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.