More business management tools than ever … yet many small businesses stick with spreadsheets and other “outdated” processes.

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It seems like there’s never been more information – and technologically based solutions — available concerning marketing, sales and other business operations support than there is today.

Just go online, type in a few keywords, and watch how many hundreds – in some cases thousands – of web links pop up. And there’s a lot that’s really quite beneficial and instructive.

But even with such a smorgasbord of information – much of it available free of charge – it can actually be overwhelming for owners and managers of small businesses.

Maybe it’s “analysis paralysis.”  Or perhaps something more fundamental.

Typically, small business owners wear many hats inside their companies — a jack of all trades and master of maybe just one or two.

The same dynamics are at work in the field of customer information management as well. Last year, the Harris Poll surveyed a group of small business owners on their practices in this realm, and the results were published this past December by SalesForce Research in its 2016 Connected Small Business Report.

The results showed that small business owners continue to rely on outdated processes such as spreadsheets (or even paper-based systems) to store and track their customer information.

As for more modern (digital) tools like CRM and analytics, it isn’t happening much at all.

For starters, more than 80% of the companies surveyed by Harris reported that they do not have any dedicated IT staff – so it comes as no surprise that nearly three-fourths of company owners are the ones responsible for making their companies’ technology buying decisions.

Here’s what the survey found:

  • Small business owner typically makes technology buying decisions: ~72% of respondents
  • A co-owner or business partner: ~28%
  • Chief technology officer, chief information officer or head of IT: ~4%
  • An outside vendor: ~3%
  • Chief financial officer: ~2%

Note: Tally above exceeds 100% due to multiple mentions.

Where is the technology spend going? Hardware expenses are the most significant, with financial software second in importance:

  • Hardware: ~46% of respondents cite as the majority of their annual technology spend
  • Financial software (e.g., accounting/bookkeeping and bill payment): ~33%
  • Productivity software (e.g., Microsoft Office): ~26%
  • Internet hosting/ISP services: ~22%
  • POS/POP software: ~20%
  • Telecommunications/VoIP: ~15%

E-mail and spreadsheet tools continue to dominate in terms of customer information management, and quite a few of the companies surveyed are still working with paper-based systems:

  • E-mail tools (Outlook, Apple, Gmail contact, etc.): ~44%
  • Spreadsheets (Excel, etc.): ~41%
  • Written customer ledger: ~34%
  • Basic database (e.g., Access, Quickbase): ~29%
  • CRM system or app (housed within the business): ~20%
  • Other paper-based practices: ~15%
  • CRM system or app (cloud-based): ~12%

And when it comes to customer service, small businesses rely on three major practices:

  • Direct phone contacts with customers: ~51%
  • Direct e-mail communication with customers: ~47%
  • Social media interaction: ~32%

So on balance, it looks as though most small business aren’t really tapping into many of the “new tools” that could help them manage their businesses and their sales, marketing and customer retention programs better.

It may be a similar dynamic to what we see with small investors. Today there’s more investment information available than ever before – and it’s right at people’s fingertips, too.  Even so, often the result is … to do nothing.  Whatever the choices are, so many investors make no changes at all to their investment portfolio.

And just like there are financial planners to assist the timid investor, there are plenty of business consultants ready and willing to guide small business owners in ramping up their operations.

But that’s another entire discussion, of course.

To access a copy of the 2016 Connected Small Business Report, click here.

Antisocial behavior: Major retailers do much better broadcasting on social media than they do responding.

untitledWhen it comes to social media, it turns out that the major U.S. retail brands are a lot better at dishing it out than consuming it.

On the “dishing out” side of the ledger, these retailers have been posting an ever-increasing number of social messages aimed at their target audiences.

A recent report from Sprout Social Index titled Snubbed on Social shows just how much:  In the 3rd Quarter of 2014, the average number of messages deployed by the typical major retailer was around 150, but in the 3rd Quarter of 2015, the number had grown to in excess of 350.

But what happens when these retailers are on the receiving end of social messages? Sprout Social has determined that the typical retailer receives around 1,500 inbound social messages over a busy quarter (such as during the holiday season).

Of these, approximately 40% of the messages are ones that warrant a response.

But only about 1 in 6 – fewer than 20% of them — actually get one.

And those consumers who are fortunate enough to receive a response are waiting approximately 12 hours to get it. That’s up from ~11 hours a year earlier.

One interesting factoid from the Sprout Social reporting is that customer messages on Twitter tend to get a better response from brands.

But it’s the difference between merely poor (~14% on Twitter) and downright embarrassing (~9% on Facebook).

untitledScott Brandt, chief marketing officer at Sprout Social, states it succinctly: “More often than not, brands are silent when their customers reach out.”

What are the implications of this (non-)behavior?

For one thing, interacting with customers helps drive more interesting and more purchases.  Sprout reports that consumers are seven times more likely to respond to social promotions and other social news if they have had meaningful interaction with the brand.

Obviously, ignoring the social messages that come through isn’t the way to build that engagement.

One dynamic that appears to be at work is that brands continue to use social media as a vehicle for broadcast messaging, whereas many consumers view social platforms as the place for a more conversational, two-way level of engagement.

You know – just like social media is supposed to work.

But there are some seemingly intractable reasons why it’s difficult to put the “theory” of social interaction into “practice.”

For starters, there are so many ways for people to communicate with companies and brands today (versus only by letter, phone or in person not that many years ago), that too many businesses are either stretched to thin or simply don’t feel the need to respond urgently if at all.

Another issue is similarly personnel-related. For brands to respond better would mean hiring and training people who possess the authorization to actually do something about a question or concern.  Low-level staff with low wages and benefits and with no authority to resolve issues is a clear ticket to nowhere.

At the very least, putting a process in place that provides a quick response to all inquiries – even if the initial response is auto-generated – is just plain common sense. The value to the consumer of a response that comes within just a few minutes – even if the message was posted in the dead of night – is what makes consumers bond with a brand.  (Just having their existence validated is huge for some people.)

Contrast that to the other, more common experience of brands ignoring their consumers to death … and where people never forget which companies aren’t good at responding to their questions or concerns. Does anyone think that reputation doesn’t have a dampening effect on sales?

More information about the Spout Social Index can be found here.

Online customer care: Is retailer responsiveness going in opposite directions at once?

waiting for a responseAn interesting shift is happening in online customer care:  Response times are improving on social media while they’re getting worse in e-mail communications.

That’s what a new analysis by customer interactive software provider Eptica, as outlined in its 2015 Multichannel Customer Experience Study, is showing.

What Eptica has found is that retailers’ response times to answer customer queries posted on Twitter have improved dramatically in the past year.

Today, a customer query is being answered in an average time of a little over 4 hours.

That’s more than twice fast as in Eptica’s 2014 study, when the average response time clocked in at just over 13 hours.

In addition, the number of tweets successfully handled by retailers stands at around 43%, which is a full ten percentage points higher than what Eptica found in its 2014 study.

While more improvement is needed, the trend line is looking pretty good.  And it makes sense, since the “immediacy” of social media platforms is where many people believe a quick response should be forthcoming.

Crossing Lines

lines crossingBut while customer care response times via social media are improving, the opposite appears to be the case in e-mail customer service – and startlingly so.

Eptica’s evaluation shows that the average time it takes to respond to customer service queries submitted via e-mail is significantly longer than just a year ago.

Then, the average response time was ~36 hours.  Now, it’s nearly 44 hours – or nearly two days.

And while more e-mail customer service queries are successfully handled via e-mail when compared to tweets (~58% versus ~43%), that figure is worsening as well.  Last year, the percentage of e-queries successfully handled was ~63%.

More broadly, there continues to be a pretty significant disconnect between the “ideal” and the “reality” when it comes to online customer care and service.

Nearly all retailers provide an e-mail channel through which consumers may contact them.  But … less than three-fourths of them actually answer the e-mail messages they receive.  Moreover, the responses they provide – often automatically generated – don’t answer the customer’s question.

For a consumer with an issue or a concern, there’s little difference between getting no answer at all and receiving one that’s a “non-response response” in answer to a specific query.  Both seem to convey this message, “We don’t much care, because your issue just isn’t that important to us.”

Turning to social media, nearly 90% of major retailers have a presence on Twitter.  There, the “ignore” factor is even bigger than with e-mail:  ~45% don’t respond to their customers’ queries.

So while the social media figures certainly look better now than they did a year ago, it turns out there’s still a good ways needed to go.

Burgeoning social activity is no reason for retailers to take their foot off the gas pedal when it comes to supporting their customers via e-mail.  E-mail may not be the most exciting channel, but it’s the way millions of consumers prefer to communicate with retailers, companies and brands.  It’s counterproductive and foolish to diss them or treat them like second-class citizens.

In my own personal experience I’ve experienced the exact dynamics as described by Eptica at work – and I’m not afraid to name names.  TruGreen® Lawn Care did a stellar job of avoiding responding to my e-mail and phone queries … but it took less than two hours to get a response from someone at the firm after I posted a not-so-happy tweet about the company’s (lack of) responsiveness.

For me, the “public shaming” aspects of Twitter turned out to be far more of a squeaky wheel than the “private pleading” of an e-mail or phone message.

Do you have personal anecdotes of your own about the dynamics of online customer care?  Please share your thoughts and experiences with other readers here.

Airlines Continue to Struggle with Customer Relations

Virgin America AirlinerI’ve blogged before on commercial airlines and their penchant for treating customers in a careless fashion. Everyone understands that the air travel industry is a challenging business – and a far cry from the halcyon days of yesteryear when traveling by air was an enjoyably memorable experience. Sure, tickets were pricey. But crowds were few, the atmosphere pleasant, and people felt pampered and special.

Now, commercial airline travel is more like a trip on an overcrowded city bus or, worse yet, being in the middle of a cattle call.

On top of this, it seems that airlines are their own worst enemies when it comes to customer service.

Take Virgin America, for example. It’s only the most recent example of airline customer relations that are essentially in the toilet. Recently when the airline changed over to the Sabre reservation system – no doubt to save money as much as for any reasons pertaining to improved operational accuracy – it did so in a way that left consumer satisfaction completely out of the mix.

When the switch was flipped over to the new Sabre system, many customers couldn’t access the website … and many of those who did were provided wrong boarding passes or other inaccurate information.

Even the airline’s own crew members were given incorrect information about when to show up for work.

Billing procedures? They were equally compromised. Some customers found themselves being invoiced multiple times for the same flight; the most egregious example was one woman who ended up with nine separate charges for the same flight.

The phone system was totally overwhelmed, as would be understandable. With the crush of customers attempting to call the airline to work out scheduling snafus, people found themselves being placed on hold for hours at a time – then mysteriously cut off.

Wouldn’t interfacing with customers be a situation tailor-made for harnessing the power of social media? In the abstract, yes. But in the case of Virgin America, they bombed on this score as badly as everything else.

To begin with, the company’s PR posture was that customers were experiencing only minimal problems with a “smooth transition” to the Sabre reservation system. But consumers were telling a completely different story on Twitter and Facebook.

When things like this occur, smart companies monitor social media platforms diligently and jump in to respond to individual and group concerns immediately. They understand that a disgruntled customer can be turned into a brand evangelist if “service recovery” is done effectively.

Doing this well means two fundamental things:

 Validating customers’ concerns by acknowledging that the problem exists, and taking responsibility.

 Providing real relief. Refunds, discounts, rewards, additional air miles – it’s all part of the arsenal of offerings that Virgin America could use to “turn lemons into lemonade.”

It’s wise to take social media seriously. That means assigning people with brains and a sincere interest in customer care to take charge of social media, and also giving them the authority to respond with honesty, integrity and empathy.

From the looks of things, it appears Virgin America did it all wrong. It quickly became apparent that the true details of the Sabre conversion were at major odds with the “happy face” posture and the company’s claims.

But what happened to customers who voiced their real concerns via social media? They found their posts being deleted. Failing to address customer complaints, while dissing them by kicking them off your Facebook page: How is that a recipe for success?

Consumer research tells us again and again that when companies lose customers, it’s because of what happens “on the ground.” Like Virgin American, they may spend millions on advertising, but those ad dollars are often better spent to improve customers’ personal experience.

Satmetrix, a San Mateo, CA customer experience research and software company, found recently that consumers stop doing business with a company for a variety of reasons … but product or service quality concerns represent a distinct minority of the cases:

 Rudeness or dishonesty: ~34% cited for stopping relationship
 Unexpected charges or fees: ~20%
 Product or service quality: ~20%
 Unfavorable return or refund policies: ~3%

But back to Virgin American. When the airline was first announcing its shift to the Sabre reservation system, it came up with a catchy, irreverent tagline: We’re shaping up our back end. How ironic does that all-too-cute messaging sound now?

Credit Card Reward Programs: Cut to the Chase

Chase Card Services has just announced the introduction of a new credit card rewards program. Dubbed Chase Sapphire, it’s aimed at the top 15% income-earning households in the U.S. The program offers the usual premium travel services, a variety of reward-level awards, reward points that never expire, a 24-hour access to a dedicated customer service team, and other perks.

What is Chase Card Services up to, introducing a new rewards program at this particular time? It seems like Sapphire Rewards is destined to deliver only mediocre results at best in the current toxic consumer environment.

But Chase is pressing forward, undaunted. In fact, it’s offering two program levels, including a “preferred” level that offers a bevy of additional goodies such as the ability to transfer reward points to various airline and hotel programs, free bonus points for high spenders, enhanced identity protection and so forth – all for a “low” added fee of $95 per year (waived the first year).

It all sounds so ordinary. But just as you might be thinking that this new rewards program has all the pizzazz of a cold mashed potato sandwich, look more closely. There’s something actually pretty unique being offered among the grab-bag of benefits.

What could be the best benefit of all is the 24-hour dedicated customer service team that comes along with the Sapphire program. What does this mean for customers? To quote the Chase press release, when a cardholder calls in, “a specially trained advisor picks up the phone – with no need to navigate a voice-response system.”

Well, well!

Maybe, just maybe, Chase has conducted focus groups and discovered how wildly unpopular telephone trees are with consumers. Those obnoxious trees may be the single most irritating aspect of customer account service.

Phone trees transform what would normally be a short, simple phone contact into a marathon event. Moreover, often the myriad account information, social security numbers, phone numbers or other data that have been so painstakingly voice e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-e-d or punched into the phone keypad never make it to the customer rep who finally does come on the line … and who then proceeds to ask for the same information all over again.

And here’s another black mark: How many consumers end up having to yell into the telephone in order for the voice recognition system to do what it’s actually supposed to do – correctly recognize what the person is saying? It’s no wonder the decibel level of many phone calls escalates from “normal” to “screaming” within the span of mere seconds.

Seeing as how Chase is targeting only affluent households with its new Sapphire Rewards program, perhaps they’re willing to spend a few extra dollars on “real live” customer service, figuring the ROI will work itself out with this customer segment.

Certainly, for beleaguered consumers who are tired of doing battle with the annoying phone trees, the prospect of interacting with real customer service people must seem like nirvana.

Here’s an idea. Why don’t the folks at Chase Card Services try scrapping all of the reward benefits associated with the Sapphire program and leave just the 24/7 live customer service feature in place? And then use the savings to extend that courtesy to the rest of the Chase credit card customer base. That would be novel, wouldn’t it?

Besides, they might actually gain more customer loyalty in the bargain.