customers by name, remember their past history with your organisation; communicate with them they way they want, not the way which is easiest for you; respond to their feedback honestly, genuinely and promptly; NEVER ignore a customer, however they make contact; and always remember, good customer service is the gift which keeps on giving.

    ‘Click to Start’ is a regular column covering arts and technology issues, appearing fortnightly on and