By: Ed Keller and Brad Fay, co-authors of The Face-to-Face Book (Free Press: 2012)
Lots of employers prefer that their workers keep chatter to a minimum and focus on their work. But it turns out that your employees’ conversations could be critical to the success of your business -- at least those conversations that occur as part of the customer service process.
In our newly published book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace (Free Press: 2012), we report that American consumers hear about brands through word of mouth conversations about 15 billion times per week -- that’s billion, with a “b.” Fully 5% of these, or about 750 million per week, happen in a store of some kind.
These in-store brand conversations may occur between fellow customers, or between customers and store employees, or both. We also know that half of all brand conversations result in an intent to purchase -- and for in-store word of mouth, it’s even higher: 57%.
Together, these statistics suggest that in-store conversations can be quite an effective tool for driving customer engagement, interest, and purchase. It’s worth encouraging your employees to strike up conversations with your customers, and also worth creating an environment that actively fosters conversation of all kinds.
Two companies that have done this very well are Apple and Zappos.
The Apple Customer Service Experience
Apple Stores, well-known for the great customer service, are perhaps the most “social” retail environments in the country, and it’s no accident. In fact, Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson recounts in his 2011 bestseller that as far back as 2000 Jobs realized that for Apple to be successful, it needed to have a way to communicate directly with customers, and the best (and really only) way to do that was within retail stores.
While the strategy was initially derided by many, today it has proven to be the most successful retail operation in the country. Apple Stores directly account for 15% of Apple’s revenues. Perhaps even more importantly, according to Isaacson, “by creating buzz and brand awareness they indirectly helped boost everything the company did.”
How does Apple do this? Most locations feature products that are prominently displayed on tables throughout the store. People can walk around the tables and try out the products, which also causes them to be looking in the direction of people opposite them, rather than staring by themselves at endless, tall racks of products.
The interaction with products also provides triggers for conversation, as in: “how did you do that?” or “wow, that’s cool!” Conversations occur between customers, as well as between customers and employees, who are omnipresent in Apple Stores, and clearly recruited as customer service representatives based on personality as well as knowledge.
In our view, it’s no accident that Apple brands earn more word of mouth, collectively, than the brands of any other company -- in the US, United Kingdom, and Australia, according to our research. While there are many reasons why Apple brands are “talkable,” the stores, and the Apple approach to customer service, clearly have become part of the reason why.
The Zappos Company
Zappos, the popular direct seller of shoes and other products, doesn’t have actual store locations, but they have a large number of call center representatives who talk directly with customers.
While most companies view their call centers as “costs” to be minimized and there is a heavy focus on productivity, Zappos sees their call as a critical point of contact with their customers; they actually manage for longer calls, not shorter ones.
The reason: They want their customer service to build a strong personal rapport between customers and employees that will help to generate loyalty.
Interestingly, although the Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, has a huge following on Twitter, he eschews online social media as a “social” channel. He actually collects $1 any time one of his executives use the term “social media” in his presence, because he’s not interested in having an online social media strategy for the company.
What he wants is to encourage meaningful personal, emotional connections between his employees and customers; he believes that’s the key to driving sales and customer loyalty.
“In a perfect world,” says Hsieh, “every time someone places an order, a Zappos employee would get in their car, drive to the house, and thank the customer for the order.” That’s not practical, but Hsieh considers the phone to be a very underutilized resource for most companies.
The phone allows for a personal rapport to be built between the company’s customer service associate and the customer. The emotional bond that can be built both builds a foundation of loyalty and becomes something that is highly viral, as customers share their shopping experiences with friends and family.
Consumer decisions are conversations today. Companies who recruit employees who are good conversationalists -- and who encourage face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication with customers and prospects -- will find it pays tremendous dividends and leads to business success.
Ed Keller, co-author of The Face-to-Face Book, (Free Press, 2012) is CEO of the Keller Fay Group, an award-winning word of mouth research and consulting firm. Keller has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth" and the publication of his 2003 book, The Influentials, has been called the "seminal moment in the development of word of mouth."
Brad Fay, co-author of The Face-to-Face Book, (Simon and Schuster, 2012) is the chief operating officer of the Keller Fay Group. Brad won the Grand Innovation Award of the Advertising Research Foundation for the development of Keller Fay’s TalkTrack®, a continuous measurement system for all consumer conversations about brands and companies, both offline and online.