I have been a lifelong customer of American Airlines. A frequent flyer, credit card holder, miles gifter--you name it. I started flying AA because they had direct flights into St. Louis, where most of my family lives. From there, I started to accrue miles, and soon enough, I booked all of my travel on AA. It became a habit. I knew their routes, the layout of their planes, and how to navigate Dallas Forth Worth airport like a local. In performing arts terms, I was a long time subscriber. That is until now.
My flight from St. Louis to Washington, DC was canceled the day after Christmas due to weather (even though DC didn't receive any snow, and my plane was at the airport ready to take off). I was informed by a robo call, which also told me that I was rebooked for a flight 26 hours later. The message ended by instructing me to call AA reservations if I had any questions or concerns. Knowing that I had to be at work the next day for two interviews with major media outlets, I tried calling the number given. After being hung up on four times, the automated telephone system said "we are experiencing high call volume. If you would like to speak with an agent, please call back later." Knowing that I wouldn't be able to speak with a human, I tried working out my problem on the AA iPhone App and on their website, neither of which were designed to handle cancellations. My last option was driving an hour and a half to the airport, which I did only to be met with an apologetic but complete ineffective gate agent. So with no other option, I boarded a flight 26 hours later, however I decided I would no longer be an AA subscriber.
As marketers, we know that it costs significantly more to attract new customers than it does to retain them. Customer service is one of the easiest ways to create brand champions or to drive loyal customers away. As the economic crisis continues, we are all being forced to examine our expenses and improve ROI. So here are some thoughts on customer service as a marketing tactic to reduce churn:
1. When dealing with a customer service complaint, take a holistic view of the customer. At Arena Stage, we are fortunate enough to have a robust database that allows us to see a holistic view of our patrons. Each time a patron comes into contact with our company, it is recorded. Any employee can log into the database, and see a lifetime's worth of interactions. Like most companies, Arena Stage has policies and procedures, however our greatest asset is the excellent judgment of our front line staff. They are instructed and empowered to thoroughly review a patron's file, and to depart from most policies and procedures if necessary to retain loyal customers. I would rather waive a $10 exchange fee for a longtime subscriber every once in awhile than spend ten times that finding a new subscriber. Senior managers must allow front line employees the flexibility to take care of highly valued customers.
2. Track all customer service issues, and start to look for a pattern. Each time a customer complains, be it to front of house, box office or anyone else, the complaint should be logged into your database and tracked. Every Monday morning, senior members of the Arena Stage staff are sent a CSI (customer service issue) report listing all the complaints that came in the previous week. These complaints are then put into a spreadsheet, sorted into categories and analyzed for any visible patterns. If the same issue continues to come up, you can bet that there are ten times the number of frustrated patrons with the same issue who haven't complained. It is then your responsibility to proactively address the issue swiftly to prevent future patrons from having a similar disappointing experience with your company.
3. Be proactive, rather than reactive. The best service comes from proactive management of customer service issues. Instead of relying exclusively on complaint tracking and analysis, be proactive and solicit opinions. Send customer satisfaction surveys. Benchmark numerical responses from year to year, and ask open ended questions. Aggressively solicit customer service issues and correct them before others have to experience them. In addition, if you notice a customer has experienced a problem, try to contact them before they contact you. We ask our house managers to get the names of all patrons who share complaints and/or concerns. This allows us to follow up with the patron and suggest a solution, apologize or offer some form of compensation before they contact our box office. Imagine receiving an apology and a compensatory offer from a box office before you even contact them to report an issue.
4. Even small gestures go a long way. After doing a little research on airline customer service, I was reminded by Time Magazine's Richard Zoglin in his article "The Airlines' Customer Complaint Lines: No Answer" that even small gestures go a long way. You might not be able to meet all the demands of an angry customer, but you should be able to offer a little something to most of them. A comp ticket to an under-performing show, a free drink at the bar, complimentary parking, an autographed poster or perhaps a handwritten response from your Artistic Director. In today's world of fast-paced, unfriendly, automated response systems to customer complaints, it shouldn't take much to stand out from the crowd. Differentiate yourself from your competition by making a small gesture to each upset patron.
By offering better customer service, you can reduce your marketing expenses by slowing down churn. Make it a priority to retain the customers you spent valuable time and resources attracting in the first place.