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Passing the Buck, and its Impact on Brand Reputation

December 1, 2017

Heron Island WreckAnother recent ‘bumpy’ travel experience gave me an opportunity to reflect further on brand experience. This one relates more to the way brands should respond to negative feedback. The irony is that if I had received an adequate response to my complaints, I wouldn’t be airing the experience in public now.

To give context, I need to refer to the companies involved and, unfortunately, Qantas is once again in the mix.

Earlier this year, we made a snap decision to visit a friend in Gladstone, Queensland and used the opportunity to book two nights on Heron Island while we were in the area. The whole travel experience – from the booking process to the Heron Island stay – was poor, and I followed up both with the booking provider (Qantas Hotels) and the resort operator (Delaware North) taking them through the whole debacle.

I wasn’t asking for any sort of refund. My email concluded simply with a request that “I expect a full and considered response to the complaints raised.”

  1. A timely first response

The first expectation you have as a disgruntled customer is a timely response to your complaint, especially when that expectation is set by the automated email response. This is what I received from Qantas (via Hooroo):

“Thank you for contacting Qantas Group Hotels,

We have received your email and will be in touch within 48 hours.”

It only magnifies the issue when you have to follow up on your email when you don’t get the promised response.

  1. Follow through on your promise

Your second expectation is that when a promise is made in response to a complaint, that promise is followed up:

After chasing Qantas, I received an email from the general manager of Heron Island Resort:

“I am very concerned that your experience was so disappointing and am currently reviewing your complaint with my management team.

I will revert back to you shortly when I have explored fully exactly why we failed to meet your expectations.”

That was the last I heard from them.

  1. Take ownership: don’t pass the buck

If you are providing a service under your brand, take complete ownership for that service. As a customer, there is nothing worse than a brand passing the blame onto another provider. This happened twice during this experience.

First, Qantas put the whole thing on to the resort operator, even though the original booking problem should have been acknowledged as their issue. If you are providing the booking service, as a customer I expect the service provider to take ownership of the problem, not blame someone at the back end:

“With regards to handling your hotel accommodations, we do apologise for the confusions specifically in the room type. Please be advised that whatever informations provided to you before came from the hotel since they were the ones who has the actual inventories of their rooms.”

Second, Delaware North apparently shifted the responsibility onto the new owner of Heron Island Resort, Aldesta Hotel Group. I say “apparently” because I had this quoted to me via Qantas from an email received by them:

“Heron Island Resort was purchased in January, 2017 by the Aldesta Group and while the Aldesta Group were establishing their business and management team within Australia, Delaware North retained management of the property. From the 1st of December, 2017 Heron Island Resort will be 100% owned and operated by the Aldesta Group with our management and team committed to providing the best experience possible for guests.”

  1. Ensure open (and working) communication channels

If you are advertising ‘contact us’ information, make sure that you are actively managing it, setting response times and following up on each channel you are using. To this date, I still haven’t received any response to my original email to Delaware North. The escalation only came when I tweeted about it. I’m assuming that the general email (travel@delawarenorth.com) is not being properly monitored.

After finding out that Aldesta Hotel Group now owns Heron Island Resort. All I could find was an info@aldestahotels.com address on its website. So I emailed this:

“Just to let you know, there is some serious buck-passing happening with regards to my complaint about our travel experience on Heron Island, and it’s not making me any happier.”

And the response?

“Your message couldn’t be delivered to info@aldestahotels.com because the remote server is misconfigured. See technical details below for more information.”

At least I found out that the email didn’t get through to anyone …

The upshot? Reputational damage and loss of business

Despite numerous follow ups with resort management, to date I still have had no response. So I sent this email today:

“This is very poor. Still no response to my complaint. I’ll be letting everyone know about the experience, and suggesting they travel to other locations if they are looking for an island holiday.”

I sent a similarly-worded email to Qantas (Hooroo):

“Just to let you know, that owing to the continued poor response from all concerned, I have just chosen to fly to LA return next month with Virgin.”

And I just did both.

 

Consistency and the Corporate Brand

August 8, 2017

Most of the domestic AustralianQantas Ticket flights I’ve caught in the past have been short ones, so until now I hadn’t really taken much notice of the inconsistency of the on-board experience.

A couple of longer-haul trips to Darwin in the last month – three legs with Qantas and one with Jetstar – made me sit up and take notice. On one flight, I couldn’t help but do that – my seat wouldn’t recline.

The key thing as a customer is that you want to know what to expect. On Jetstar, you know you’ll get the bare minimum. However, on Qantas you pay a little extra with the expectation of a premium service.

While most service businesses make a big thing about consistent customer experience, lately there’s been very little of that on Qantas planes. I’ve had a different user experience each time I’ve flown.

On the Sydney to Melbourne route there is barely time for food service, but four and a half hours to Darwin can really drag on – especially in a no frills Jetstar cabin. You crave the food service and in-flight entertainment on offer to provide the distraction needed to make the trip go faster.

On each Qantas flight, I’ve had three different entertainment configurations – an individual screen on the back of the seat, a seat pocket iPad on the second flight, and then BYOED (bring-your-own-entertainment-device) and download the Qantas Entertainment app.

Then you have food and beverage service. I had complementary drinks for one of the legs, but on the other two they were selling beverages for $6 each. Is it really worth Qantas’ while to charge $6 a drink? Surely serving the first drink for free with your meal is going to generate far more goodwill and less bother than completing a hundred separate cash transactions as the flight attendants make their way down the aisle.

I like to be all set with what I’ll need in my seat before I get on the plane – book, headphones, etc. – so I can put my bag up in the overhead locker and hopefully not have to touch it again until we land. Knowing what to expect from the on-board experience before the flight would be very useful.

Ultimately this inconsistency is a corporate brand issue. If the customer experience doesn’t consistently meet up to the expectations set by the organisation’s brand “promise” or values, it has a damaging effect.

Where will you get your news?

June 30, 2017

ExclusiveThere were reports this week of not one but two more journalists leaving the Australian technology media scene and moving into marketing communications roles – Nick Ross to Filtered Media and Chris Player joining Seccom Global. While it’s long been a conventional career path for some journalists to move into corporate content and communications jobs, the rate at which it is happening now seems to be escalating, and it doesn’t look like all of these journalists’ posts are being replaced by new blood. It’s no wonder graduates like Paul Maland are pessimistic about their future in the industry.

All of this is not really news to most of us – people have been talking about the uncertain future of traditional media for years – and discussed at length again just this week in the AFR with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti.

Peretti makes a point in the AFR article that trust in the media has been eroded – because people are thinking that “legacy media companies” are “hiding stuff” from us. But what are the alternatives? Where else do we go for the objective or independent “truth” on what’s happening in the world?

Back at Australian Federal Budget time (early May this year) I was thinking about this. Of course, the major print and online publications all had extensive reports on the Budget, but I thought this was a good time to get a sense of how much “journalism” is now taking place in the corporate world, so I scanned all the big financial services company websites. Many of them had teams of writers producing their own budget reports and analysis – I’ve extracted some screenshots below as examples from AMP, ANZ, CBA and NAB.

Budget_Screens

On the face of it these corporate versions of “Federal Budget 2017” coverage look like they are doing the same job as the newspapers. But what is actually happening? Are people now relying on their bank or their superannuation fund for financial news they can trust? And is that the same across other industry sectors too?

I still like to get my news from “independent” sources, but I don’t know what other people are thinking …

 

A Second Sporting Chance

March 16, 2017

After a long hiatus from posting to Explore Comms, we are finally back!

It was an article published just over 30 years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald that inspired me to write again. I came across the piece when I was doing some background research on Craig Elias – my business partner in a sporting venture that we are currently working on together.

Back in 1987, Craig was a promising new recruit who had just been signed on to a three-year deal with the Sydney Swans, one of our country’s leading Australian rules football (AFL) clubs.

(For those reading this outside Australia who don’t know the game, there’s a great explainer video on the AFL website.)

Unfortunately for Craig, serious injury cut short a promising career, but he’s managed to forge a successful business and family life post-footy.

In his younger days, Craig would have been the perfect candidate for a reality TV show concept that I think would be a huge hit if done the right way. In it, promising young sportspeople who have had their careers affected by injury, life circumstances or poor choices, are given a second chance to succeed in their chosen field. It would make great television to see these young people overcoming their challenges to rise back up to the top.

That idea only ever stayed at concept stage – but now we are developing something that will bring things full circle from a sporting perspective for Craig. We are approaching an exciting moment in the development of our venture, so watch this space for more news in the coming months!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

September 30, 2016

faxToday ‘officially’ marks my 20th anniversary in the IT industry. I had been doing some freelance work for an IT company for a year or so already, but it was 30 September 1996 when I joined Com Tech Communications in Sydney as Online Marketing Manager.

My job involved looking after the website (my handiwork, c.1998, sans graphics), taking responsibility for PR, producing whatever collateral was needed for the business, putting together the content for events and even working as a billable resource – I remember being part of the team that built the first-ever intranet for one of Australia’s big four banks.

We’ve seen some incredible change over 20 years. Back then, Amazon just sold books. Google didn’t exist. I toggled between AltaVista, Yahoo! and infoseek, and got excited when Ask Jeeves launched. IMDB.com was one of my favourite sites – and it’s great to see it still going strong today. We could buy an entire encyclopaedia on disc (well, it was Microsoft Encarta) which at the time seemed incredible. Now, I can go to Wikipedia and check that I used the correct quote for this post’s title (and finding out that it’s actually a translation of an epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’).

For our website, I used to hand code the HTML, using Telnet to edit the live web pages and FTP to upload new files to the web server. To build an e-commerce website, you needed a six-figure budget at a minimum and, if you were using Netscape Enterprise Server, that was just for the software. Now you can set up your own site to sell stuff for a few hundred dollars.

In 1996, I was at the launch of Fairfax@Market, when the Australian media company launched its first online classifieds. Then part-owner Conrad Black beamed in live on the big screen to welcome the event guests via videoconference (back then, also something pretty amazing). However, within a couple of years, eBay pretty much gobbled up that market. And videoconferencing is an everyday occurrence. You can even do video from your mobile phone, a device I didn’t even have until 1998 or 1999.

So, what hasn’t changed? Client case studies are still one of the best ways to market your business. Back then, I was writing about rolling out Windows NT 4 and Windows 95 standard operating environments for some government department, upgrading Freehills’ network from Token Ring to Ethernet, and the University of Melbourne’s network to ATM. One of my early masterpieces was an in-depth study on Kellogg’s deployment of Lotus Notes, which unfortunately was never approved so never published. I poured my heart into it, and it still hurts to this day.

Back then, we got excited about technology and industry “firsts” – the first IP telephony deployment, the first surgery completed using videoconferencing (that was a bit scary). Now. people still want to know how technology is making a difference to their business, but the technology is no longer the headline.

As an industry, we are still talking about the ‘next big thing’. Back then, it was ‘IP on everything’, now it’s the ‘Internet of Things’. Everyone is talking about digital technology, which is odd. For my generation, ‘digital technology’ was all about digital watches, which had their heyday in the 1980s (my Pulsar quartz is tucked away somewhere, still in its original box). Now it’s all about cloud, mobility, IoT and analytics.

Twenty years on, there’s still plenty of room for innovation and creative thinking. The opportunities to promote your ideas are almost overwhelming. Everyone can publish their own blogs, post their opinions on social media and crowdfund their artistic projects, commercial products or business ideas.

It’s still an exciting industry to be a part of.

(Pictured above: my office fax machine, a relic from the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Still in – very occasional – operational use.)

“Bad News Delivered Badly”

August 31, 2016

18820225526_884e6b752d_zIt’s hard to think of a more difficult task than a police officer knocking on someone’s door to deliver a death notification.

It kind of puts things in perspective when you consider Dropbox’s latest security breach concerns.  The breach back in 2012 may have exposed users’ credentials, and Dropbox issued a note to users last week asking users to update their passwords: “This is purely a preventative measure, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

The Dropbox Help Center note about this (I’m being asked to create a new password on dropbox.com—why, and what should I do?) buries the reason for the message way down the page, and even then feels the need to couch things in positive terms:

“Our security teams are always watching out for new threats to our users. As part of these ongoing efforts, we learned about an old set of Dropbox user credentials (email addresses plus hashed and salted passwords) that we believe were obtained in 2012. Our analysis suggests that the credentials relate to an incident we disclosed around that time.”

In marketing, we are often asked to help craft messages to deliver bad news. Typically the request is for us to put things in a more positive light. That can result in the news you are trying to convey being lost, misinterpreted or evoking such an adverse reaction that you end up doing more damage.

Can you imagine what would happen if marketers were asked to deliver a death notification?

“Hi – did you know that the local funeral home is offering a 20 percent discount this month? By the way …”

I was asked to review a piece of communications recently that was going out to notify users of a service that it was to be discontinued. The main purpose of the news was to ensure users had time to migrate to another service – preferably an alternative service offered by the same vendor. The first draft I saw was so focused on talking up the virtues of the alternative service offered that most customers wouldn’t have realised that the current service they were using was shutting down in a month’s time.

There’s a perfect analogy of this in a 2010 Police and Security News article, under the subhead ‘Bad News Delivered Badly’:

“A police wife from New Jersey traveled two hours in a cruiser with two officers to the hospital where her husband had been taken after being shot. During the entire trip, she was told her husband would be fine. When she arrived at the hospital, she was told he had died at the scene of the shooting. She resented being given a false sense of hope.”

– “Death Notification: The Toughest Job in Law Enforcement”,  Police and Security News, March/April 2010

Instead, the final communication about the service discontinuation ensured the key message – and action required to be considered by the customer – was clearly and sensitively delivered. We were clear on what was happening, when migration needed to take place, and emphasised that customers would be supported through the transition, there would be minimal disruption, and that they had a number of options open to them – the best being to migrate to the vendor’s alternative (and better) service.

There’s good advice we can follow from the law enforcement experience. This from Denny Hayes, who worked for 15 years as a chaplain for the FBI’s critical response team, personally delivering more than 500 death notifications:

“During that time, he developed a code for his ominous duties: Always deliver bad news in person. Always bring a partner (“95 percent of them defer to me to do the actual speaking of the words—nobody wants to experience sad”). Skip the euphemisms—they comfort no one except the person speaking them. Never abandon anyone until they have someone else to hold onto.”

– “What It’s Like to Deliver Bad News for a Living”, by Carrie Seim, The Atlantic, 4 June 2014

Taken from the same article in The Atlantic above, this really sums it up best:

“You can’t make it better,” said Dr. Nancy Davis, former chief of counseling services for the FBI. “But you can definitely make it worse.”

(Pictured above: “Bad News“, by Steve Davis [Photo credit: Dialysis Technician Salary] licensed for re-use by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Slipping Customer Service Standards

August 3, 2016

little-girl-talking-on-phoneWe had a very poor customer service experience recently, which culminated in one of those delicious Freudian slips that we always enjoy here at Explore Communications.

When the office coffee machine broke down last month we reacted immediately, contacting the manufacturer to find the nearest service agent for a repair under warranty.

To cut a long story short, there was a significant lack of response to our website queries and emails, and some less-than-ideal interactions over the phone as well.

We finally shipped our coffee machine off for repair and sent through an email of complaint to the manufacturer, who will remain nameless to avoid embarrassment.

This was part of the response from the Customer Care Team Leader, Brendan (see if you can spot the accidental/deliberate little ‘slip’):

Thanks for your email and apologies for the poor customer service you have received over the past few weeks. I have already raised the initial issue of your “missing” email with our IT department but haven’t had an explanation yet.

We are currently severely understaffed in our customer contact centre and in the middle of recruiting new personnel. I understand that this doesn’t alleviate the disappointment of the poor customer service you have received and is just an explanation as to the reasons of the substandard service.

I can ensure you that <redacted> is working tirelessly to restore the premium customer suffer we offer.