Why Do Marketers Rate Themselves Highly While Customers Don’t?

Why are companies so out of sync with their customers? I tried to address it in my MediaPost column this week. I’ve included full text below, but please join the commentary at the MediaPost blog.

Why Do Marketers Rate Themselves Highly While Customers Don’t?

April 13th, 2007 by Max Kalehoff

Who cares what you think! How good is customer experience in the eyes of your customers?

Julie Katz of Forrester Research this week reported on new research from fellow analyst Cindy Commander that sought to answer this very question. She suggested that “80% of companies believe they’re delivering superior experiences to their customers, but only 8% of customers agree.”

To be sure, that figure is generalized and biased to the executives who participated in the survey, and there is variance across companies of different sizes and in different categories. Still, I side with Forrester, and agree there tends to be a massive gap between company ideals and actual customer perceptions when it comes to experience. If that wasn’t the case, consumers, including myself, wouldn’t have to tolerate so many pathetic experiences and flops by so many established, well-known brands! I won’t name any here, but we all have plenty of war stories.

So what is it that drives such a major divide between company and customer perceptions? There have to be a million reasons, but Commander (cool name) correctly pointed to employees as being a make-or-break factor in the equation. Forrester’s investigation with CMOs suggested that improved customer service and more personalized customer experiences resulted when employees were engaged in the brand.

That’s fine, I don’t disagree. But that’s a response I would expect from a CMO — you know, those C-suite execs whose tenures keep declining and declining. But when it comes to gaps in desired versus actual perception over experience and satisfaction, we must first consider managerial and organizational deficiencies.

The top deficiency has to be senior managers who simply become disconnected from their company’s customers. Theoretically, it is the C-suite that has more power and influence than anyone else in an enterprise, so they are more empowered to mandate and ensure customer satisfaction levels and tackle strategies accordingly. I’m sure this gets more challenging the bigger a company gets, but good leadership and resonance with the customer will trickle down and spread throughout, including leadership around satisfaction and customer experience. The best senior managers always make a point to place themselves in the customer trenches on a very frequent basis.

Then there are organizations that fall victim to complacency or arrogance. For whatever reason, they stop investing and reinventing themselves. They begin to coast and leech off whichever customers they do have remaining. I can think of many retailers, hotel chains and airlines that have fallen victim here — big ones. This situation is often the result of mismanagement or leadership gaps.

The third major deficiency is organizational silos, specifically when it comes to customer service, the “front line to the customer.” I have mixed feelings about customer-service departments to begin with, mainly because so few live up to just that — customer service. As we all know, so much irony surrounds the fact that so many customer-service departments are managed as cost centers, and pressure to reduce costs frequently results in poor, rushed or negligent execution, which then results in an overall worse customer experience. Shouldn’t all employees, departments and divisions be accountable to the customer-experience department? I suppose not, because the spirit and practices so often are compartmentalized into a single dysfunctional silo.

Then there is the issue of institutional listening, which is where most disconnects are born. In fact, many companies are crippled by a legacy of listening and interpreting through mass-marketing conventions. Sure, scale must be achieved, but it’s a problem when customer feedback solicitation becomes less about dialogue and more about broadcasting uniform series of predetermined questions marketers want to ask, typically with predetermined (and desired) answers to go along.

This was especially evident in a recent survey from my mobile phone provider, whose outsourced call-center rep hung up on me. Yes, I’m serious, they did. I didn’t answer the multiple-choice question, but instead offered richer, qualitative feedback, and then started asking them questions. A close second was my cable companies’ automatic phone survey instituted after my real-person experience. It was forced, and sent a subtle message that the company was distrustful of the human it assigned to me. Both companies’ spirit had more to do with static information retrieval, and nothing to do with leveraging feedback opportunities to interact with customers, or turning that dialogue into loyalty-building events.

Of course, we’re amidst a wave of reconciliation as customer perceptions of experience increasingly manifest in word of mouth and consumer-generated media. CGM is forcing marketers out of denial and to the court of customer accountability, to address this lopsided ratio of desired versus actual experience. Not only is the writing on the wall – literally — but that writing equates to knowledge among consumers about fellow consumers’ experience, and that only shifts power in their favor.

Sorry, marketers. The 80%-8% ratio won’t cut it anymore!

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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