Customer relations: do consumers really want to be engaged?

Retirement changed my perspective on many aspects of technology innovation. During my career I focused on the business benefits of innovation, from increasing sales to cutting costs and using big data to support consumer relationships. Now, in retirement, my perspective has changed: how do these innovations look from a consumer point of view? It’s a mixed bag! The business benefits of ‘customer relations’, upsell, and feedback requests are clear. When they pile up in consumers’ inboxes, though, they can be nagging annoyances.

Sure, we’re all enjoying the benefits of abundant product information and options, our ability to compare prices and to find deals, and to be able to shop without having to leave our homes. Most of us don’t want to go back to the not-so-good old days before e-commerce. But do we have to pay for it with excessive outreach?

Customer engagement or spam?

It’s become almost impossible to buy anything anonymously. Most of the time, when we buy something, we just want to get a product and don’t much care about the brand or how we got it. However, rather than letting us execute a simple transaction and leaving it at that, the seller or the manufacturer wants us to engage in a relationship with them. This has given rise to an entire customer data management industry looking to connect to people via e-mail, SMS, and voice. But do consumers really want these connections? Or are they just irritating? The claim that they are interesting to consumers - just like the claim that targeted ads are engaging - is mainly supported by businesses’ revenue increases rather than by consumer enthusiasm. Shouldn’t customer data management mean that customers manage their data, as opposed to their data being managed outside of their control?

The quest for the ‘relationship’ usually starts with a merchant asking for an e-mail address and a phone number. The ostensible reason is to communicate in the case of problems. Beyond that, some electronic gadgets like the router I bought recently require an e-mail address and an app just to get them to work. Similarly, some purchased software comes with a mandatory “free” account. In most cases, that’s not technically necessary but just a way to obtain information.

As we found, an e-mail address is worth a lot to a brand. That is, whoever collects the e-mail address receives some value from us. Should the product price be reduced accordingly? After all, we’re paying for handing out our e-mail addresses by having to deal with avalanches of spam. Unfortunately, the cost of sending spam is much lower than the cost to the recipients having to deal with it. In one case recently, I tried to unsubscribe to e-mail from an aggressive merchant. After hitting the unsubscribe button, it took two one-on-one e-mail exchanges with their support people to finally stop the e-mails. The low cost of spamming also leads to mindless e-mail. Why would I, after buying a high-end router, need another one three weeks later? After all, the manufacturer’s web site told me that the router I just bought will solve all connectivity problems in my home!

It’s not likely that the trend for this kind of ‘customer engagement’ will let up. With the loss of some ad targeting capabilities in browsers and apps, there is even an expectation that digital publishers will resort to e-mail targeting. We’ll need to upgrade our spam filters!

The upsell

Another annoying ‘innovation’ is the upsell, trying to convince us that we need something we didn’t even know we needed. Naturally, sellers want to maximize their revenue. Often though, this not in consumers’ best interest, in particular when merchants use dark patterns that try to distract consumers or exploit moments of inattention. Among the online stores, Amazon appears to have best mastered the upsell. It shows in their market capitalization.

Trying to move consumers from single transactions to subscriptions optimizes the seller’s revenue while likely causing overconsumption and excess cost for consumers. When I recently ordered a new cutter head for my electric shaver, I had to un-check the ‘subscription’ button. Otherwise, Amazon would have sent me a new cutter head every 6 months, claiming that 6 months is the most common choice for resupply. As it happens, my old cutter head lasted a lot longer than that, and I hope the new one will as well. For true consumables such as printer ink in business offices, subscriptions can be helpful. The unpredictable use of our home printer, though, makes a subscription unsuitable. The fact that the ink is cheaper in a subscription than in a standalone transaction shows that the suppliers think they would sell more this way than just when we need it.

A ‘feature’ similar to subscriptions is to keep items in the shopping cart after the transaction is complete. The next time consumers connect they have to delete the items from the cart to avoid accidentally purchasing them twice.

Extended warranties are popular upsell objects. They may be useful for very expensive items – and even there, the jury appears to be out. For most ordinary household purchases, they are unlikely to pay off. Yet much of the time, they are offered automatically, sometimes even pre-checked, with web purchases. The most egregious extended warranty offer I received, though, happened in a physical store. When I bought a set of free weights, the check-out clerk asked whether I wanted an extended warranty! I declined.

The never-ending quest for feedback

A third area where business objectives end up irritating is the aggressive pursuit of feedback. With almost any commerce transaction we’re being asked for an evaluation. In some cases, this is motivated by a real interest in providing better service. But do I really need to complete the bike shop’s survey after just having some inner tubes exchanged? In other cases, the requests seem to feed deep bureaucratic processes. Whenever I pick up my car from service at the dealer, and if it’s only for a state inspection, the service agent asks me to give the shop 10s on every one of the survey questions I’ll receive from the manufacturer. Lower numbers, even 9s, would get them into trouble! Ignoring the requests only leads to more e-mails. Sometimes, the purpose of the feedback appears to create pressure on call center agents. An example is the question, at the end of a phone call, “would you hire this service agent”? Yes or no, no real information is requested!

I understand that feedback can be useful. However, if every transaction causes feedback questions, the resulting volume becomes just too much, the survey monkey becomes annoying.

Give us a break!

For individual manufacturers, merchants and service providers, these processes - the customer engagement, the upsell, and the feedback requests – may make sense, and likely are profitable. For consumers, where they all pile up, the story is quite different. It would be interesting to know if the businesses are looking at it from a consumer perspective – hopefully without sending more survey requests!

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