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8/26/2004
10:01 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: Losing The War For Lack Of A Nail

Companies need to focus on the details as well as the big picture. Customer familiarity should not breed contempt, Lou Bertin says.

My friend Bob Evans wrote evocatively recently about knowingly leaving a "trail of slime" consisting of not-insignificant personal information all over Brooklyn and Manhattan during one of his frequent peregrinations.

Apart from his uncharacteristic keening tone when it came to his customary lambasting of privacy advocates ("they only want to get their names in the paper," a characterization that holds true for some but surely not all such advocates and belittles sincere--if to my mind misguided--efforts to preserve privacy ), Bob's point that we're knowingly or unknowingly leaving traces of our commercial behaviors everywhere and we'd better adjust to the new commercial order is, as ever, a sound one.

In most cases, that trail of personal "slime" is, in day-to-day reality, an enormous positive; one of the true, tangible benefits of the technology adoption revolution of the past 10 years. During that time, we've gone from E-commerce as an unfamiliar and rightly mistrusted phenomenon to an astounding facilitator of transactions great and small.

But as William F. Buckley wrote some years ago: "Truth is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on the head and drag you to her cave. She's there, but people must want her and seek her out." And the truth regarding the accumulation and deployment of personal data--specifically historic personal data resulting from past transactions--to secure competitive advantage among frequent customers seems to have fallen into a sort of mid-life crisis.

Where once it was a welcome new development when my bookseller or shirt maker or hotel of choice knew my preferences, my buying patterns, and the means I use most frequently to pay for what they're selling, that novelty has long since disappeared and I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I've come to expect more.

But it says here that as the novelty of the "market of one" concept has faded, so, too, has companies' attention to the strategic deployment of that information. Or, to put it another way, service stinks again.

Wholly apart from the involuntary sharing of information Bob wrote about, I'm referring specifically to organizations with which I willingly shared personal information. I like for the airlines I fly on most frequently to know that I like aisle seats. I like it when I don't have to wait on line for a rental car. Lots of friends have been the beneficiaries of books recommended to me by online book sellers ... books I can ship off without having to visit the store or the post office.

Negligence Or Complacency?
Lately, though, the "truth" has dawned on me that so many of those commercial giants with whom I deal almost daily have either become negligent or complacent. Regardless of whether I view their behaviors through the least pejorative or most pejorative of lenses, it's become clear to me that they've either quit caring or are so busy chasing the next "big thing" to tend to the small-potatoes care and feeding of their customers.

Not long ago, at the end of a fairly typical two-week travel stretch, I realized that not one of the six hotels I'd checked into (all members of the same corporate family, by the way) had my reservations straight or the single preference I express for room type--and had long-ago willingly shared with them--reflected in the room to which I was assigned. On another occasion, the rental car location to which six other travelers and I had been bused was simply closed. No notice, just unpopulated check-out stations and a locked door at the counter as we arrived after a delayed flight. So much for the 40 times I'd rented cars with that chain in the past 12 months. As for the airlines, familiarity hasn't quite bred contempt, but it's getting there.

My epiphany as to the "truth" behind the customer service de-evolution came from the stupendously helpful and caring MIS manager at one of the New York City-based outlets of the hospitality company (and I cringe to use that description of a company that seemingly provides anything but) I cited above. As he helped me move from one room to another because of a twice-inexpertly-repaired broadband router, I shared with him my frustrations at his outfit's reservations system.

After he patiently heard me out, he resignedly said with a touch of brogue still evident in his voice: "There you have it. We're so busy fancying things up that we're falling down on all the little things.

"We designed our own welcome screens. They're so nice that they take forever to load and half the time, I have to go in and revert guests back to the generic welcome. We get fancy and go wireless in the lobbies, but we don't pay attention to the room connections. We keep trying to stay ahead of the competition and we're angering our best customers to chase after new ones."

There, boys and girls, is the object lesson we're losing sight of. New is great, but reliable is better. Reputation trumps novelty, but nothing will chase a customer toward novelty faster than failing to live up to one's reputation. As growth takes hold after what feels like an eternity of hibernation, the coming fall might be the best time for a spring cleaning to sweep out the dilettante practices that have crept into the works and re-oil the mechanisms that served us all so well for so long.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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