Experience is in the eye of the beholder

Posted: August 11, 2010 in CRM
Tags: , , ,

Last week in New York, I began some field research in social CRM that will result in a longer paper later this fall. One of the things that interested me was the level of frustration and, well, anger that some customers have for some of their vendors.

It’s a mixed bag, really — some people take great umbrage at Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), others at a social networking site, and still others target their ire at oil companies, their colleges or even retailers.

In my research, there isn’t a single industry — or vendor, for that matter — that doesn’t have a group of antagonists.

This should surprise no one, but in the age of the Internet, some people might stew in their own juices over a problem or slight — either real or imagined — that happened just yesterday or one that goes back several years, but many others take action by airing their gripes online. If this is the age of transparency, it is not simply about vendor transparency — customers have a lot to say on the idea and they do.

Everyone Has Their Enemies

For part of my research, I relied on the highly subjective and unscientific international expression of annoyance and resistance to corporate affronts — I searched on the phrase “[insert name here, please] sucks.” Dear reader, I understand your delicate sensibilities, and I assure you that my interest in this research and the use of this mild form of profanity is not at all prurient — it is used in the furtherance of science. Think of me like a doctor or a photographer for National Geographic.

My reasons for beginning this quest are not germane to this piece but will be explained in the paper. Nonetheless, the more I searched, the more I realized that any company you can think of that serves the mass market has its detractors. These detractors have reached a personal level for frustration or loathing sufficient to cause them to invest many hours of their time to initiate Web sites and blogs to drive their points home and to invite others to likewise vent their frustrations.

In all but the smallest number of cases, searching on “___ sucks” brought to the screen not thousands or tens of thousands of hits but hundreds of thousands, and in many cases millions of them.

Dissatisfaction on 2 Levels

Here’s where it gets interesting. It is no surprise that some people have problems with corporations that supply them with life’s necessities. I can’t say that I have read or analyzed more than a small speck of the rants online, but after spending several hours with these for a, I feel safe in stating this preliminary conclusion: People are less dissatisfied over products or services than you might think. They are much more likely to have problems with their customer experiences.

But saying the customer experience is an issue really understates the point, which is that it appears there are at least two levels of customer experience to contend with. Moreover, it is the second level that gives many corporations agita, or at least it should.

The two levels? Thought you’d never ask.

Level One is the customer experience that the company knows about and in many cases designs around.

Level Two is the customer experience expectation that has developed in the customer’s head.

A company may not even be aware of Level Two — how could it be? It’s completely subjective. But level two is where companies falter, often badly, because of the impressions they have unwittingly encouraged to take form in their customers’ crania. More on Level Two shortly.

A simple example is all we have room for here, so it will have to suffice until the paper is ready. Note there are loads of variables in this data that are unaccounted for, and controlling for them will probably inform the work of thesis writers for the next generation. You are welcome.

Starbucks is the example. Searching on “Starbucks sucks” brought back 335,000 hits in 0.15 seconds — the number of hits seems large but broader research proves it to be middling at best. If you want some really scary numbers, try “BP Sucks” — about 2,510,000 results (0.38 seconds), according to Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), or “Facebook sucks,” clocking in at a whopping 24,300,000 results (0.19 seconds).

Case in Point: Starbucks

Reading the posts on these sites provides a clear understanding of Level Two. To be sure, there are Level One critiques of products and services — the absence of non-dairy creamer or the extra charge for soy in espresso drinks, for example. But extensive reading shows that many more of the complaints deal with Level Two and aspirations.

For instance, the reason many people patronize Starbucks’ shops is the vibe. People want to associate with Starbucks because it reflects the image they have of themselves in a Gatsby-esque way — it shows how they want to see themselves on their best hair days. They seem to see themselves as kind, ethical, caring and nurturing people.

So when Starbucks has a disagreement with African coffee growers over trademarks and the price of raw beans, people complain. They also complain about the wages and low level of tipping for the baristas and they are happy to supply reports from Oxfam on the African situation and information about a successful lawsuit over tips in Los Angeles by baristas against the chain. Two sides play this game — consider the Starbucks water brand “Ethos.”

These and many other examples of Level Two failures point out the downside of living by the customer experience. It seems to me that many large companies have taken the approach of doing their best on Level One customer experience and of working to ensure that Level Two never gets totally out of control, a la BP (NYSE: BP).

What can a company do about it? Plenty, as it turns out, but it requires a different kind of thinking and another column. Next week, part two of this piece on how to approach the Level Two customer experience.

Comments
  1. vargasl says:

    I am eager to see part two of this post and the research paper. Do you think level two experience is created because of the ambiguity of level one expectations? What I have noticed is organizations design level one expectations/response based upon how they, as a company, see reality instead of addressing the views and intent of the community they serve. An organization has the ability to be aware of level two, but does not want to invest in the time it takes to glean those actionable insights.

    Lauren Vargas
    Sr. Community Manager at Radian6
    @VargasL

    • Denis Pombriant says:

      I think that’s right to a degree. Vendors can design an experience but that design usually only goes as far as the impressions they wish to plant firmly in customers’ minds. Vendors can’t know everything about what goes on in their customer’s heads but they certainly can make logical assumptions about conclusions that are likely to be drawn by them. Using communities to ask open ended questions of customers can elicit a great deal of information concerning attitude, likes, biases and similar things that go into building Level Two expectations. Not knowing what impressions they may be leaving behind is no excuse for a vendor. If a vendor decides to live by the customer experience, the vendor also elects to die that way if things sour.

So, what did you think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s