Telemarketing: The Impossible Tradeoff

One of my Brazilian colleagues, Roberto Silva (not his real name), was a frequent traveler to the U.S. on business and for pleasure. He had a daughter at an American university and he visited her whenever he could. He also liked buying things at specialist outlets and, a few years back, had bought some trousers (which became his favorites) from Lands’ End.

Call center agentOne of my Brazilian colleagues, Roberto Silva (not his real name), was a frequent traveler to the U.S. on business and for pleasure. He had a daughter at an American university and he visited her whenever he could. He also liked buying things at specialist outlets and, a few years back, had bought some trousers (which became his favorites) from Lands’ End.

With his wife reminding him regularly that these favorite trousers were wearing out, he decided to buy some new ones on his next trip. From his New York hotel, he telephoned Lands’ End and introduced himself to the cheery telephonist who welcomed him back to Lands’ End. A moment later, she asked him about his daughter, how she was doing and if she had graduated from college? Stunned, he asked how she knew about his daughter and she said that the last time he had called, he had mentioned that as the reason for his visit. What could she do to help him?

She asked how he liked the trousers he had bought before. He replied that if they still had them in stock, he’d order two more pair. “Can we ship them to the same hotel you stayed at last time? We can have them to you by tomorrow evening,” she said. Of course he purchased them and some other items and when he told me the story he said emphatically: “I’ll never buy trousers like these anywhere else. There are warm, friendly people who work there, not a telephone bullpen staffed by bored and underpaid, out-of-work actors. These people obviously enjoy talking to customers and seem in no hurry to get you off the phone and you don’t have to listen to endless menu options and punch in some numbers to get someone to talk to you.”

Perhaps that’s a rather long way around to introduce the “impossible tradeoff,” the obvious cost-saving of having an automated system interact with the customer up to or beyond the point where he or she either needs or demands to talk with a human being, vs. a totally human interface which may be less efficient in terms of costs, but is more likely to have customers become “advocates,” as my friend Roberto had. Can you imagine someone saying how happy they were only having to make four menu options instead of 10?

Banks and credit card companies seem to be in competition with mobile phone operators to win some prize for making it difficult to talk with anyone (and making you wait the longest time if you want to). Internet sellers are often even worse, hiding their telephone numbers in the most secluded nooks of their websites. The recent United Airlines disaster of dragging a passenger off of a flight to free up some oversold seats is a horrible example of how a focus on efficiency (in this case, maximum passenger loads created by intentional over-booking) can undermine customer loyalty. After that incident, it will take a long time before anyone is ever “loyal” to United again.

The ultimate question is one of relative value. And despite all of the big data in the world, there really is no way of gauging accurately the relative value of the tradeoff. How strongly the customer feels about the transaction must be an important if unquantifiable (soft) data point.

The bean-counters will assure you of the obvious saving; machines are, in the long run, cheaper than people. They work 24/7, they don’t demand raises and they don’t need pregnancy leave. Then they will argue that customers are better-served, get to speak to the right knowledgeable person faster than explaining their problem over and over again — or better, have it dealt with without human intervention. Not so for my friend Roberto, who will counter that his loyalty and the loyalty of many like-minded customers will more than make up for the savings in long-term revenue and insulation against “efficient” competition.

So where do you draw the bottom line?

It’s always a tradeoff compromise (the best solution or the worst). But I would opt for an automated answer which, first, thanked the caller for calling and second, offered a choice of:

  1. Immediately talking to a warm, friendly and knowledgeable human, or
  2. Hearing a short menu, which may speed you to the answer you are looking for.

Unfortunately, a “right” answer is impossible.

 

Endit …

When All Hell Breaks Loose

With automation comes risk. In the course of drafting, testing and deploying automated programs, many of us have suffered through the terrible realization our automation didn’t work exactly as expected. Do you send yet another email and risk alienating our clients further?

With automation comes risk. In the course of drafting, testing and deploying automated programs, many of us have suffered through the terrible realization our automation didn’t work exactly as expected.

After auto-sending many emails to clients in the span of a few hours, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma. Do you send yet another email and risk alienating our clients further? Do you stop all communication until the recipients have been given enough time to forget you spammed their inboxes? Do you remove them all from your list entirely? Do you respond to the dozens or hundreds of hate emails? Lastly, what do you do to salvage unsubscribes?

Many of my peers believe you should always apologize when you make a mistake in your automated program—be that a simple typo, an unfortunate parallel (when your marketing message inadvertently aligns with an unfavorable situation, e.g. “Retailer Apologizes For ‘Unfortunate Timing’ Of Isis Lingerie Line”), or, as in this instance, when your automated program goes haywire and sends your subscribers 37 emails in the span of 14.6 minutes (or something like that).

If this happens to you, remember to keep the gravity of the error in perspective. Panicking will not help you, but this checklist may.

  1. Evaluate the extent of the damage: For most errors of this type, you can get a feel for how angry your constituents are by reading the reply emails. As you do this, keep in mind not everyone feels the same way. Don’t let a vocal few represent the entire list, but do give these responses careful consideration and use them as a guide to gauge the overall impact. Take a look too at opens, clicks and unsubscribes. Though irritated, your list may have actually engaged with the content to an acceptable level and this should help you to decide next steps.
  2. Choose an appropriate response: With a clear understanding (and some best guesses) at the level of damage, think next about what you would say to these recipients. Don’t draft a response to the most annoyed and most vocal, deal with those persons individually and separately in more personal emails if the group is small enough to do so. Your response should instead target the group just below the most angry; those who are smoldering in silence. Pick up the phone and dial one or two of your best customers and ask how they felt about receiving three dozen emails and in what way could you best show your concern for the event and desire to lessen the impact. For best results, act quickly, be frank and forthright about what happened, do not make excuses, and do apologize.
  3. Choose a response method: You may learn sending another email would only worsen the situation, but everyone has likely been the recipient of more than just your wayward program. A simply apology with an offer designed especially for them may do the trick. If you’re not retail, perhaps a small gift card at a local coffee shop or Amazon.com (which typically has a very low redemption rate) might be in order. Find a vendor that charges you only for gift cards redeemed. If another email is not recommended, try reaching out through social media or direct mail. Admit your mistake, take it in the chops, and perhaps add in a bit of self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood as you extend the olive branch.
  4. Distill the analytics. Go beyond opens/clicks/unsubscribes and look at visits to the landing page, form completions and more. This is a golden opportunity to learn something, so don’t consider the entire event a disaster. Even tornadoes leave a trail useful for educating storm chasers about patterns and other types of data, which can influence prevention and protection.

You are not alone. Even software/hardware giant HP apparently experienced issues with its automated program and sent a few too many emails to subscribers. HP sent an email apology with oops in the subject line and title. As a side note, this is the subject line I receive most often, and for me it’s effective. Short and sweet, and though I don’t have statistics to support this, my guess is it elicits good open rates—even when tempered by the influence of the multiple emails preceding it.

If you choose to promote your oops in social media, know that some people who did not receive the multiple emails will also use the discount code, but that’s probably a good way to turn a bad situation into a redeemable fiasco. That’s not such an awful thing—is it?