British Gas: Smart homes, dumb websites

It’s been a while since I updated this blog.

Starting a new job, moving home: life takes precedence! But I’m back, and it’s back and I’m going to try and update it every other week… watch this space.

So to business, and specifically British Gas. The company used one of Metro’s special cover features to advertise its new smart meter product.

Sticking with its theme of cartoony, almost Tim Burton-esque artwork, the ad shows the smart meter bathed in heavenly light.
British Gas smart meter Metro wrap cover 22 August 2012
Now, this is enough of a sales pitch for me – anything with a screen and a USB port is immediately on my wish list. Even more so, this little gizmo will (apparently) help me reduce my energy consumption and save me money. What’s not to like?

There’s a simple drive-to-web call to action – visit a specific URL to find out more. But vesting the company’s website is a little disappointing. First up, is a plain page, inviting me to begin. Well I’d done that by typing in the URL. The second page has a movie extolling the benefits of the smart meter. Yeah, yeah, yeah, how do I get one? Oh and I’m at work, so just some simple text instructions will be fine. But nothing. No more info, no further links. Nada.

After a bit of a hunt, I found some FAQs, suggesting that all British Gas customers will be receive one of these meters, and I can register my interest. So why not state this up front? No doubt someone will be counting the hits to the website and views of the videos – but if these are unsatisfactory to the customer – the stats are no indicator of success.

The customer journey is disappointing and frustrating. Some considerable resource must have gone into this campaign, but to me, it feels like a missed opportunity.

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Banners to be banned

Now that everyone has the tools to be a web designer, digital artist and online entrepreneur, it’s easy to come across badly designed websites, poor graphics and badly conceived businesses online. If you want to create a website purely for your own entertainment or hobby it doesn’t matter, visitors who don’t like it can go elsewhere, but for most people, design matters.

If you are running a business, the look and feel of your online presence is as important as your ‘real world’ presence. Most people will do a modicum of research before committing to any purchase more than a sandwich and if they do so online, they will make quick decisions, put off by slow loading or badly laid out websites. This extends to online advertising. Banner adverts are your shop’s sign posts. Get them wrong and your customers will get lost (literally).

Banner adverts directing customers to your site are important means of gaining traffic. They can be carefully targeted to websites and content that matches your service. Using social media, they can be localised and tailored to the audience, and placed on targeted websites. This means relevance is absolutely crucial. It’s crucial to get the messages, design and location just right.

Sussex Beauty Clinic

The first is a beauty clinic. There is a lot going on in the advert, in all sorts of different size text and font, coupled with an image which, simply, isn’t very beautiful. A visit to the website shows that it’s a model with an ice cube on her midriff, but in this context it could be a piece of ham, a sand dune or some sort of brown animal. You don’t want that sort of ambiguity from company that is going to permanently change your physical appearance. As a local business, its placement on a local news website is correct, however this ad needs to effectively demonstrate the firm’s service with a much more elegant design.

EDF Banner

This banner is from EDF Energy, advertising er… something blue. The message is completely lost. It has a call to action, but not one I’m likely to click on. Adverts are meant to inform their audience, not leave them guessing. I’d guess this ad is meant to rotate as an animation, but without the other images in the message is completely lost. The problem here is an absence of useful content.

MG6 Magnette

This MG advert has no real problems with design or content, and the call to action is implicit (this one does rotate), it’s the location of this banner that I was surprised about. It featured prominently on the Guardian’s environment page. If it was a particularly environmentally friendly car that would be fine, but since it has a CO2 output of 174 g/100km, against EU targets of 130 g/100km (falling to 95 g/100km in 2020) its hardly the eco warriors chariot of choice.

Banner ads can be sold on a pay-per-click basis, but often the owner will need to pay for the banner for a given period. This means banners that don’t drive any clicks are a waste of money.

Effective online ads, need to:

  • Be well designed, so they jump off the page
  • Contain good copy or product benefits
  • Provide a reason for clicking and a call to action
  • Be placed on a relevant page

Banner ads are easy to make – but that doesn’t mean successful banner ads are easy to make. So what do you think, any banners that make your blood boil?

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Proctor and risky gamble

For the second year, Procter and Gamble is running a Mother’s Day themed advert.

The concept behind the advert is pretty good – focusing on mothers by, not focusing on the mum. The mum is always in the background, quietly supporting her children. It’s a simple idea, and probably one that many people can relate to.

The messages between each photo are emotive, but can apply to fairly universally. The photos show scenes that are typical of childhood and by not showing the mother’s face, they become both generic and familiar.

Where it falls down is the tagline – “Proud sponsor of Mums”. This line irritates me. P&G represent many brands including Fairy, Pampers, Pringles, Pantene, Olay and Head & Shoulders. They’re brands that mums will probably be familiar with but the idea that P&G somehow sponsors mums is frankly offensive. If anything, the opposite is true – mums through their purchases sponsor P&G. Football clubs don’t buy items from their sponsors, they take a payment in return for advertising. Firms often pay significant sums of money in return for the support of an opinion leader. P&G makes significant revenues from its target audience.

Proctor & Gamble owns some of the biggest consumer and has a huge advertising budget (estimates vary from £189m to £204m in 2010). This is the first time it is advertising under its own brand rather than the individual product brands, and is intended to boost sales across all of them. In order to do this, it’s going to have to win the trust of mums, and gain their collective trust in all of the brands. Conversely, it risks putting all its eggs in one basket if any one of those brands fails.

This doesn’t work for me. It’s too saccharine and the sponsorship message puts me off. My loyalty to the brands it represents isn’t strong enough to prevent me switching to alternatives. If P&G is going to continue this approach, it needs to manage its advertising choices extremely carefully.

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What comes after the HD 4g iPad3?

Apple launched the third iteration of its iPad on Wednesday. Following on from the iPad, the iPad 2, we have… the.. iPad.

iPad Hero

It’s an interesting convention to choose.
Calling it an iPad 3 “would be so predictable,” said Phil Schillersenior vice president of worldwide marketing. But that implies that taking the number away was unpredictable. In a post last year, I suggested that Apple would move away from adding a number to each new model it launches, and I’m sure I was alone.

This new approach follows the company’s practice of simply naming its MP3 players, laptops and desktops, iPods, Mac Books and iMacs etc. Lots of speculators have suggested that this is the right way to go, simplifying the range and avoiding comparisons with competitors.

I’m not so sure the decision was a good one. It may have provided Schiller with a sound bite. But it will store up problems in the future. There is a fundamental difference between computers and MP3 players and mobile phones and laptops. Both the iPad and the iPhone are (often) sold on a contract, so there is an ostensible sell by date on these products. It is therefore necessary to have a quicker life cycle for these products. Assuming Apple continues its strategy of releasing new products each year, it will get into difficulties when it comes to product launches. Will we expect the advertisement of the new iPad and subsequently the newer iPad in a year’s time?

Comparisons with Apple computers and MP3 players are all very well, but they have fundamentally different uses. A computer should last several years, and can be upgraded to run current software. MP3 players have not changed function very much in the last few years and are unlikely to be upgraded as regularly as a phone or tablet. Therefore there is an inherent difference in the lifecycle of a contract based product.

It’s not hard to imagine the scenario of unscrupulous third party salesmen selling the ‘new’ iPad as the ‘new new’ iPad, or frustrated customers calling Apple’s (or even worse, third party network providers’) help desks trying to explain which ‘new’ iPad they have. Already, news articles are referring to it as the “new iPad” or the “iPad 4g“. The image above, from Apple’s website is titled iPad Hero. It feels like Apple has lost control of the brand name.

Of course Apple has always sought to be different and to buck the trend. Whilst its product launches attract enormous public interest, this new strategy may deliberately seek to homogenise demand and encourage people to upgrade in a more organic, as-required fashion. Theoretically this could actually limit sales at launch, unless Apple is actually planning to change its business model. Much has been made of Apple’s huge cash stockpile, and speculators have suggested that it could buy a mobile phone carrier. In this position, it would be preferable for its customers not to upgrade as often, but to stick with a single handset until they ‘need’ a new one, thereby increasing the life of each handset. It’d be a brave strategy indeed, not many brands have customers willing to queue for days to upgrade nearly-new products on the day of release, but would undoubtedly be an economic business model.

So what is this, Apple’s first big mistake, or its greatest coupe yet? We’ll have to wait and see.

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The future’s bright, but it certainly isn’t Orange.

Some posts almost write themselves.

There’s no doubt that it’s good practise to monitor your customers’ experiences with your company. Surveys, focus groups and online feedback forms are all good ways to do this. However, this communication must be absolutely right or it can actually cause more harm than good.

I had to call Orange about a problem with my phone. It wasn’t a great experience. The first representative didn’t listen to what I said and had to pass me on to a second who, not able to deal with my query, called the first an imbecile and passed me to a third person. The third representative was helpful and we agreed a plan to identify the cause of the problem and hopefully resolve it, she agreed to call me back in a week so they could monitor the issue.

Shortly after the call I received a series of text message asking if I’d be willing to provide some feedback on the call.

Question 1

Paradoxically, the messages only worsened my view of Orange. The five questions, (not “only three” as promised) didn’t reflect my experience. I’d hazard a guess that most people get to speak to one or more customer service representatives, therefore the first question fails to deal with this scenario. I answered based on the first person I spoke to – as the survey was based on the initial call I’d made. This person had no empathy and didn’t listen so put me through to department, my answer therefore was zero, but the final person I spoke to was actually interested in helping me resolve the problem, so had the question been phrased differently, I would have given a more balanced answer.

Questions 2 & 3

The second question was undoubtedly a no, but I do hope that representative no.3 will ultimately fix the problem. So the third question poses a dilemma. If we’re still talking about representative no.1, I’ve no hope that she will fix it because she passed the call to someone else, so the answer has to be a no.

Question 4Frustratingly, I’m now faced with question 4 – how likely am I recommend the company. In my current state of mind: Not at all. I’m faced with an answer scale 0-10, so is this scale based on competitors? Would I actively recommend the company or only passively if asked? Still no, zero in fact.

Question 5

The final question again fails to address the actual scenario so I tried to summarise the experience in 160 characters.

For a final response, a simple thank you, would have sufficed. Even better, a response tailored to my negative scoring would have really helped. Surely that must be in the realms of possibility for a cutting edge (no sarcasm, I promise) technology company like Orange? Instead I’m faced with a sales offer! Why would I want to sign up for additional services from a company that has caused and failed to resolve a problem?

This kind of one size fits all really goes against the grain for good customer service. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that customers prefer being treated as individuals, moreover, common sense dictates that asking potentially irritated customers irrelevant question can actually aggravate the situation.

Orange has been doing this for some time. Following an almost identical experience to the one above in June 2011, Maz Iqbal, a customer service consultant writes “If you want to learn about your customers and cultivate emotional bonds then it pays to have an empathic human being conducting a survey”.

Orange’s parent company Everything Everywhere is seeking to increase its UK market share, with the forthcoming auction of so called 4g technology. It needs to get these sort of basic mechanisms right if it is to succeed. As Iqbal puts it “why should this matter to Orange? …because I will be moving my entire family off Orange.”

There’s no great secret to good customer service, simply treat customers as you would wish to be treated. Whether it’s face to face, over the phone or through written communication, give them your full attention. This is why Orange has failed to engage me over the phone and by text. Would I recommend the company to a friend or colleague? No. In fact, the customer service survey has actually provoked me to write about this experience.

More significantly then losing a few customers (these companies will rely on a certain amount of “churn”) the data from these surveys will form the basis for management information. Erroneous or ambiguous questions will yield subtly or grossly incorrect data which could drive investment into the wrong place. I’d expect that Orange or Everything Everywhere will seek to back up the findings from this quantitative research with qualitative information from focus groups. Nevertheless, data from tens of thousands of customer generated by these surveys will appear an influential source for decision making.

A firm’s customers are its biggest asset, and knowing what makes them tick is hugely valuable. Facebook’s entire business model is based on mining their users’ data. This has propelled a 8 year old company to anything up to a $100bn valuation. Not bad.

Companies shouldn’t necessarily try to emulate this approach, but they should ensure that any data gathering is painless, or even enhance the customer experience. Failure to do so will be of detriment to both the customer and the business. Doing it well will both engage customers and enable better business decisions.

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Opinion Leaders? What would Bond do?

Heineken has announced that it is continuing it’s partnership with the James Bond franchise to promote its beer in a marketing campaign hitting the streets this September.

The relationship between beer and Bond seems to favour Heineken more than Ian Fleming’s spy, who famously prefers vodka martinis (at least in the films). That explains why Heineken is stumping up significant funding in return for the benefits the relationship brings (or “the global reach and the creativity that the Heineken® team is able to deliver” in the words of Skyfall producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.) 

There’s no shortage of advertisers using famous faces to promote their wares.

Philips Idowu for Lucozade Sport

Philips Idowu for Lucozade Sport

Lucozade’s current campaign ‘Yes’ promotes its sports drink using a trio of athletes: Mo Farah, Louis Smith and Philips Idowu. The big difference in this scenario is that these three are perhaps not as well known as Bond. They’re all successful athletes, and one might argue that the drinks brand is targeting its key demographic, sports enthusiasts. Nevertheless, it’s hard to recognise the athletes from their photos and the signatures are impossible to make out.

The supermarket chain Iceland used former Atomic Kitten singer Kerry Katona to front their adverts for several years “as an example of a normal person and mum who has experienced some of the modern-day culture of fame, and how difficult it can be to deal with.When she was associated with drug use in August 2009, the brand dropped her as its public face.

High profile brand ambassadors or opinion leaders can be an excellent way to promote a brand, either as directly in adverts (as in the examples above), tacitly (think Rolls Royce and Alan Sugar) or by external endorsement (Stephen Fry and Apple). We’re hard wired to look to our peers for examples of appropriate behaviour (for more on this, check out the excellent Yes!)

Note: there is a difference between opinion leaders and opinion formers, the latter are experts in their field. Thus a family member who is a technical expert might be an opinion former for someone looking to buy a new computer, but if Richard Branson declared Virgin’s support for a particular computer brand, he’d be considered an opinion leader.

It’s important that the opinion leader inspires positive associations with the brand, inspires trust and strikes resonance with the target demographic. The audience might perceive a connection with the figure (eg a soap opera character), trust an expert (ie a well known business leader) or find them aspirational (eg a pop star or footballer).

A successful opinion leader needs to fulfil certain qualities as described in the Venn diagram below:

Successful Opion Leaders

The successful opinion leader needs to fulfil at least two of these conditions, three is optimum.

James Bond is no doubt a popular figure for Heineken drinkers the world over. The character is cool, successful and renowned for expensive tastes. Whilst Fleming aficionados may point out that Bond would never actually drink a mass produced lager, it is unlikely to have any impact on your average Heineken drinker.

For Lucozade, there is no doubt that the sportsmen they have used are experts in their fields and can be trusted in their choice of sports nutrition. However, they are not necessarily people that the general public can connect with or aspire to. Indeed those who do aspire to their accomplishments will generally have looked in detail into sports drinks in specialist forums.

Icelandmade the right decision to disassociate itself with Katona, although she originally fitted its profile, her high profile fall from grace would have had a negative impact on all three aspects of the successful opinion leader.

Employing these figure heads to a brand is not an easy process, they are expensive and carry considerable responsibility for the brand (which can be tarnished by misbehaviour).

It’s vital that companies do proper research before making such a decision. An opinion leader can be have a hugely positive effect for a brand, but they can be an costly negative too, and that is very difficult to explain to the board.

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Customer Service: a question of choice

Customer service is an interesting concept, I can’t help thinking it increasingly different things to different people.

For example In a coffee shop, is it good when the staff strike up conversation with you? Or is the less said the better? Whatever your preference I bet you know someone who holds the opposite view. It might even change depending on your mood or how busy you are.

American firms are known for their zealous “have a nice day”s and “you’re welcome”s, to some its as basic as please and thank you, to others a thin veneer of sincerity.

I bought a box of medicine at Boots the other day. Before I had a chance to say sustainability it was wrapped in a carrier bag. So now I’ve got 12 tablets, in silver foil, in a box, in an enormous bag.  “I’m fine for a bag actually thanks” I said – not wishing to be rude, but you know, I have pockets and all. The checkout assistant didn’t look impressed and promptly screwed the bag up and binned it.

It’s not exactly bad service, but it did leave me feeling a bit cheesed off.

On a whim, I had a look at Boots’ sustainability policy, after all it can’t still be standard practice to give every customer a carrier bag, in this day and age?

Carrier bags

In 2007, Boots UK entered into a voluntary agreement with the WRAP to reduce the overall environmental impact of our carrier bags by 25% by the end of 2008.

Our strategy has been to take action that reduces the impact of carrier bags on the environment whilst still focusing on the needs of our customers. Our customers have endorsed our strategy, including our commitment to issuing less single use carrier bags, with 76% saying it is important for businesses to have a policy on cutting the use of carrier bags (Source UK Health and Beauty Customer Insights Survey June 2007).

            From Boots CSR webpages

What about automatically throwing the bags away if customers (76% of them apparently) don’t want one? Not so clear.

So I emailed Boots’ customer service team:

Hi there,
I’m interested in your carrier bag policy. I just purchased a small item in your Worthing branch. The cashier placed it in a bag immediately. I explained that I didn’t need a carrier bag (trying to reduce usage etc) so she took the box out of the bag and threw the bag in the bin!  I appreciate she was initially trying to be helpful, but it seemed very wasteful to throw away an unused bag.

Do you have a policy of automatically giving customers bags unless they actively say they don’t want them? Most stores ask you first.

Best wishes,

Sam

I got a response in 24 hours:

Hi Miss Elfer [sic]

Thanks for contacting us regarding our stores use of carrier bags.

We do automatically put any item into a carrier bag however I do appreciate your comments and therefore I’ve logged these with our store planning teams. I really do apologise for the disappointment.

Thanks again for contacting us. If you require any further assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 0845 609 0055 quoting reference number [Ref].

Kind regards
[Name]
Boots Customer Care.

Probably as much as I could have expected, the letter is polite, apologetic and includes a somewhat vague promise of action. But it doesn’t fill me with confidence that Boots is actually fulfilling its “commitment to issuing less single use carrier bags”.

Further to this, Boots publicly rejected the Welsh Assembly Government’s plan for a tax on carrier bags. Marc Donovan, Boots Divisional Pharmacy Manager for Wales, said: “A great deal of work has been done by retailers over recent years to help shoppers reduce carrier bag use through the introduction of more bags for life and voluntary reduction schemes.”

So what are they doing if they automatically give customers bags, and are against charging for them? There’s a question of integrity here.

Customer service should be about choice. I can’t see how offering a shopper the choice of whether to take a bag or not would make any negative difference to the experience of shopping at Boots. For many people, it would actually be a positive improvement to the customer service.

Customer Service: a question of choice part 2

There were a few unanswered questions in my blog yesterday. I sent a response to the email above querying the correlation between reducing bag use and automatically bagging shoppers items. This is the response:

Hi Sam

Thanks for your response to my colleague’s email dated 26/01/2012.

Boots have worked hard in recent years to reduce the environmental impact of ‘free issue’ carrier bags that are dispensed in our stores. In numbers alone we have reduced the amount of bags given away from over 400 million bags to around 255 million over a 3 year period. The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story though as the design and manufacture of each bag has been evaluated to make each bag used more sustainable.

Whilst we continue to look at carrier bags, it should be borne in mind that carrier bags are only one aspect of environmental impact and there are much larger areas to focus on that may give greater overall benefits.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to explain why you’ve not found this to be the case when you’ve shopped with us in the past. Having spoken to our Corporate Social Responsibility team, they’ve reassured me that we will provide further training to all of our sales staff, reinforcing the environmental benefits of doing so.

Thanks again for contacting us. If you’ve any further comments regarding this matter, please contact our Customer Care Team on 08450 70 80 90, quoting your personal reference number [Ref].

Kind regards
[name]
Boots Customer Care.

I think you can spot the stock lines a mile off, but I’m pleased that the company came back on my points and it looks like the first email didn’t stick to the company lines.

Customer service will always be a hard thing to get right for all of the people all of the time, but it’s good to see a company responding positively.

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