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The Changing Channel

IT Services and the Lie of 'Customer Satisfaction'

How do you differentiate yourself from the competition? If the answer is your "commitment to customer satisfaction," you'd better examine how truthful that is.

One of the primary questions I ask my marketing clients is "What sets you apart?" Sometimes I phrase it as "What makes you so special?" At the end of the day, I'm asking what their unique, sustainable, competitive advantage is, because that's the best place to start building their messaging.

The universal reply is "We're totally committed to customer satisfaction." (Similarly, the answer to "Who is your customer?" is too often "Anybody with money.")

Whenever I hear this answer, I think to myself, "Does this person really think that nobody else is committed to customer satisfaction?" Followed by, "Does this person think that anyone in business is not totally committed to customer satisfaction?"

That last thought is what I want to contend with here. The real question should be, "Would anyone say they're not committed to total customer satisfaction?" Because make no mistake: There are clearly many who, deep down, simply are not.

Take Apple as an example.

For the first half of my career, I was a die-hard Apple fanatic. I sold tons of Apple IIs, Macs, even a few LISAs and Apple ///s. Yes, I'm that old.

But recently, my wife and I took her iPad to the Apple Store to have it repaired (she'd cracked the glass). When we presented it to the Apple Store employee, I expected the usual "this is not covered by warranty" disclaimer, but it was not forthcoming. What he said instead literally shocked me (and I consider myself to be fundamentally shock-proof).

He asked, "Have you made an appointment?"

An appointment? I don't need support or advice or anyone's time. I just need you to take it in for repair. "Doesn't matter, you still need to make an appointment."

I muttered something resembling "If Steve were still alive..." and stalked away, now firmly committed to my Surface RT. Or my Droid.

And I'm certain that an Apple rep would say that Apple is committed total customer satisfaction. Bad news, dude -- I'm not satisfied, not even a little.

The Passing of an Era
I started my career in a retail computer store. I then went to a chain computer store followed by another chain of computer stores. We would roll over backward and do handsprings to satisfy customers. Walter Cronkite once brought his computer to our service desk and you can bet we didn't ask if he had an appointment.

More recently, I visited what is one of the last chains of retail computer stores. You'd think it would work double-hard to compete with the big-box and office-equipment stores that sell computers these days.

I was trying to restore my desktop and it seemed the DVD media was clobbered. Since I had never used it, I explained to the guy at the repair desk that I simply needed another copy. Since I had made the grievous error of actually buying the store brand, it stood to reason the store would have copies in the shop.

I was a month past warranty. He said he could take it in for a look for $69.95 or I could go talk to the sales guys and see what they could do for me.

I immediately began mourning the passing of the great retail computer store era, when customers were all sales reps were about and going the extra mile was simply the standard operating procedure. This was now the third computer in a row that I had discarded because it just "wasn't worth it to fix it -- you can buy a new one for less."

Excuses, redirection, blame games and blatant falsehoods seem to be all many computer sellers can muster these days. It's no wonder that sites like Amazon.com are eating their lunch. Amazon.com takes anything back without question. Just don't ask it to make adjustments to your account. That seems to be beyond its reach.

The Radiant Hope
The good news for our channel is that the overwhelming majority of channel partners who serve SMBs, enterprises, the public sector and the rest are utterly, totally committed to customer satisfaction beyond words. They measure their quality of life by it. They eat, sleep, drink and breathe it. It doesn't make them different from each other, it simply makes them great -- and infinitely better than retail stores or many manufacturers.

So I hope you had a wonderful summer and are ready for the onslaught of the year's end. Know in your hearts that you make the world better for your business customers, and pity the poor consumers who are better off buying disposable computer devices online.

About the Author

Howard M. Cohen is a consultant to IT vendors and channel partner companies and a board member of the U.S. chapter of the IAMCP. Reach him at hmc@hmcwritenow.com.

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