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For a major Canadian gas retailer, the idea was fairly progressive: Invite customers to post their comments, testimonials and suggestions on an area of the Web site expressly built for that purpose. By opening up a portal for its customers, the company hoped some fresh ideas might surface.

Using commercial feedback software, the company began to receive a steady stream of valuable stories from customers about their experiences—good and bad—at its network of retail service stations. The information flowed back to the marketing department, which had sponsored the initiative. And then the inevitable happened: There was turnover in the marketing group. The program champion was replaced by someone who preferred to spend marketing dollars in a more conventional way.

After the feedback interface had been deactivated, the company put up the following bulletin in its place: "We pride ourselves on our ability to provide timely, accurate and honest information to customers. While (this dialogue portal) has been a useful outlet for customer questions in the past, we can no longer provide the levels of service that our customers have come to expect."

Sending out mixed signals to customers is an all too common practice at a lot of companies. Often those companies proclaim "The Customer is King" or "Our Customers are No.1"—and then turn around and treat their customers more like feudal serfs than royalty. As CRM expert Frederick Reicheld (coauthor of The Loyalty Effect) once pointed out, "Most companies give the best bargains to the lousiest customers, and then they sort of abuse their loyal customers, which of course leads to fewer and fewer customers thinking they should be loyal."

Most companies view customer service as an obligation rather than an opportunity to set themselves apart. This unwillingness to accept change explains why so many CRM projects fail. Tired of all talk and no action, customers grow progressively alienated, until they eventually lose hope and switch suppliers.

Lip Service

A Forrester Research survey last year of major firms found that responsibility for customer management is usually given to either the marketing group or customer service; just one-quarter have bothered to set up a dedicated business unit.

"In a typical Global 2,500 company," Forrester reports, "no one has responsibility for the customer experience delivered across interaction channels."

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Stephen Shaw is vice-president of strategic services with The Kenna Group, a full-service customer relationship management company. He can be reached at 905-361-4046 or via email: sshaw@thekennagroup.com.