BY PHONE OR ONLINE, CUSTOMER CONTACT BUNGLES HURT BRANDS: THE GRIM REALITY OF INTERACTVITY: STUBBORNLY POOR RESPONSE SYSTEMS; DOES ANYONE CARE?

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Interactivity has become a classic good news/bad news story. The good news? More and more companies have 800-numbers and Web sites, and they are increasingly promoting them in their brand messages to encourage customers to contact them.

The bad news is that "listening" is often only skin deep -- a technological facade of promises that ends up being unfulfilled. Interactive technology that has been designed and installed to strengthen brand relationships is, in many cases, actually weakening them.

The second "mystery shopper" study conducted by the University of Colorado's Integrated Marketing Communications Graduate Program found, once again, that more than half of interactive contacts with 200 U.S. companies were only fair or downright poor.

What is extremely depressing is the response to these results. When presented to marketing executives (some of whom are from companies in the sample), the majority say they are surprised we got as many "good" responses as we did.

STUDY METHODOLOGY

The study was done by contacting companies using their advertised Web site addresses or 800 numbers (100 of each). Measurements were based on the ease/difficulty of contacting the company, nature and thoroughness of the reply, friendliness of the interaction and company follow-up. A stratified sample included goods and service companies as well as business-to-business and consumer companies.

A contact was rated "good" when the request or complaint was quickly, thoroughly and politely satisfied. A contact was rated "fair" when the request or complaint was satisfied only after an extensive wait, dealing with an untrained customer service representative or encountering some other minor problem.

Contacts rated "poor" were those that failed to respond at all, where there was an excessive delay in responding, where the response was canned and unrelated to the problem or inquiry, where the customer service representative was extremely rude or unhelpful, or where the Web site was nearly impossible to navigate.

Of the 200 total contacts, only 42% were rated good, 20% were rated fair and 39% were rated poor. Overall, online responses were worse than the responses to phone contacts. Of the 100 contacts made online, only 35% were rated good (45% rated poor).

SERVICE COMPANIES DID POORLY

When separated into goods and services, service companies surprisingly had fewer good responses than manufacturers. There was little difference, however, between how consumer and business-to-business companies responded.

Another subgroup (of 28) made up of telephone, cable and Internet companies -- those that specialize in communications -- performed worse than the total sample. Of the 28, 43% of these contacts were rated poor.

Only a third of the 800-number calls were answered by a human. Of those answered by humans, however, 59% were rated good. A frequent problem with phone contacts was unfriendly, automated voice-response systems.

USE OF AVR SYSTEMS

Although most executives despise dealing with AVR systems when calling other companies, these same executives are increasingly allowing AVR systems to be used in their own companies. The reason: They save money.

What is overlooked, however, is that AVR systems can also send negative brand messages. Some of the more irritating problems found in the study when a company had an AVR system were:

* Too many menu levels, which tells callers, "This company's time is more important than yours";

* Menus that don't cover all options and offer no alternative to talk to a human;

* No option to return to the head of a menu (caller is forced to redial);

* No message regarding length of expected hold time;

* A recording on the AVR system so old or damaged it is difficult to understand;

* A caller disconnected without explanation halfway through a menu.

CRITICAL PROBLEMS

Although the ability to speak with a human increased the likelihood of a more satisfactory customer experience, this was no guarantee of a good customer experience. Critical problems encountered when talking to customer service representatives included:

* Unfriendliness, rudeness or a customer service representative obviously rushing to meet a call-handling quota;

* CSRs who were not empathetic (in one case, one of the survey project's interviewers called a major insurance company with what happened to be an actual question about a claim and was made to feel by everyone she talked to that she was at fault);

* CSRs not properly trained and therefore unable to respond intelligently;

* CSRs not given the authority to make a decision;

* Extensive on-hold times without being told how long the hold would be (one interviewer was forced to listen to the same company promo message 114 times).

When contact was made (or attempted) via companies' Web sites, some problems found were:

* 15% of companies contacted simply didn't respond at all (in one case, a global computer company's Web site had an elaborate explanation regarding who would be receiving the inquiry but no response was ever received);

* Two-thirds of the e-mail responses received took more than 24 hours to generate a response;

* Some sites were extremely difficult to navigate;

* Some sites were not interactive, having no mechanism that allowed for e-mail to the company;

* E-mail responses were canned (not personalized) or did not speak to a particular problem or inquiry.

POOR TRAINING, NO BUDGET

It seems poor interactive performance is the result of companies not budgeting and training for the back end of interactivity. It is easy and no longer that costly to have a site designed and placed on the Web, and it is similarly easy and not that costly to have an in-bound 800 number.

The reality is, however, there's more to interactivity than technology.

There need to be enough people to interact with customers promptly. These people need to be trained so they can answer questions quickly and thoroughly. They must be empowered to make decisions, make adjustments and approve repairs or replacements. The technology for handling the interaction must be user-friendly, not just a way for the company to save money (as with AVR systems ).

Most companies fail to recognize that an advertised 800-number and Web site address create an expectation. They are perceived as invitations that say to a customer or prospect "Contact us. We want to talk with you!" But these expectations aren't being properly managed when over half the contacts, from a customer's perspective, are only fair or poor.

At the root of the problem is that, while companies have finally been convinced they need to listen to customers and prospects, the majority don't know what to do after they listen. If you don't believe me, the next time you hear someone say their company really listens to customers, ask them what their company does after it listens. If they say they satisfy the customer, ask them how they know this for sure.

MYSTERY CALLERS

As I conduct seminars and give speeches on integrated marketing, I ask participants if they have made a mystery shopper call or e-mail to their own company in the last year. Consistently, fewer than 20% have done so.

To fully leverage the investment in interactive technology and strengthen rather than weaken brand relationships, companies should:

* Make sure there is sufficient budget to hire and train enough staff to quickly, thoroughly and politely process contacts before promoting a Web site or 800-number;

* Design their interactive systems to be user-friendly, not just to save the company money;

* Have an ongoing mystery shopper monitoring system that includes periodic calls made by marketing executives;

* Capture in a customer database each critical contact so that subsequent contacts with these customers can have the knowledge of past contacts.

Findings of this study seem to indicate once again that the most uncommon thing in business today is common sense.

Mr. Duncan is associate professor of integrated marketing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and founder of the Integrated Marketing Communications Graduate Program at the university. Survey tabulations were done by graduate

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