Monday, November 01, 2010

Customer Service Light Bulb Moment

A light bulb went off in my head the other day. Actually it couldn’t go off anywhere else since light bulbs in cameras are a thing of the past but the metaphor goes on. Okay, so a light bulb went off. It was as I was thinking about my latest experiment in marketing.

We had a major project pushed back to later in the year by a client so I decided that since I now had two weeks open and customer service week was one of them, why not try some really out there customer service from us.  I had just finished reading a book titled Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead by Scott and Halligan. An interesting book taking the promotional actions of one of the country’s most iconic and successful bands and turning them into new marketing ideas.  I had also studied the Grateful Dead earlier in my career as I looked to radical marketing concepts. I realize that the Grateful Dead are no longer with us but they created a wave of support so strong that people are still Deadheads and still collect their performance tapes as if they were a religion. Besides, they were my son’s favorite band and that is good enough for me.

They were also geniuses at marketing. They decided they would be a touring band that would make most of its money by doing concerts. Record sales were just a small part of their revenue stream which would be primarily in ticket sales. They did sell tee shirt sales, poster sales and the sales of all sorts of Dead-related stuff but they also let others set up and sell whatever they wanted too. And in what seemed like a crazy move guaranteed to cut into record sales, they not only allowed fans to records their sets but actually created a recording area to help them record shows. Result, their shows sold out and record sales soared. They tried and succeeded in giving away their music and it generated raving fans.

Now, I am not Jerry Garcia and far from creating music but I was inspired.  My fam base is strong and international but I had no illusions that it is anywhere as strong as the Dead’s nor any band for that matter. But I was going to try something Dead-inspired. So I offered to do free presentations and workshops for colleges and universities. The schools just had to be willing to cover my costs and provide an honorarium if they thought the presentation was worthwhile.

Seven schools took me up on my offer and I had eleven more that wanted to but it was first come first served. Seven schools in two weeks with two days of fully-paid-for presentations at the University of Central Arkansas the end of the preceding week.  I was going to see what a touring band felt like racing from one end of the country to the other on late night and red-eye flights.

I learned a few things. First, I am too old for too many late night flights three days in a row. Second, this was not such a great idea. And third, colleges have a warped sense of customer service. Even more odd than I had thought. This last was the flashbulb moment and was worth the exhaustion…maybe.

First a comparison. When I did two days’ worth of presentations at the University of Central Arkansas where they paid for my time and efforts, I was treated much better than at the schools that would take the freebie and leave it at that. At UCA where I emphasize I was being paid, I was given wonderful hospitality, enthusiasm and even a beautiful college logo polo shirt. They could not have been nicer at UCA and I really enjoyed being made to feel as a guest.  Interestingly, at Eaglegate College in Salt Lake City, I was also treated like a guest, given a shirt and a generous honorarium.  They made hotel arrangements, made sure I had what I needed for the presentation, provided an introduction to my talk and did what they could to make me feel welcomed at both UCA and Eaglegate. Pratt took a free session, hired me for an additional session and had a person assigned to make sure I had coordination and assistance though he had issues and meetings to deal with and was called away by them.

The other schools in varying degrees, the ones that did not provide an honorarium (yes, I know. Maybe they thought the presentations were not work anything) also did not provide much coordination assistance, a real welcome, an introduction, a thank you, never mind a shirt, tee shirt or even pencil or a free cup of coffee from most of them. There wasn’t anyone around to help check out the equipment, to greet me when I came on campus nor thank me at the end of the presentation, send a thank you note, email or call. Three of the schools schedule me for a second free presentation in the same day without checking to see of that’d be okay. One of them is demanding that I complete a w-9 making my expenses taxable so I won’t even recover my costs there. And another is saying that they did not encumber enough money to cover all the expenses so I may have to eat some of the cost of travel to give a free talk.

Maybe the free talk offer was not a great marketing idea even though I did get to spread the word to about 800 more people. And though it may seem I am complaining, I accept the fact that this was my offer and I have to accept the consequences. I didn’t expect a free shirt or mug from any of them but some simple customer service my way would have been nice.

And that is where the light bulb is. The schools did not have any sense of reaching out to someone who had reached out to them with free assistance. It seemed that since I was not being paid, they did not feel an obligation to provide me customer service. They saw themselves as the customers providing me a free venue to provide them a workshop. There was a clear coordination between money and value. And that does fit with some of what I have written about in the past. The amount of investment equals the amount of expectation on the part of the customer and the amount of expected service.

The schools did not have much of an investment, in my talks and workshops therefore they did not see a need to reach back to me with service. They invested little so had a negligible ROI quotient to deal with. They in turn did not invest emotionally nor affectively as shown in even the lack of having someone introduce me.  

Those that had an investment, reached back the most. The greater the investment, the greater the service too. The greater the investment the more at risk so let’s make sure this goes well. With no money invested, the schools had nothing at risk so they were not going to invest emotion or attachment to the event and just let them happen without getting personally involved. The two schools that did provide an honorarium had some depth of involvement and provided some service. The one that had a small financial investment showed some service but just some. The other with a larger honorarium provided some good service to me but also to all the people it had brought together for a day-long retreat. They had the largest overall investment and accordingly showed the greatest service outside of UCA which did have the full investment and did extend itself.

That does not mean they did not have an expectation of me though. Even though they were not paying they still expected a full presentation from me as shown in the schools that booked me for not just one talk but two so more people had a chance to come and hear my message.  They wanted and expected I would do a full and worthwhile presentation too since they booked at least an hour and a half and one even booked a three hour period of time for me to speak and train. There was an investment of the time of their employees but interestingly not necessarily of the person who coordinated the initial arrangements.  Two school recorded the presentation and one audio taped it for later therein showing they believed it would be worthwhile and have value.

What I didn’t realize was that they would so strongly see themselves as the customer and have high expectations of service from me in the presentations but seemed to feel no obligation toward me. I did not realize how strong the connection of financial investment to service was at the schools but now that I am formulating that relationship in my mind, I do see why students and adjuncts are treated so poorly while full time faculty and administrators are treated in excess of what they should be in the academic caste system.

There is a strong relationship between money going out of the school and accompanying service. Students actually pay therefore have a negative correlation for service from the school and adjuncts get paid the least and thus get the least service.  Students are not even seen or accepted as customers or clients by most schools and adjuncts are barely recognized or served at all. While faculty who take out some of the largest salaries get premium service and attention and administrators who get paid in excess of what they do almost always get the most service, services and assistance.  Faculty will normally have people to type up their papers or exams, even though they have a school supplied computer, to do the scut work or copying for example as well as private or semi-private if not yet tenured or there is a space problem even though they need only be on campus a couple days a week and much more like good parking spots. Administrators get what faculty get and more including folks who make their coffee, schedule their appointments and offices large enough to subdivide into three NYC apartments and they get to park closest to their office.  (Yes, I know there are some faculty who have it worse and some administrators could only subdivide into two; not three but I am talking the rule not the exception.)

Adjuncts get almost no support, no office, the worst schedules and the worst pay. They could make more money working at Wal-Mart, not need any college degree never mind at least a master’s degree and would even get a discount on the food they buy at Wal-Mart it being one of the few places adjuncts can afford. Students get even less. They get no support assistance, must do their own schedule which is always open to last minute changes, and must pay for being on the bottom and pay overly large amounts of money. If I were service discounted because I was free it stands to reason that those who pay would be service deprived. This is one reason why students are treated so poorly. They actually pay money into the school!

And that is the light bulb moment. Would I ever do fee free presentations again. I don't think so. There would have top be some fee so that my work and time are valued. Maybe for $1500 which is about 75% off or maybe at 50% off at $3000 but not for free. I may not always be the brightest bulb in the pack but I am not that dim.

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Matt said...

I'm so sorry that you received a less than stellar reception at some of the institutions of higher education that you visited.

Speaking on behalf of some of my co-workers we thoroughly enjoyed your presentation and I hope that you will make a return visit to Pratt in the near future.

nickbroom said...

I very often find myself evagelising that Free equals zero value.
There is no way back from free.
If you do something for free and there is a subsequent issue, you cannot make recompense!

Do the work again? Probably not.
Fix the issue? Maybe, but at cost, therefore increased loss, not free.
Walk away? Most likely, but leaves a bad taste / bad experience / unhappy client.

Free can only only go one way in my opinion and has to be very carefully administered.

Even if only a nominal charge is made, at least there is a percieved value on both sides. Value in the client to provide the service that at least matches the value, and on the client to value the work carried out to a specific price.

I think the parallel to schools / universities is relevant, but it is not exclusive - its widespread through business generally.

Anyone can provide FREE, fewer can provide VALUE.