Too Busy For Business

My uncle Menke was a poet and a writer, and as I’ve written in a previous column, he was a free spirit and independent thinker long before it became popular.

During the mid-twenties, Menke lived for a few years in Los Angeles, and occupied retail space on a busy street. His “store” however, didn’t sell anything. It was simply a space where he could engage in his hobby of fixing watches and clocks, and hang out with his bohemian writer, poet and musician friends.

As my father tells the story, to Menke’s dismay (and despite no promotional effort on his part), passersby spied the clocks in the window and would occasionally walk into the store looking to make a purchase. Menke didn’t like the disturbance, and finally found a way to discourage potential customers. He posted a big sign in the window that read, “Nothing For Sale.”

Were he alive today, I know my uncle would have a good laugh if I told him that appears to have adopted his business strategy.

I clicked on the “contact us” button on the web site yesterday, and sent a simple request: Please send me the mailing address of a specific producer. My expectation was that I would either get no reply, or I would be given a very generic answer like, “Producer’s name, NBC, New York City.”

Instead, the following automated reply arrived in my inbox 10 minutes later:

“Thanks for your email. NBC values your comments, but unfortunately, due to the volume of emails we receive, we cannot respond to each one. Please check our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section to see if your question is answered there.”

I have to admit that I was stunned.

I’ve seen a wide variety of lousy electronic service over the last few years — rude responses; incomplete answers; automated replies that don’t answer the question; even no replies. But this was a new angle.

Never before had I come across a company that built a machine to solicit feedback, and then automatically replied to the feedback by saying, “We’re too busy over here to respond to you.” If you ask me, this is the electronic equivalent of mounting a suggestion box on top of a garbage can, in plain view of your customers. Efficient perhaps; but certainly not effective.

Not only is this approach extremely arrogant — “We want to be in your living room every night, but we don’t want to actually talk to you” — it’s just plain stupid.

NBC has a perfect opportunity here to create a bond with its viewers that transcends any individual TV show, and to move beyond its current position as simply a vehicle for delivering programming. By engaging people in the NBC brand through electronic conversations, it could generate more viewership, more loyalty, more referrals, and ultimately, more profits. All it requires is the hiring of a group of people to quickly, courteously and personally respond to inbound emails.

Too expensive? To paraphrase one of my favorite bumper stickers — “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” my message to NBC is, “If you think building customer relationships is expensive, try customer turnover.”

NBC spends thousands of dollars (or dollar equivalents) every day — on their own channel and in other media — to promote themselves, their programming, and their web site. Then, when somebody actually comes to the web site, they’re told to get lost.

Look, I worked in a big company for a long time, and I know that it’s a lot easier to talk about good customer service than it is to actually make it happen. But at least give it a shot. And if you’re not going to give it a shot, don’t provide me with an email address to write to!

OK, enough about them, let’s talk about you. Two recommendations out of all this:

Recommendation Number One: Encourage customers to communicate with you at every turn. They want to talk to you.

Recommendation Number Two: When they do talk, answer them.

See you next time, and as my friends at NBC would say, “Nice talking at you.”

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