OPINION

Customers Are Redefining What Intimacy Means

It’s good to question assumptions about your customer base from time to time and test them just to make sure they are still accurate. One of the strongest lessons learned from the Internet is just how much many manufacturers don’t know about our own channels, customers, pricing, and products. The Internet’s immediate ability to deliver feedback is showing many assumptions about nearly every customer-facing aspect of a business to be incomplete at best.

Quit Ignoring Independent Content

The many forms of independent content spawned by the Internet need to be mined for the true voice of your customers. These independent forms of content include the following:

  • Blogs
  • Calls to customer support centers
  • Message boards
  • Traditional voice of the customer programs including e-mail traffic and aggregating customer service e-mails
  • USENET
  • Web sites
  • Wiki and interactive presence efforts mostly by B2C companies

You’ll find a love/hate relationship between your customers and your company you may have never known of before. Anchoring the one extreme are the raving fans — those that just can’t say enough good about your products — like Apple iPod owners for example who create their own podcasts of how to get more out of their iPods. That’s love.

More often than not it’s to tell the world how angry they are. Consider the impact Jeff Jarvis has made on Dell’s policies on blogging. He’s been successful in getting Dell to at least pay attention to blogs now — quite a change from earlier in the summer when he was ignored. Shankar Gupta’s summary on the policy change details the importance of listening to the customer.

Even Small Problems Percolate Up

In the Dell situation, you see the classic disconnect between what a company wants to believe is excellent customer service on the one hand, and what the customer’s expectations were in the first place. Notice in Gupta’s article, Dell mentions they have built “two new call centers,” yet the irony is that those centers will most likely be staffed with employees incented not on customer satisfaction but on efficiency. What emerges from the Dell fiasco are the following lessons learned:

  • Despite how wise any company thinks it is, ignoring independent content can make you look like an idiot. The immediacy and open speech of each of these forms of independent content taught Dell just how much they really didn’t know about customer service. Only after Jarvis’ rants did anything change.
  • Incenting mediocre service for the sake of driving up efficiency. Dell responds back that two call centers are in the works — great. But what about how the people are being incented in those call centers? Too often CRM systems in general and call center reps specifically get praise for turning a high number of calls. Incenting mediocrity is the byproduct of going purely after call throughput.
  • A little dissatisfaction goes a long way. On August 16th, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) released their Second Quarter Scores. The ASCI has been around since 1994 and is produced by the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross Business School, the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the consulting firm CFI Group. The index tracks 10 economic sectors, 41 industries, and more than 200 companies, federal and government agencies. In their latest scorecard for Manufacturing/Durable Goods and E-Business, Dell has the largest percentage decline of all PC manufacturers from the previous year, coming in with a 6.3 percent drop.
  • Traditional measures of customer satisfaction aren’t picking this data up. Dell’s responses signal that their traditional forms of hearing from customers didn’t pick up the Jarvis post — amazing given the fact it was so heavily linked to. Clearly unstructured content was completely under Dell’s view of their customers.
  • Lag time on independent content has dramatically shortened in 9 years. Going back to the Intel Pentium Pro math bug of 1997 and its first mention in a USENET group to Intel’s eventual response, the timeline was over sixty days. New forms of independent content change companies much faster than that today — measured in days rather than weeks.

Meeting The Customer You Never Knew

Unstructured content is where the real voice of your customer is. The trouble is that content management systems can’t analyze this data, and CRM systems see it as record-entry fodder for the most part. Exacerbating all this is the fact that Google’s approach to indexing the web, an approach called Latent Semantic Indexing, actually strengthens the associations in blogs and other forms of independent content. It’s as if the search engine optimization routines are taking the small ripples of customer feedback and comments and turning them into waves of opinion.

It’s time for many manufacturers, especially those that serve consumers directly and rely on indirect channels to reach them, to start paying attention to what’s going on in this area. Vendors in this area include Attensity which is a company to definitely watch in this area. Fortune Magazine considers Attensity as one of the 25 breakout companies to watch this year.

Cymfony’s ability to quantify trends in independent content through linguistic modeling is also proving itself in providing early warning to its clients of what customers are saying. I spoke with Jeffrey Feldman, Manager of Consulting and Strategic Service at Cymfony. His insights surrounding independent content are reflected in this column.

There are several other vendors capable of analyzing unstructured content. Since the column “Blog Mining Gets Real”, Microsoft has made advances in its Natural Language Processing research which can be viewed from their Web site. Likewise, IBM’s work in this area shows progress since June. Another interesting development is within SAP and their approach to providing NetWeaver Search and Classification with Knowledge Management.

Bottom line: To ignore independent content is to ignore your customers. It’s critical to start looking at unstructured content to manage relationships now. Customers are redefining what intimacy is.


Louis Columbus, a CRM Buyer columnist, is a former senior analyst with AMR Research. He recently completed the book Getting Results from Your Analyst Relations Strategies, which is available on Amazon.com.


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