From one industry to another, it’s becoming more and more difficult for consumers to recognize any real and/or discernible difference between one product/service and another. Maybe technology and digitization plays a large role in this but, regardless, the mass commoditization of product/service is here and few companies are immune to it. Not because they have to be, but because they choose to be.
As I look at the issue of mass product/service commoditization from a marketing perspective, I see one variable that a company can control, which can help to resolve this issue and set a company’s product/service apart from the competition: the customer experience. The customer experience and, on a lesser scale, customer service, are areas of a company’s operations which it has sole control over and, by default, can be customized as the company’s leaders see fit. Although the customer experience may be similar between two competitors, they will never be exactly the same, because the corporate cultures, missions, visions, brand personas, resources, etc. are different.
When we look at the customer experience, or customer service, we realize that it is made up of a number of touchpoints between the company and the consumer. From first point of contact (e.g., advertisement, email, direct mail, word of mouth, etc.) to the last (e.g., purchase made, information received, etc.), online or offline, all of the touchpoints add up and matter, or at least they should, if a company wishes to de-commoditize its product/service and stand apart from the competition.
To this point, here’s an example of one particular touchpoint I encountered and how, perhaps, it could have been treated differently.
Last week, I received this letter (see below) in the mail from Capital One, the company that services Lord & Taylor’s credit card. As you read the letter, know that I have been a Lord & Taylor customer, and card member, since 1988.
The first two sentences of the letter read: “Thank you for being a loyal Lord & Taylor cardholder. We are writing to inform you of an increase to your APR for purchases.” Really? The company is using “loyal customer” and “increase” in fees/charges in the same thought and thinks nothing of it. If I get to pay higher fees/charges as a loyal customer I can only imagine what a non-loyal customer gets…then again, maybe I can’t.
While I know letters like this (i.e., compliance, operations, account servicing, etc.) are sometimes necessary, I wonder if Lord & Taylor’s marketing department was involved with crafting the message. My hunch, it was not.
From a customer experience perspective, how to do think this letter made me or other loyal customers feel? Do you think it makes me or others want to run out and shop at Lord & Taylor any time soon? Not really, but maybe that’s just me.
There are a few aspects of this letter that I’d like to point out, as they relate to my experience. First, if I am considered such a loyal customer, can’t Lord & Taylor, by way of Capital One, address the greeting of the letter more personally with “Dear Roger” or “Dear Mr. Marquis?” Why is my first name, middle initial(what’s up with that) and last name being used? In this day and age of personalization, shouldn’t the letter writing software or the company’s big data team be able to parse data correctly or assign data variables accordingly? Second, doesn’t a letter that’s personalized to a customer deserve a personal signature in its closing? The letter is signed, “Sincerely, Capital One.” Wow, that’s comforting and personable. There’s no one at Capital One who can personally sign a letter like this? Third, and this is what gets me the most, in reading the letter, there is no reason given as to why the credit terms are being increased. Am I at fault of something? Am I being penalized in some manner? It’s seems so arbitrary that credit terms are all of a sudden being increased. Sure, maybe in some fine print some where it’s explained, but can’t it be summarized in the letter?
As I said, I understand letters like this need to be sent, and companies don’t wish to spend an exorbitant amount of time and effort to produce them but, nevertheless, they remain a customer touchpoint – one of many. So, if that’s the case, why not make the most of it and send a message that really speaks to a loyal customer. For example, why not send a letter explaining the need to increase the credit rate and along with that offer $10 off on the next purchase. A simple offering like that would make me feel a world better about the situation and the company. Even if Lord & Taylor made the $10 offering time sensitive I’d feel better about the overall experience.
While this example may be somewhat simplistic, I believe, the message is clear…companies need to perceive each and every customer touchpoint as though it was just as important, meaningful, relevant, valuable, etc. as the last or the next in the eyes of the prospect or existing customer (read that again: in the eyes of the prospect or existing customer). Does this take work, yes, it does, but it is vital if a company wishes to be able to make for a truly remarkable customer experience and, as a result, de-commoditize its product/service in the marketplace.