Why Customer Service is Your True Competitive Edge

“If we can keep our competitors focused on us while we stay focused on the customer, ultimately we’ll turn out all right.” So says Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.

Think about it. From one-click shopping onwards, the focus of Amazon has been on making the buying experience simpler.

As I have written before, Amazon is actually far from a disruption (as many would portray it). In fact, if anything, Sears, way back in 1897, articulated the mission that Amazon has adopted literally line by line. Consider the “disruption” that ensued:


It is the Policy of Our House to Supply the Consumer Everything on which we can save him money, goods that can be delivered at your door anywhere in the United States for less than they can be procured from your local dealer.


Our vision is to be Earth’s most customer centric company to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

Knee-jerkers…don’t bother. We all get the application of new technology. It’s obvious that Sears blew it. But the fact is, they blew it way back when they lost the plot of consumer-centric focus.

Many seem confused by Amazon. Who are they really competitive with? Which of the many possible suspects is Jeff Bezos trying to deflect? Plainly, the Digibabble crowd has their own view and clear favorites. But maybe it’s not that opaque. The Atlantic, back in November of 2013, picked up and expanded this theme:

“I think Amazon’s efforts, even the seemingly eccentric ones, are centered on securing the customer relationship,” says Benedict Evans, a consultant with Enders Analysis.

Continuing the Sears analogy, Derek Thompson, who wrote this article for The Atlantic, says:

In a way, this strategy isn’t new at all. It’s ripped from the mildewed playbooks of the first national retail stores in American history. Amazon appears to be building nothing less than a global Sears, Roebuck of the 21st century—a large-scale operation that aims to dominate the future of shopping and shipping.

…Today the Sears catalog seems about as innovative as the prehistoric handsaw, but in the 1890s, the 500-page “Consumer’s Bible” popularized a truly radical shopping concept: the mail would bring stores to consumers.

…Now that the Internet cables have replaced telegraph wires, American consumers are reverting to their turn-of-the-century shopping habits. The car is fading in the American imagination. Malls are shutting down. Families, meanwhile, have rediscovered the Consumer’s Bible while sitting on their couches, and this time, it’s in a Web browser.

Let me just add needing home delivery and the ubiquity of the US Postal Service.

And a final, insightful comment by Thompson:

Amazon’s instinct to sell tablets stuffed with e‑books echoes Sears’s decision to create Allstate to bundle insurance with the company’s car parts.

The article goes on to point out that Sears’ revenue, once 1% of the entire US economy, was not immune to failure…with the obvious comparison to Amazon today.

However, as critical as I have been of Amazon’s profits—or lack of them (as I have written many times, the real disruption is the lack of accountability to which Wall Street holds them vs. others)—I truly believe that they are hyper focused on building on the Sears model of creating deep and abiding relationships with their consumers based on service and brand. And, I will add, to not lose those relationships as Sears did by focusing on everything but those relationships.

Folks, listen to the man himself, Jeff Bezos:

“Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood.”

And Jeff Bezos is the master at making himself misunderstood.

Honestly, I can only shake my head in wonder as I read article after article reporting on study after study detailing the “growing” importance of customer service and experience. Growing? The Digibabblists would have us believe this is all new: that experience—deep, immersive experience— is the outgrowth of Digital First or, maybe this week, of Mobile First. Nonsense. What is true is that consumers are feeling let down and used. Digital First or Mobile First is meaningless without a well-thought-out program of consumer-centric marketing and service.

Frankly, we have yet to even come close to replicating the passion and emotion that the Sears wish book evoked in the family hunkered down in a sod house, on a dark snow-covered prairie with the winds howling and the wolves prowling.

From Forbes:

Each year, new data comes out that indicates customer service and the customer experience (CX) are more important than ever. According to Forrester, 72% of businesses say that improving the customer experience is their top priority. A study from NewVoiceMedia indicates that companies lose more than $62 billion due to poor customer service.

Value and experience continue to trump price. Unless a company wants to be recognized as a low-cost provider, the value proposition of good customer service can make price less relevant.

I leave it to you to read the article in its entirety. Suffice it to say that while big data, chatbots and AI are important tools, and in their earlier iterations were all adopted by catalogers in their pre- or early digital phases, one need look only as far as Zappos to understand that even just putting an 800 phone number—allowing the customer to actually call—on every web or digital page, sends the best and most powerful message of personalization in customer service—you and me, we’re in this together—the true, ever-elusive, one-to-one relationship.

Check out the following three Harvard Business Review articles on customer service ranging from 2011 to last month:

The Key to Great Customer Service (June 2011)

Revolutionizing Customer Service (April 2016)

Kick-Ass Customer Service (February 2017)

The final paragraph of the Kick-Ass article sums it all up rather nicely:

As one service leader at a large retailer admitted to us, “Our people are woefully ill-equipped to handle today’s customers and their issues. We’re not running a contact center here. It’s more like a factory of sadness…Not surprisingly, customer satisfaction has been in steady decline across industries for years.

It would seem, then, that the ass getting kicked is the companies’ by consumers who are feeling whipped.

And perhaps that is why Hulu just announced that it:

…will provide customer help 24 hours a day, seven days a week ahead of the upcoming launch of its live TV streaming service, and plans to open a service center by the fall, doubling investment in customer service over the next year so it can cope better with any glitches that arise, the company told Reuters this week.

Bottom line:

The increased spending on customer service comes as Hulu is about to go head-to-head with internet channels that offer live TV from AT&T’s DirecTVNow and Dish Network Corp’s Sling TV.

The services have had hiccups—like shows freezing, viewers getting error messages and system crashes. Their owners also have large customer service staffs already handling calls from their traditional pay TV customers, said Brett Sappington, senior director of research at Parks Associates.

The stakes are high for Hulu, which has a customer defection rate of 50 percent, according to Parks Associates, a Dallas-based market research firm.

The stakes are high indeed and trusting all to AI-driven, digital-first, big-data-inspired mobile solutions is not a very attractive solution when your competition is breathing down your neck. And here is why:

The TV streaming service provider, which is owned by Walt Disney Co., Comcast Corp, 21st Century Fox, and Time Warner Inc., will set up a new center in New Mexico or Texas by this fall and will hire 100 representatives this year, bringing its total to 300.

Let’s be clear, knee-jerkers…the issue isn’t digital vs. anything else. It’s not AI vs. Twitter or chatbots vs. Facebook. Make no mistake, live service providers have been making use of advanced digital technology in the most personalized of ways ever since they could.

The only issue is: can we learn from the best of the best and realize that they don’t fall for the Digibbable? From a Medium post about Elon Musk and customer service:

I was recently driving to a meeting in Silicon Valley and had to charge my Tesla. I decided to stop at the San Carlos super-charger on my way to Palo Alto and there were 5 other Tesla cars waiting in line to get a charging space. Most drivers seemed to have gone somewhere else as their cars were charging. The San Carlos supercharger is located within walking distance from Whole Foods, Peet’s Coffee, a gym and some restaurants. Many drivers therefore keep their cars parked at the Supercharger even once their cars have finished charging.

I tweeted at Elon to tell him.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 1.19.42 PM

Within minutes, Elon promised to take action.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 1.19.46 PM

Six days later, Tesla announced that Tesla owners would be charged if they left their cars after they finish charging. Tesla pushed a software update to their entire fleet with a warning.

Elon listens, answers personally, and makes changes at an incredible speed. That is one of the reasons he is so successful. He manages a 30,000 employee public company like an agile startup. He’s also a PR genius on his own by listening, executing so fast and making his process public. There was quite a bit of coverage of this update.

The story of Elon Musk isn’t a story about Twitter. It’s a story of good old-fashioned customer service…much as Jeff Bezos has learned from the greats of the past.

All of which leads me to a quote from past US President Theodore Roosevelt:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

No one cares if you consider yourself Digital First or Mobile First or whether you have great AI, VR or AR…table stakes in a world where digital is everything. I continue to believe and scream from the rooftops that the competitive edge is in understanding that not everything is digital.

All of which culminates in the simple mantra of People First.

Meet you at the new Amazon bookstore?

What do you think?

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