It’s every brand’s worst nightmare. In March, disgruntled car owners organised on Facebook to protest at Volkswagen’s Malaysia headquarters in Bangsar against poor after-sales service and to question the safety of vehicles. VW’s experience highlighted how brands in Asia must improve customer service or risk making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Great customer service translates into loyalty, which leads to increased sales and profits. It also generates positive word of mouth, which today spreads globally in a matter of minutes and leads to a stronger brand reputation.
Kannan Rajaratnam, head of customer experience at Asian online fashion store Zalora, says great service is the key to attracting repeat customers. Many organisations see their customer service teams as a cost centre, but it makes more sense to view the department as one that generates revenue, he says. Great service triggers word-of-mouth marketing, which is free and viral. “The cost of acquiring new customers is always the lowest when interaction with customer service is established. You have one chance to acquire the customer, and a potential lapse would be disastrous. Bad service could prompt the customer to speak to about 15 to 20 people. However, with social media, this could easily reach an audience of 5,000.”
Organisations that handle a considerable number of transactions may not be able to ensure every experience is perfect, he adds, therefore it is crucial to plan for an immediate recovery from a lapse with a ‘wow’ factor.
Dave McCaughan, MD at McCann Worldgroup HK and regional director for Truth Central, says the issue is not so much that brands are reluctant to offer high levels of customer service, but more to do with the way it is delivered. “The mechanisation of customer service may have problems. When we undertook our Truth about Privacy study around the world, we found that people in Asian markets like Hong Kong and Japan assumed that service would be available ‘in person’. This is partly because they are still more likely to get it that way.”
Mike Amour, Asia-Pacific CEO of Project: WorldWide, cites Singapore Airlines and Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts as Asian brands that have got it right. The latter received top honours in Forrester’s recent Customer Experience Index for China, a survey that asked 4,500 Chinese consumers about their experience with firms in 46 different industries. “Ideally every new employee would get a cultural induction at the headquarters,” says Amour. “However, time and cost often make that impractical, especially if the headquarters is overseas, so companies need to compensate for this by capturing stories and anecdotes about the company culture — not just historical sales data — and figuring out the best way to communicate these virtually.”
Forrester Asia-Pacific researcher Samantha Jaddou, author of the Customer Experience Index for China, says that in her experience, all brands take customer experience seriously. “But they often lack the knowledge and resources to do it systematically,” she says. “They try to deliver a customer experience without fully understanding what customers want — a perfect example of an inside-out approach. It takes a lot of effort to flip that perspective to an outside-in approach, but it needs to be done.”
Future Brand strategy director Remona Duquesne says another challenge is that the concept of ‘brand’ in Asia is still in its early stages, and the idea of an ‘employer brand’ is barely known. “The employer brand essentially denotes a company’s reputation as an employer and is strongly aligned to the external brand.In the case of service industries, the employer brand may even be more important than the external customer-facing brand, because human capital equals the engine driving sales and reputation.”
Strong employer brands have employees who are invested in the company and brand, which ultimately affects the bottom line and brand reputation for the better. “The current Asian business mentality may lean more towards hard measures such as profits and number of sales, perhaps not focusing as much on the softer measures such as customer satisfaction, service and brand, or realising that these may be a driver of the hard measures.”
CASE STUDY Globe helps customers help each other
Philippines-based telecoms company Globe Telecom says it has always believed that to keep its clients happy, it needs to provide them with a good customer experience, especially in terms of after-sales support. The company seized the opportunity to expand this service when the uptake of social media went through the roof in recent years.
The Philippines has the largest number of people actively engaged in social media relative to the total number of online users in the country.
Mobile internet use has grown so rapidly in the country that almost every Filipino today has access to social networking sites.
Globe capitalised on this phenomenon by providing efficient and personalised customer service through its Twitter support channel, @talk2GLOBE, and its online forum, Globe Community.
The latter encourages engagement among subscribers and empowers customers to help resolve each other’s problems.
Simple, common issues are settled faster, as members are eager to share their experiences and how their own concerns have been resolved. Customers are particularly happy that they no longer have to wait for an agent to assist them. “Twitter conversations are more engaging compared with call transactions, which are usually robotic, transactional, cold and distant,” says Chris Lipman, Globe Telecom’s head of customer experience management.
Those working online are encouraged to let their personalities shine and even upload their own photos, as well as strike conversations with customers about topics unrelated to Globe.