In my blog post last week, I described the difficulties I had starting an 8-week trial digital subscription to a newspaper. I explained why I had to call customer support seven times for a total of close to two hours on the phone and write to a VP of Customer Service to correct an erroneous double billing. There are some lessons to be learned so I’ll offer my suggestions as to what would have made this a more positive customer experience.
 
Be clear. When giving customer choices, be very clear about what is included in each option so they can make an informed decision the first time and won’t have to try to change it later. In this case, it was not obvious they offered a free reader that would only work with some levels of access.
 
Speak with one voice. If possible, inform everyone that communicates with customers about all special offers and programs so they can speak knowledgably and confidently. It undermines the credibility of the company when one of its representatives is surprised by an offer they know nothing about. The customer expects the customer service agent to be representing the whole company and to know what offers are available.
 
Offer one-stop shopping. Empower customer service agents to offer all specials, not just some of them. As a potential subscriber, I expect the company to make it easy for me to do business with them. I shouldn’t have to search around the company for the best deal. 
 
Empower your representatives. Customer service agents should be given the authority to correct small and obvious problems on the spot. In my case, I had been double billed for a single subscription. Instead of hiding behind a feeble “it’s not our policy to offer refunds on trial subscriptions”, I would have been favorably impressed with an instant credit and an apology. The few pennies the company saves by maintaining tight control over what their agents are allowed to approve is minor compared to the loss of good from inflexibility.
 
Fix problems the first time. It took me four calls to four different customer service agents to uncover the fact that the shared subscription I tried to set up hadn’t been confirmed by the recipient. First, the computer system should have made this problem obvious and second, it should have been one of the first things the agent checked when troubleshooting a subscription that wasn’t working. On-going training and the sharing of the most common problems should be available to all customer service agents dealing with customers.
 
As a customer evaluating a potential relationship with a company, I expect clear information, well-informed and empowered representatives that can offer me all the options and when there’s a problem, diagnose and resolve the issues quickly. Of course, the quality of the product is a major factor but you can see from this example, the poor treatment overshadowed a good product.
 
Does your company put as much effort into ensuring a positive set of customer experiences as you do in developing a quality
product?
 
 
If you extend a short-term introductory offer to encourage prospects to become regular customers, both the product and the service should be exceptional. Here’s a personal experience where the product was great but the service left much to be desired. This week I’ll describe my treatment as a customer. Next week I’ll offer some recommendations on what would have made it a higher value set of experiences.
 
I received a promotional email from a well-known newspaper offering a huge discount on an 8-week trial digital subscription. Having a positive impression of the paper, I thought I’d try it. The trial price was the same for all three levels of access; computer + mobile, computer + tablet, or all access. Since I don’t have a tablet, I opted for the first choice. Later I learned a
specially formatted reader that runs on laptops requires one of the options that support the tablet. No problem I thought, I’ll just call Customer Support and have them change my trial subscription to the all access. This shouldn’t be a problem because the trial price was the same for all options.
 
This is when it became a little challenging. The Customer Service Rep listened to my situation and agreed to switch my trial subscription from computer + mobile to all access. This was quick and easy. Only when I reviewed the confirming e-mail did I notice that the trial period was now 4 weeks, not the previous 8 weeks. So I called Customer Support back.
 
After over half an hour explaining the circumstances and checking with her supervisor, I was told they were not aware of any 8-week trial offer and could only offer me the 4-week period. When I politely explained I didn’t want the trial period to be cut in half just because they weren’t aware of it, she suggested I cancel the current 4-week all access subscription and resubscribe
for the 8-week all access subscription using the link from the initial email. She assured me I would not get billed for two subscriptions. Guess what happened?
 
When I received my credit card statement, there were two charges; one for the 8-week all access trial and one for the 4-week all access trial. I called Customer Support for assistance in correcting the erroneous billing. I was politely informed it was against their policy to offer refunds on trial subscriptions so there was nothing they could do. My calm, logical explanation that this was not a refund but correcting a double-billing had no impact. So I wrote the VP of Customer Service politely explaining the situation. I received a prompt reply with an apology and a credit for the second charge that should have been cancelled.
 
A few days later, I learned I could share my all access subscription with a relative. I entered the necessary information on my account page and discovered after a reasonable amount of time the connection was not working. On my first call to Customer Service, I was told their computer system was down and they couldn’t help me. The next day, my second call was met with puzzlement as to why it wasn’t working but was told their computer system was down and they couldn’t help me again. My third call on the following day resulted in the suggestion to delete the connection and try to reestablish it. This didn’t work either.
 
On my fourth call on the fourth day, I was informed the person I was to share my subscription with hadn’t completed the confirmation procedure of which we were never notified. The Customer Service Rep volunteered to complete the confirmation so the connection could be completed.
 
To summarize, in order to change my subscription from one level of access to another and set up a shared subscription, I had to call customer support seven times for a total of close to two hours on the phone and write to a VP of Customer Service to correct an erroneous double billing.

Next week I’ll comment on how I’d like to be treated as a customer and make some recommendations to companies which will improve the experience they offer their customers.
 
 
One of the certainties of marketing and product management is everyone has a suggestion about what you should be doing. People love to give you advice about what features you could add to your product. Account managers will likely refer to their latest challenging sales situation and mention the feature that would have sealed the deal. Engineering usually has a long list of possible enhancements the technology makes possible. Upper management may offer a suggestion or make demands based on feedback from a favorite major customer.
 
On the outbound side, there’s usually no shortage of ideas about how you should be describing your product. It seems like everyone is ready to offer a pithy phrase, a topic for a blog article or an idea for a new sales tool that would help the number of orders skyrocket.
 
It’s been my experience that the vast majority of these contributions have merit. They come from intelligent, experienced people who want the company and the product to succeed. The problems are you rapidly collect more ideas than you could ever implement given finite resources and  many are offered in solitary without a broader context. Unless the contributor is directly involved in product planning, they probably aren’t aware of your  product roadmaps or platform strategy. In some cases, their product idea many not be consistent with what your research shows are your targeted customers’ highest priority, unmet outcomes. Communication ideas, while catchy in isolation, may not be consistent with the corporate brand, the messaging strategy, the customer value proposition or the product positioning. Experts  will tell you that consistency and repetition are keys to effective communication.
 
Naming a product may be one of the best examples. Everyone seems to think it’s great fun to play the “name game” and send you emails with creative and clever names. In one example, I had the wife of the Chairman of the Board, call me with name ideas she came up with for the company’s next generation product. And don’t get me started on internal “design a logo” contests.
 
So what’s a person to do? You can’t just ignore these submissions because people deserve to be listened to and their ideas acknowledged and considered. Even if the suggestion isn’t aligned with your product or messaging strategy, it is another data point that may point to a future trend or an area for future consideration. On the other hand, you shouldn’t blindly implement the
suggestion based on who screams the loudest, who has a senior title, or who offered the most recent idea.
 
The people filtering and selecting from all these suggestions should be the ones who have the big picture, the master plan for where the products, the messages and the desired user experiences are headed. In most cases, this is the Product Manager or the Product Marketing Manager. For product planning, the Product Manager knows what the whole product needs to look like,
the competitive strategy, and how the product family is evolving. The Product Marketing Manager contributed to the messaging strategy based on what the research shows the targeted customer values and what messages will resonate with them.
 
These people need to demonstrate experience and business judgment to select the ideas that best support the strategies. They need to have a steady hand on the tiller so the team senses continuity and steady progress, not a change in direction and a new priority every other week. Because these individuals usually have little authority, they must manage by the influence derived from data, analysis and strategy.

Do you have an example of how ideas are collected from a wide range of sources and are filtered down to the most appropriate ones?
 
 
How much money will I save by using your product? How much more revenue will I gain by using your product? In other words, show me the ROI. Ideally, a well-prepared company would have a couple of responses. One might be an ROI calculator in which after completing a spreadsheet with numbers representative of your company’s operation, you are presented with a prediction of cost savings or revenue gains. The other may be a well-documented case study explaining the benefits a company gained by using the vendor’s product. It seems straight-forward enough but there are several challenges. These are the difficulty in measuring the ROI, skepticism about the evidence and the broader definition of value.
 
Few companies have measured the “before” so you have something to compare to when you measure the “after”. It’s also hard to control all the variables in the real world so you can attribute all gains to the new product being tested. Many companies will not allow you to measure their operations due to privacy concerns or even if they do, may not grant you permission to go public with the information. Once I was lucky enough to participate in a carefully controlled experiment with the last generation product and the new generation product working right next to each other on an assembly line. The improved throughput was significant and the resulting case study was a powerful sales tool. But in my experience, this situation is very rare.
 
Even if you are fortunate enough to run such an experiment, there is some natural skepticism. After all, your company is trying to put the best light on your product. Case studies are viewed as special cases where the results were cherry picked. ROI calculators are often seen as biased and rigged to make the solution being evaluated look good. Even if the results are seen as impressive, some executives believe their situation is different or unique and therefore the conclusion and positive results may not carry over their operation.
 
Finally, as we’ve explained in other blog posts, the value one gains from using a product extends far beyond the production gains. It includes reducing risks, gaining benefits sooner, and the experiences of working with the company supplying the product.
 
So what can you do when someone asks you to “show me the ROI”? If possible, conduct a carefully controlled experiment that is as objective as possible. Use a third-party to conduct and publish the case study. If available, use industry standard benchmarks so prospects can make apples-to-apples comparisons between products. Keep in mind all the dimensions of value and emphasize the other areas of the total user experience you do differently and better than any alternative. Positive references from loyal customers will carry much more weight than a simple ROI calculator spreadsheet.
 
Rarely does it come down to strictly a numbers game. Some say you make the decision based on emotion and you then find a way to justify it using logic and evidence. So create a positive emotion by emphasizing the potential for a very positive total user experience and then supplement that with some quantitative evidence to close the deal.