Brands Need to Be Able to Fail — but Not Screw Up the Customer Experience


I’m in Chicago for LSA’s Place Conference. I’m staying at an Embassy Suites downtown (Magnificent Mile location) a few blocks from the venue. But before I ever checked in Hilton blew it; they had a chance to create a great user experience but got it wrong.

Here’s what happened — it’s classic corporate ineptitude:

I was invited in email to download the Hilton “HHonors” loyalty app. The pitch was: choose your own room and use a digital key to unlock it, skipping the front desk. I’ve not yet had that experience so I was excited to try it.

I downloaded the app, selected the room and anticipated the experience. However this evening, on my way from the airport, I received a message in the app that I had to check in at the front desk. This was contrary to the promise of the email.

On the way in (in my Uber) I called the hotel to inquire about it. I was told that my status with Hilton wasn’t sufficient to avoid traditional check in. Higher status guests could go directly to their rooms with the digital key.

That significant qualifier was nowhere obvious on the original email. I wouldn’t have downloaded it had I known that. But right away, before check in, Hilton created a poor experience by establishing expectations and failing to deliver.

I called Hilton customer service after my conversation with the local hotel to provide the feedback that the company shouldn’t be seeking app downloads and creating these user expectations where it wasn’t prepared to honor them. Here was a second bad experience.

The call-center reps were indifferent to my feedback (they sounded bored/actively disengaged). It took a long time for them to understand what I was frustrated about — I say “them” because I spoke to more than one person. They didn’t really know what to do with my information when they finally did understand and they gave me no confidence that my feedback would reach anyone with any discretion to do anything.

Separately I had to provide four pieces of information to authenticate myself to them. My reservation confirmation and HHonors account numbers were two of those identifiers. I was told I could call back later if I couldn’t access them in the moment.

After tweeting, the Hilton Twitter team did respond to my outreach with the customary “DM us.” I’m increasingly unwilling to do that. They’re trying to get rid of the public discussion but it’s difficult to explain and resolve things on Twitter.

The bottom line here is that before I had set foot on the property I was frustrated. The individual hotel is a franchise and so there was limited “ownership” of what had come before with my corporate interactions, though the front desk clerk was pleasant and offered an apology.

I recognize that brands are going to fail with technology experiments and mobile user experiences. But they need to have measures and channels in place to respond quickly and turn these negative into learning experiences for the brand.

Hilton apparently thinks that the digital key is a reward for multiple stays. That’s backward; the company should be offering me a taste of its superior user experience so that I have incentives to stay with them more often and become a higher status member.

I now shop at Whole Foods more often because of Apple Pay. I favor Alamo Rental Car because they have self service kiosks and I don’t have to deal with the adversarial insurance conversation. Companies that offer a better and more convenient user experience will be rewarded with more loyalty.

Loyalty shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a better user experience.

Hilton had an opportunity to “delight” me and move me into their column (or closer at any rate). However the poor experience this evening has had the opposite impact. App deleted.


Old School Is Better than New Fail: Why SMBs Must Choose Providers Carefully

Online booking problems

Online booking is a great tool for local businesses. It allows consumers to schedule appointments without the back and forth of telephone/IVR interaction or after hours when no one is available. It’s also increasingly a capability that consumers are expecting, especially younger customers.

Survey data below from Yodle (2014) argue that nearly two-thirds of consumers expect or want online booking from SMBs. I strongly suspect the numbers would be higher if the survey had been done this year.

Most service businesses should be implementing online booking. However, they must choose providers carefully and not implement any system can’t be relied upon to fulfill customer expectations.

Yodle SMB expectations data

The dirty secret of some of these systems is that they’re more manual than automated. Some aren’t directly tied into the local business back office and thus appointments offered online don’t represent actual appointment availability.

In some cases, an email with an appointment request is sent to the business. That has to be entered and confirmed more or less manually. For this reason, there can be a meaningful lag between the entry of the “appointment request” and an email confirmation 24 or 48 hours later. (Yet most people believe that when they schedule the appointment online they’re confirmed for that time, like OpenTable.)

A recent case in point: I made an eye exam appointment through an online scheduling system at a local optometrist’s office. I was happy to encounter the online booking option, which enabled me to avoid the hassle of calling the office. But the system simply didn’t work.

I made an initial scheduling attempt, only to receive the above email informing me that the appointment I thought I had made was not available. This happened three times with three different appointments.The non-confirmations were not immediate however.

After the third failure I called the office, frustrated. I spoke to a person I imagine was either the receptionist or office manager. When I told her of my repeated failures with their system, she was defensive and grudgingly promised to pass along my feedback.

Ultimately I scheduled an appointment with her over the phone — old school. She explained that there is lots of patient rescheduling that doesn’t get reflected in the online system. I responded that it would be better not to have an online booking system than one that creates expectations and fails to deliver. A lead form — even voicemail — would be better.

New technologies (though online booking isn’t new) shouldn’t be used if they don’t work or can’t deliver a good customer experience. As a result of my bad booking experience, I now have a negative opinion of this optometrist, which will have to be overcome with very good service — that is if I don’t cancel and go someplace else.

This is not the kind of introduction a local business wants to make to a potential customer.


Maybe the Biggest News of WWDC: Pay with Apple Pay

Apple Pay

Perhaps lost in the splashier news about Siri, iMessage and Apple Maps was confirmation that Apple Pay was coming to the web (PC and mobile). The expansion of Apple Pay to the web was first reported earlier this year by the Re/code blog.

Merchants can now integrate Apple Pay as a payment option online, beside credit cards and PayPal. This could be a huge development for e-commerce. Authentication comes via the Apple Watch or TouchID on the iPhone. It’s essentially a one-touch system and thus faster than PayPal checkout in most cases.

I don’t know about you but I’m becoming less and less tolerant of sites that want me to input credit card information. I want to give my credit card to fewer companies and I don’t want to fill out lengthy forms. In stores, payments with chip cards are becoming more painful. It’s no longer a fast swipe; it’s now leave your card in the reader and don’t take it out for 30 seconds. Annoying.

In addition to shielding your credit card from hacking, services such as Amazon Payments, PayPal and Apple Pay remove friction and potential credit card processing problems, which are fairly common.

According to a a recent consumer survey by, 23 percent of iPhone users had tried Apple Pay, which represents growth from 17 percent last year. However the number of repeat users declined. That’s because of confusion/uncertainty/discomfort with this system. Store clerks have often not been properly trained and are unfamiliar with how to work with the system, giving rise to problems in my experience.

I’m undeterred by such experiences and a huge Apple Pay fan (also fan of PayPal [mostly] and Amazon Payments). In fact I now only shop at grocery stores that accept Apple Pay and use it whenever possible as my primary payment method. If it were possible I’d forever avoid paying with plastic again.

The move to the web is a bid by Apple to expand familiarity with and usage of Apple Pay. Regardless, mobile payments adoption for all types of transactions is inevitable. The question is “when,” not “if.” Millennials are much more broadly adopting mobile payments and will eventually force merchants to accommodate them — or suffer the consequences.

Merchants and marketers must be much more radically customer-centric or they’re going to lose to competitors who are. In the “old days” you could ask your customers to jump through hoops to buy your product or service. Today you no longer can. Making it easier for them to pay is part of that shift.


Can Location Save Mobile Advertising?


Yesterday on Marketing Land I wrote about a new mobile ad blocking report that contends there are now roughly 419 million people blocking ads on mobile devices around the globe. That’s up from about 200 million a year ago.

The highest concentration of ad blocking users is reportedly in Asia, while it is less common in North America and Europe. The most popular way now to block ads on smartphones is through the use of an ad-blocking browser.

In developing countries people are blocking ads to save on mobile data costs. In developed countries ad blocking is more about frustration with the ad experience. There are many surveys documenting this. The most recent I ran across is from SessionM (n=6,000 mobile users).

Responding to the question, “When are you okay with seeing ads on your smartphone?,” respondents said (emphasis added):

  • I’m okay with seeing ads on my smartphone at any time — 5.2%
  • When I’m in a free app — 32.1%
  • When the advertised product is relevant to me — 17.4%
  • When the ad is from a company I like/trust — 12.2%
  • Other — 7.4 percent
  • I’m never okay with seeing ads on my smartphone — 40.2%

A meaningful percentage in the survey (32%) recognized the “ads for content” trade-off. However a larger number (40%) never want to see mobile ads. And 30% provided a conditional response: when ads are relevant or I like the company. (Users were permitted to select more than one answer.)

From my anecdotal observation, retargeting is the most common way that mobile ads are “personalized” or made relevant. Yet retargeting can be relentless and irrelevant if a purchase has already been made (e.g., hotel reservation). Sometimes the ads I receive are locally targeted as well.

Location is probably the most important feature of the mobile user experience and it’s much less widely utilized than it should be. Location can identify appropriate and potentially receptive audiences as well as provide contextual and other forms of real-time relevance to users. Location targeting and analytics are probably the most important tools for mobile marketers and should be more fully exploited (but not in a creepy way).

Brands, agency executives and various “industry leaders” have issued “mea culpas” recently about the mobile ad experience. Most now say they “get it” and want to find better ways to engage smartphone users. Like climate change, it’s a problem people recognize intellectually but it’s far from clear they can do much about it in actuality.

Here’s what I think needs to happen fairly quickly at the highest level:

  • End slow-loading ads and intrusive formats (e.g., pop-ups, takeovers)
  • Focus on and dramatically improve mobile ad creative (beyond video)
  • Take a sincere user-centric approach to ad creative and functionality

Beyond these general statements, marketers should take better advantage of location (and all its myriad uses) for relevance and personalization. While no single change will address the root causes of ad blocking, the ad experience can be made much better and location is one of the keys to that equation.


FTD’s Big Mamma’s Day #FAIL


Much of the digital marketing discussion revolves around which brand or campaign is getting this or that digital media discipline right. But there are even more fundamental issues and lessons that have to be learned and re-learned by many brands. Basic customer service is unfortunately one of them.

A case-in-point: my Mother’s Day experience with FTD. There were multiple points of failure up and down the line. It’s almost a case study in how to alienate a customer.

For roughly ten days prior to Mother’s Day I was hit with FTD emails. I decided (on May 5) to send flowers to my mother. I specified that the arrangement be delivered on Saturday (May 7) to avoid any problem with the Mother’s Day delivery crunch. As I was about to check out on, I saw that $35 of my order was taxes, fees and delivery charges — about 30% of the total order value.

Before I pulled the e-trigger, those service charges gave me pause. I thought I would probably get more value and better service from a local florist in my mother’s area. Yet against that intuition, I went ahead with the order.

I assumed the flowers would be delivered on May 7 as specified. On May 8 (yesterday) I called my mother. In the early afternoon she called me back and left a voicemail. There was no mention of the flowers and I inferred they had not been delivered.

Fearing some sort of screw up, I went to to check order status. After inputting the order number the site returned a message that said, essentially, the company was too busy to provide specific order information. I then called customer service.

That’s when things took a turn for the worse. Indeed, sometimes talking to a poorly trained customer service rep, or one that has little or no authority or incentive to really help, is worse than no interaction at all. Bad customer service will damage the value of a brand.

It was then about 4 pm Pacific Time and the call was answered by an offshore call center. After providing my order number I was told the flowers would be delivered by 9pm. WTF: this was both surprising and frustrating. I asked for identification of the local florist involved to get more precise information, but that was refused “for privacy reasons.”

After additional, fruitless discussion I asked to speak with a supervisor. That request was resisted multiple times (it was clear there was a policy of trying to deflect these requests). I was put on hold for about 15 – 20 minutes. The supervisor was less scripted and spoke better English. She told me the order was “out” and would be delivered soon. She couldn’t be more precise about status and also wouldn’t give me the identity of  the local florist fulfilling the order.

During my roughly 40 minutes of elapsed time on the phone with these offshore agents, I started tweeting my frustration (see, e.g., above). However, nobody from @FTD ever responded on Twitter.

Once I got off the phone I went to Facebook and complained on FTD’s wall. There was a rapid but mostly impotent response. Late yesterday evening I got a voicemail from an FTD rep on the East Coast, whom I spoke with today. Someone must have escalated my complaint.

Eventually, the flowers were delivered, more than 24 hours late — though still technically on Mother’s Day. As I explained to FTD on the phone today, there were multiple points of failure in my interaction with the brand:

  • The mediocre e-commerce experience
  • The unrelenting “buy now” emails that continued after I placed my order
  • The lack of any updates prior to delivery
  • The failure to provide tracking information on the website on the critical day
  • The use of tone-deaf offshore reps reading from scripts, who provided boilerplate responses
  • The failure to respond on Twitter

My service charge was refunded, which was not offered but which I affirmatively demanded. The person I spoke to today (in the US) was sincerely apologetic and thanked me for my feedback. However I simply won’t use FTD again.

Next time I will heed that internal voice and go directly to a local florist (search: “florists” “city name”). That’s who’s doing all the work anyway — and that’s who should get my money.


Yelp: Average Yearly SMB Ad Spend Is $3,204, 76% Retention, 269% ROI


B2B social network Alignable ranked Yelp at or near the bottom of its Trust Index as measured by NPS ratings. There’s also anecdotal evidence that many business owners hold negative views of Yelp or harbor conspiracy theories about review manipulation for ad-sales purposes.

There are also critics in the industry who argue Yelp ads deliver a poor ROI. But yesterday Yelp reported Q1 earnings that were better than expected. The company said it had 121,000 local advertiser accounts, representing 34 percent annual growth. It also cited a 76% percent year over year advertiser repeat/retention rate.

Yelp ROI

It presented the chart above in its earnings slides, showing an average advertiser ROI of 269%. That’s based on average monthly spend of $267 and $983 in revenue from Yelp leads. How the company determined revenue per advertiser wasn’t disclosed.

Yelp also said that it had roughly 2.8 million claimed Yelp profiles/accounts. This means that Yelp’s existing advertiser base is about 4% the number of claimed accounts. That represents a significant growth opportunity, putting aside the larger SMB marketplace.

There’s an interesting disconnect between Yelp’s retention and ROI data and its critics’ claims, as well as the NPS scores reported by Alignable. I’m interested to hear what you think about:

  • The ROI figures cited
  • The 76% “repeat rate”
  • How Yelp can be having this sort of success with SMBs, given all the skepticism (and poor perceptions) that are out there


Study Argues Most Current SMB-Focused Sales Efforts Are Completely Ineffective

local smb storefront

It’s very noisy out there in the world of SMB marketing services. It has become harder to get attention and stand out in a crowded market where many of the products and services sound very similar — and it’s not getting any easier for marketing providers.

Alignable just released some small business survey data that explore “how local businesses are being sold to by vendors and Sales teams, and the effectiveness of current sales methods.” The following were the questions asked:

  • How many times a week, on average, are you solicited to buy products and services from others?
  • How often do you respond to unsolicited outreach by a sales person?
  • What’s most likely to get you to engage with a sales person?
  • If a fellow local business owner wants to meet you, how do you prefer they initiate a discussion?
  • Does the amount of people soliciting you impact your willingness to reach out and meet other business owners?

In terms of sales-contact frequency, 59% of the respondents said pitches were coming at least 4 to 6 times per week; 37 percent (of that group) said more than 6x per week. That means many SMBs are being solicited by sales reps — some of this is probably email too — roughly 20 to 30 times, or more, per month.

The data also show that business owners are generally unresponsive to these unsolicited sales efforts. Just under 90% said they either never respond or respond less than 10% of the time. Furthermore, all the unsolicited sales activity has a negative impact on local business owners’ relationships with one another and their willingness to engage with other local businesses, according to the survey.

Alignable sales study

What would get these business owners to engage with a sales rep? A referral from another business/owner was the top answer. Presumably this also implicates reviews and testimonials, though those variables weren’t explored in the survey.

The other interesting response from the question above was: “ability to test product/service with little to no investment.” Accordingly, a free trial appears to be a must. This is consistent with what a number of local businesses told LSA about what would get them to engage with marketing services providers.

These findings suggest that much of the current sales activity aimed at SMBs is almost totally ineffective. Perhaps as a result of this, many marketing services providers are turning away from conventional outbound sales tactics toward “in-bound” marketing or content strategy designed to generate leads.

The Alignable survey didn’t explore specific sales tactics: email vs. telephone vs. outside sales. But the survey data suggest that email and cold calling are less and less effective (please argue with me). Outside sales probably remains fairly effective — SMBs value in-person meetings — however premise reps are costly and going to be reserved for higher value accounts.

What’s your experience or reaction to these findings? Do you agree or dispute them?


Retailers Need to Step Up in-Store Game — Amazon Is Gaining

Prime Now

Last week on the LSA blog I wrote that Amazon Prime (Now) was emerging as a true existential threat to local retail. In addition to its Prime Now app, the company has launched

The cost for two-hour delivery (where Amazon delivers) is nothing. For one-hour delivery it’s $7.99. Tipping the driver is optional but recommended.

Prime Now is currently available in roughly 25 cities and only applies to a limited (but growing) range of products.

Prime Now

The immediacy of Prime Now will cause more Amazon Prime members to turn to Amazon in situations where they might have gone to a local retail store. Part of this is because the experience in many retail stores is frustrating. Among other things, customer service is often poor and finding products can sometimes be difficult, causing customers to abandon stores even those the desired item might have been there.

A personal case-in-point: the other evening I was at my local Rite-Aid. I was looking for a particular medicine for my daughter. There were no customer service people on the floor and no in-store tools to help me find what I was looking for, beyond conventional signage. After about 20 minutes of diligently searching the aisles I called up Amazon on my iPhone, found the product and ordered it for next-day delivery.

Multiple studies have indicated how poor customer service in stores harms the customer experience, costs sales and even negatively impacts the retail brand. For years many retailers have focused on price competition and relied on low-paid, poorly trained employees simply to work cash registers.

This approach will no longer work and services like Prime Now will erode local retail sales because of the superiority of the overall experience.

What retailers need to do is improve the quality of the in-store experience in a fairly dramatic way. They should invest in training and provide tools for in-store shoppers to 1) find what they’re looking for and 2) get the product information they need to help make purchase decisions.

A central part of this strategy involves mobile devices and indoor location (beacons, etc). But it also means taking a holistic approach to improving the customer experience. Except perhaps at places where price is the only thing that matters, failure to invest in the in-store experience, including better service, will only mean further gains for Amazon.

Agencies, brands, retailers and marketers interested in hearing more about what’s working in proximity marketing, location analytics and in-store mobile experiences should attend The Place Conference, September 21 in Chicago.


Service for a Price: Most Brands Take a Shortsighted Approach to Customer Care

Zendesk customer service

Customer service is one of my “issues.” Despite lots of data showing its importance to brands and marketers, it remains elusive — most customer service experiences (on the phone or in stores) are mediocre to bad. And most brands pay insufficient attention to service, despite their lofty rhetoric to the contrary.

What triggered this post is a piece in the NY Times about cruise lines and others increasingly creating segregated, exclusive experiences for the wealthy and providing perfunctory or basic experiences to everyone else. Here’s an example from the article, regarding customer service on Royal Caribbean cruises:

For example, room service requests from Royal Suite occupants are automatically routed to a number different from the one used by regular passengers, who get slower, less personalized service.

Another example is the exorbitant “VIP experiences” that theme parks are increasingly selling. If you’re wealthy and want to be separated from the “plebs,” I suppose these are great developments. If you’re part of the mass of those not accessing these privileged experiences they might inspire envy or resentment. However it’s part of a larger, disturbing pattern in the culture and economy.

Corporations and brands should be doing everything they can to provide great customer service across the board. Service is one of the few differentiators in a market of increasingly “commoditized” experiences. But because service is generally seen as expensive and not an integral part of branding or marketing, many companies are trying to minimize costs (e.g., offshore call centers, IVR-based call avoidance) or have a bifurcated system where the highest-spending customers receive a higher level of service and others get the minimum.

Zendesk customer service value

Poor service erodes brand value and has a direct impact on the bottom line. Good service experiences do the opposite and create loyalty. There’s plenty of evidence to support this. The graphics above are based on survey data collected by Zendesk. But there are plenty of other supporting findings.

Most obviously, bad service shows up in online reviews.

Given all the research and advocacy about the importance of good service at a time of declining brand value and loyalty I’m surprised that companies are A) not more focused on customer service as part of their marketing efforts or B) focusing largely on high-value customers to the neglect of the bulk of their customers (airlines are a great example of the latter).


Coupon Sites Playing a Game of Search Arbitrage — and Should They Be Stopped?

I got an email today from Sports Authority and clicked through to their site. I decided to buy some discounted running shoes and before I checked out, like every other red-blooded American consumer, I searched on “Sports Authority Coupon Codes.”

When I did this I got a list of high ranking coupon/deal sites, including Groupon, RetailMeNot, and so on. Here’s the page:

Coupon spam

What’s increasingly true, when you click these links, is that there are no actual codes. They’re just a pass through to the site. For example, here’s what happens on Groupon:

Groupon code

Groupon code

This experience is essentially replicated on RetailMeNot, and the other sites. I’m sure these sites are collecting affiliate fees for this traffic, which is effectively “search arbitrage.” There’s no value being added for the consumer — unless someone went directly to one of these sites, discovered a sale and then clicked through and purchased without prior knowledge of the sale.

As I mentioned, however, the common pattern is to search for coupons just before checkout. So the retailer is likely paying for lots of clicks that aren’t new customers. And the consumer is not getting any additional value because she has probably already shopped the sale and is just looking for extra discounts before buying.

If we consider these sites to be “deals aggregators,” a case can be made that they deliver value to those consumers who look to them first. But, as I suggest, if the majority use case is just-before-checkout lookups then these sites are essentially spamming search results without offering value either to the consumer or the retailer.

I’m willing to allow that a percentage of the audience directly navigates to these sites as a way to discover sales. But if my experience as a consumer is consistent with others’, it’s more of a “bait and switch” experience.

Google has cracked down on search spam many times in the past. Directories that were only republishing business listings without any enhanced content have been demoted. Content farms that were just cranking out superficial articles to rank and monetize display ads were equally shunned in a past algorithm update.

I’m wondering therefore when the shoe/axe will drop/fall on these guys.

Let me know if you totally disagree. But if you agree with me, do you think that Google will act against them? And should the retailers refuse to pay?