June 2018 | Digital8

Not Growing and Don’t Know Why? It’s Probably Bad Customer Experience

In the last article on making social media work in the agency model I mentioned that I believe customer experience is the most important thing for an agency to get right if they intend to grow. Some thought the point stood out so I thought it would be a good idea to go into more detail about what I meant by that exactly.

Why is it So Important for Agencies in Particular?

In fairness the comment holds true even if you take out the word agency. For any customer centric business or organisation in 2018 customer experience should be a major concern. Technology has allowed businesses to become more user friendly to the point where now people expect ease of use in everything they do. Anecdotally it seems to me like the major side effect of this is people are becoming less willing to accept dealing with businesses or organisations that provide difficult or frustrating customer experiences. Unless they have no other choice (read: Centrelink and other government systems) I see more and more people choosing to use service providers that offer extreme ease of use, sometimes even while paying a premium for it.

I do think that it’s even more important for agencies than in many other business models. Agency based businesses are by definition offering their people as a commodity. I would take systems over people every time when it comes to ensuring customer experience because you can program them to be consistent. People are inconsistent. One day they may be a superstar and delight the customer and the next day they might have been lamenting the fact that Brooklyn Nine Nine was cancelled and having such a bad day that they napalm everything around them and ruin a key client account (fortunately B99 was picked up by NBC otherwise what else is there left to really live for?).

Why is it that agencies get hired by companies or people in the first place? Aside from when it is something that they literally cannot do (most people can’t single handedly program a full scale SAAS framework in PHP for example) customers are largely paying us to do something they cannot be bothered to do. Either they cannot be bothered to learn to do it, cannot be bothered to hire and manage someone else to do it or do not have the time to do. It is a time and resources thing in most cases. So you don’t want to make it frustrating or unenjoyable. They are only doing it to make their life easier. So don’t be the agency that makes them regret having paid you money.

So What Do Agencies Do Wrong?

The main issue stems from being short sighted. The desire to hit KPIs and keep expenditure in check stifles their growth. Sometimes you have to sacrifice revenue or profit to create a positive customer experience. You might need to let a project that was poorly quoted go over budget (as long as you use that learning curve to quote better next time and you have enough profit to cover the loss without having to take out a bank loan or retrench people). You may need to invest in new software or systems to improve efficiencies. What CRM (customer relationship management) software does your agency use? Do you even have one? Is your spreadsheet effective?). What about your website? Is it easy to use? Have you updated it since 2015? How do your customers lodge support tickets? Do you gather feedback after delivery to reflect on how you can improve? Cheaping out on this stuff might help you save some dollars this month but it stifles your growth. Fixing these things is like giving the fire more oxygen. The fire being growth. Write down all the touchpoints your clients have with you and ask yourself, is it effective? If the answer is no get to work. If you actually can’t invest in this then you have to step up where you can. Dazzle your clients in whatever way you can and they will be happy to keep paying you and eventually you can invest in ironing out the costly issues one by one. Make a 12 month plan for it.

Tips from Someone Who Has Stuffed Up Before

In 2018 customer experience has been the primary focus at Digital8. We have spent countless hours, and made dozens of mistakes in trying to find the right way to handle it. There are a few key messages that have really helped us out.

  • Customer experience starts before they contact you. If you can’t be found you can’t be experienced, but once found you have a short amount of time to get that conversion. Your marketing needs to encourage people to find out more in an easily accessible place that makes conversion a breeze and says everything the client needs to hear while they are going through the motions. You might only get one great lead a year and if that person is the type to just say “nope” when they encounter one broken link you can kiss it goodbye. It has to be a fabulous experience before they enquire. Do not downplay the value of user experience design. I find web design agencies often have bad websites. It’s a running joke in the industry I think.
  • Put all the cards on the table at the start. We have a process whereby we explain to clients at the start of the project how they can help to make the project a success and things they can do to make the project fail. So they know. We tell them every way that their project can fail and show them what a good project looks like as it’s progressing. We tell them what will happen up front if they do things that we outline as likely to cause project failure and stand by it. Customer experience isn’t just about keeping the client happy because a lot of the time temporary happiness only ends up causing a bigger issue later.
  • Document everything but don’t point at fine print later and tell the client to suck it up. It’s important to document communication effective and transparently. Make note of when you have delivered important communications, when clients have made certain requests. Be fastidious about this. Don’t beat clients over the head with some offhand remark they made (who likes having that done to them) but if a client has to tell you something twice, you lose some information they definitely gave you or you forget that you told a client something, they will lose faith in you straight away.
  • Be honest about problems and failings as soon as you realise they are there. Some clients are more tolerant of this than others, but no clients at all are tolerant of having problems hid from them until the eleventh hour. You have to remember that your customer is almost always going to have some other stakeholders to report to. They are the project manager on their side of the table. They might be launch planning, reporting to their boss or even just their partner and they don’t want a fool to be made of them. Remember they only used you in the first place because they thought it would be easier. Don’t make their life difficult by putting them in a situation they can’t find a resolution to. The worst thing you can do is wait until the deadline to tell a client that it’s not getting hit.
  • Don’t underquote on purpose to win jobs. This seems counterintuitive but it has a strategic benefit to customer experience. If you underquote and then the project hits max budget (or you underquoted a retainer and then you win more work that is full clip), the momentum of the project is often stifled. Our agency can ill afford to go over budget on projects and I suspect that it’s the same for others. If you ask an agency to choose between delivering a project, putting the business continuity at risk and risking having to lay off staff or stopping the project completely the choice is pretty easy. What I have seen in the past is projects then go into a pattern of underdelivery. Timelines get thrown out the window. Work is done at a much slower pace because the team has to work on other projects that have budget that can cover their seats and the client relationship deteriorates dramatically. Agencies think clients can’t tell what’s happening and that it’s better to just drag it out. It’s not. In my experience it’s better to own up to it when it does happen and ask them for more budget. As long as it was an honest underquote and you’ve done your damndest to deliver most clients will accept it. Or they won’t and you end up at QCAT. This is unlikely as long as you had been delivering great customer experience up to that point though.
  • The deadline is the most important thing unless explicitly mentioned otherwise. If you say you will have something delivered by a certain date, whether it’s a website, marketing plan or even having their house listed on realestate.com.au (for all the real estate agents out there), your client will go ahead and tell everyone else involved, develop their plans around what you said and expect it to happen. This becomes the rolled up newspaper they use to whack you on the nose with. So this is the thing you need to treat like gold. We have been trying to work our systems around ensuring that the initial timeframe we give clients is the worst case scenario. Our team know that it’s the most important thing for them to consider.
  • Good customer experience is more than just being agreeable. You have to be a hard bastard sometimes. Picking up the phone and telling them that their project deadline is going to be missed because of a stuff up is hard but it’s necessary.

While most of the aforementioned is relevant to us I hope there are some pearls of wisdom in there that you can carry into your business.

So What Happens When a Customer Has a Bad Experience?

Best case scenario they lose a little faith in you and keep going. Worst case scenario they tell everyone they know that you’re incompetent, they take you to court for a refund and are awarded damages on top, your staff all become jaded by the client being hard on them all the time and go work for your rival, you lose your business and any source of income, your partner leaves you, your kids grow to resent you as you become a wino and are left lamenting what could have been while sweeping floors in a diner on the outskirts of town. You coulda been somebody!

Okay so that was a hectic worst case scenario and no I have not seen that happen. Obviously there is no single answer here. What one customer doesn’t find a big deal another customer could find a total deal breaker, so it’s important to know your customers. It’s more important though to minimise points of friction in your customer touchpoints at a higher level to reduce negative customer experience in general. Nobody is perfect and if there are companies out there that have zero negative customer experience situations please notify me at once so that I can study them. It’s just about getting that number as low as possible in my opinion.

In the interest of scaring you into action though think about it like this. It’s bad enough to lose one ideal customer to a preventable negative customer experience. Think about the cost of selling to them in the first place. Think about the cost of the marketing that went into it, the time, the salesperson’s cut or your cut, the future lost revenue that would have brought in. The loss of a great client to tell other clients about. Then think about how many times that person is asked for a referral? Or how many times they would have been had they loved their product or service so much that they talked about it at their weekly games night but now won’t even talk about it because they are so disappointed. Think about who their friends might be? It doesn’t take much vision to see the damage done.

Now think about what happens if they hate the experience so much they post about it on social media. Or post a review about you on Google or another website that people can review service on. Reviews are killers. You have to hope nobody sees them or they see them after someone they trust even more gave them a positive referral. They are stone cold agency killers and the worst thing is you cannot even come close to measuring the negative impact of them. So just avoid them at all costs.

In this inc.com article they claim that 84 percent of people trust online reviews as much as friends. Ouch.

If I can summarise it in one paragraph it would be “if a client only hires you in the first place to make their life easier, why would anyone hire you if you made someone else’s life harder?” I do believe most of the time they would just immediately start looking at the next agency.

Making Social Media Work Properly for Agencies

Social media as a service is something many digital agencies try to offer but rarely if ever have I seen them get it right.

When a company hires an agency to execute marketing work they usually demand reporting on how the results affect the bottom line. Digital marketing tactics like SEO and SEM work well for this as you are able to draw clear lines between the efforts and the results and prove your value. Google Adwords and Google Analytics offer a lot of solutions for this out of the box. Social media, particularly the ongoing day to day management of it, is harder to accomplish direct ROI (return on investment) for. It is also much harder to commoditise effectively and it is much harder to sell to people because of this.

The benefits of social media are more subtle and reap longer term results. Social media is the most effective medium for creating brand impressions and brand trust, which is far more important for long term growth and sustainability for your business than getting enough leads this month to cover the costs of your marketing.

I believe that customer experience is the most important thing for an agency to get right if they intend to grow. Client churn is an absolute killer and so is negative word of mouth. Delivering ineffective services creates negative customer experience which inhibits growth. In the past I have shied away from offering social media management as a service because I’ve just not figured out a way to do it effectively.

What Is Social Media Management Exactly?

Good social media management is comprised of several smaller components, all of which have their own set of skills and their own responsibilities.

There is the content production side, where the aim is to create engaging and provocative content that encourages the user to comment on it, share it and like it. This requires a creative thinker and that person has to have the technical ability to produce multimedia content if they are to do it effectively.

There is the customer service side. Prospective and existing customers use social media more and more to contact and connect with the businesses that they want to use. It is important that customer service based businesses understand that clients want to be able to use platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to engage when they need resolutions or their queries answered and that there is a lot of benefit to encouraging them to do so.

There is the pay per click advertising side. Social media makes money because of this. It is the most important piece of all. It is an extremely effective way to deliver your message to customers that fit your ideal profiles and as a result to acquiring new business. This is analytics, numerical but also still requires the creation of good content, perhaps videos and graphics but at the very least good written content.

Then there is the strategy side. Understanding how to stitch it together, and whether social media is an effective tool for your brand is a skill of its own. Who is your ideal customer? If you can’t determine that then you are in the dark. What is the ideal message to deliver to sell your product? A good strategist will determine this and build campaigns around it, that you then use social media as a channel to deliver the campaign through, often in addition to other channels but occasionally on it’s own.

Who is a Social Media Marketer?

There are “unicorns” amongst us who are good strategists, can make great content, know how to run effective PPC campaigns and are amazing customer service people but they are about as rare as hen’s teeth. To deliver social media effectively almost always requires multiple people in a team operating from the guidance of a strategist.

The job title of “Social Media Marketer” is somewhat of a misnomer. A PPC specialist should know how to run Facebook campaigns in their sleep with minimal learning. The metrics of measurement are all very similar. A content producer who is used to developing content for blogs, newsletters and other channels will be able to create good content for social too. A salesperson or customer service person can handle enquiries. So why do you even need social media specifically? The answer is you probably don’t. It’s just another tool, another channel. What you need is someone to tell you whether it’s right for you and explain to you how to make it work. What you need is a good strategist. Social media is so versatile that it’s almost surely going to be effective for you in some way and a good strategist will find a way.

The strategy component in social media is the most valuable part of it and where an agency can offer the most value to a client. It is also usually the part that nobody in the client’s organisation can get right, by either having nobody who specialises or nobody who has time to really think about it. Often they will already have people capable of creating content (designers, copywriters), managing campaigns (performance marketers, Adwords experts, even SEOs can easily cross into this field) and handling customer and community engagement (sales, customer service staff, even receptionists can pick up the slack here). A little bit of training and some engagement with the people in charge of the implementation to get them engaged in and aware of the strategy is necessary but implementation wherever possible should be left up to the organisation, as paying for the full scope of the work (you probably need to be around the clock in many cases) is generally just not cost effective for any business to pay for at agency rate unless they have extremely large profit margins.

Bringing It Together

Agencies who can get the implementation part right will be onto a massive winner. I intend to road test offering social media execution (the day to day, posting and replying to people etc.) at a much lower cost and training less experienced individuals to manage it with very small margins and instead creating the value proposition around strategy, management of campaigns and design of content to support the campaigns. I feel like this is the best way to make social media work in this context.

So Is It Really Worth It?

Tackling social media marketing in a business can be overwhelming but it is an opportunity that if you are willing to put the time and resources into will reap great long term and sustainable benefits. The reason businesses like KFC are still in business today has nothing to do with the quality of the food (it is terrible compared to independent eateries) and has everything to do with the power of the brand itself. KFC is so powerful that they can influence society at scale to desire their food despite it’s subpar quality. That is the power of branding. Social media is a gateway for getting your brand in front of your exact priority market, saying the things you want your brand saying. Patience and pragmatism around the results will pay dividends in the long run.