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Visitors are not created equal

Last week's editorial about good customer service, especially online, brought quite a few comments from you. Some were good. Some were bad. While the good praised the efforts of those companies offering superior service, some were critical.

"You can't make a profit on the Internet if you try to please everyone," one said. I agree that you can't please everyone. But I also agree that, if you try to do so, such as by giving away something for free without getting compensated somehow, you will be driven into the ground.

(With the recent wave of "dot-bombs," more and more freebie providers are seeking some sort of compensation in order to stay afloat. To the scorn of many, they have either started to charge for some services or accepted third party ads. In fact, in response to harsh criticisms Chris Pirillo, the publisher of one of my favorite *free* ezines Lockergnome.com, offers this manifesto: http://www.lockergnome.com/manifesto/.)

But I found the criticisms I received in relation to offering at least a certain level of customer service to be interesting since I believe that customer service is not only a business activity but also a fundamental Internet marketing system.

My very first job, at the age of 15, was as a cook at a local McDonald's restaurant. The minimum wage at that time was only $2.54 an hour -- and that's in Canadian currency! The American equivalent was $1.72. It might only be 15 years ago but things have surely changed in the last 10 years, and even 5.

But to say that my compensation was low would be unfair, since this seemingly underpaid job was probably one of the greatest learning experiences I ever had. I may not have known it at the time, but what the experience taught me was how important customer service truly is, particularly in my own businesses.

Many people fail to recognize the fact that customer service, even complaint management, is a fundamental marketing system. The most powerful promotional activity there is and will ever be is the proverbial "word-of-mouth." And online its power is amplified a gazillion times. Why is that?

In sum, the answer is one single word: Credibility.

Statistics show that when a person is happy with a company's service, she will make it known to about three other people. But when a person is dissatisfied, 10 will get an earful. And those 10 will believe far more what they hear negatively than what they would have been told positively -- especially by a company's own, self-serving marketing.

Take, for instance, the case of a customer's experience at a Nordstrom store told by sales trainer Ralph Robertson.

Nordstrom, a chain of department stores in the US, recently opened a branch in Alaska. A few days after its grand opening, a man came into the store demanding a refund for some winter tires he bought and with which he was not happy. Cheerfully, the cashier refunded the money without asking any questions.

"That's not uncommon," you might say. But the highlight of this story was not the refund -- far from it. The location that Nordstrom actually took over was a tire plant that has since closed its doors. And the tires that were returned were actually bought from the location where Nordstrom now stands.

On the web, customer service and its viral qualities are more significant. The word not only gets out much faster but it is more credible. A small review in a local newspaper can cause some reaction, be it positive or damaging. But online, people who suffered negative customer service experiences can easily vent their frustrations electronically to the whole world.

Poor service and the lack of integrity online may not seem as important to many people. But in actuality the underlying and oftentimes inconspicuous negativity it may cause can come back and bite you. On the web, bites (or bytes, in this case) can indeed be worse than the barks, as words online carry more weight. Why? For two reasons:

  • Roger Dawson, in his bestselling book "The Secrets of Power Negotiating," wrote, "If it is said, it could be true -- but if it is written, then it *must* be true."

  • And words online stay around for a lot longer than any other medium -- including the fact that their flow is impossible to stop. Websites, newsgroups, chatrooms ezines or email can travel faster and further than mere word-of-mouth (Dr. Ralph Wilson of http://wilsonweb.com/ calls it "word-of-mouse.")

A mentor once said to me, "Implication is more powerful than specification." While I usually use this phrase to demonstrate that implying superiority is more powerful than stating it (in instances where one's expertise is implied instead of outright declared), the negative aspect applies just as well.

In other words, if you offer poor service or lesser value than what you claim, the mere implied notion that you are offering poor service on a regular basis can kill you in the long run.

But unlike TV, radio or printed publications, websites like http://www.epinions.com/ or http://www.planetfeedback.com/, which provide feedback from people like you and me, give the online consumer more wherewithal, and are more credible, than what any watchdog organization (like the BBB) could offer.

In fact, I believe that this is Amazon.com's greatest asset: Not it's patented one-click application but its instant reader reviews, which accompany each book it sells -- and which you can't obtain in any ordinary physical bookstore.

Case in point: One day, in the middle of my IT marketing class in college, one of my students, who's an employee of a large and reputable high-tech firm in Ottawa (Canada) (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons), asked me: "How credible is http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/?" I asked why.

He said that, after their new site launched, it was inundated with traffic. But when they found out that the site was the featured "Daily Sucker" from Flander's WebPagesThatSuck.com, the feeling was not as positive as one would imagine. My answer? "You were inundated with traffic, weren't you?"

Today, websites offering consumer feedback are growing. In addition to search engines offering reviews, complaints and consumer resources, such as http://www.complaints.com/ and http://consumerdemocracy.com/, there is also a new breed of search engine that ranks pages not by their keywords or link popularity but by their ratings. Take, for instance, http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/ and http://www.omniseek.com/.

In essence, people are more informed and more sophisticated than ever before. News of poor customer service can travel awfully fast in this dynamic, end-user controlled world we call "cyberspace." Therefore, a company must offer superior customer service if it wants to survive let alone thrive in a hypercompetitive marketplace ... Because, you never know:

The traffic you get may not be the kind you want.

About the author
Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter and consultant dedicated to turning sales messages into powerful magnets. Get a free copy of his book, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," when you subscribe to his free monthly ezine, "The Profit Pill." See http://SuccessDoctor.com/ now!

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