• June 23, 2011
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Fundamentals Trump Everything

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"All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender.” —Mohandas Gandhi

Quoting Gandhi turns out to be a real conversation stopper; test it out at a cocktail party. One quip about non-violence and, suddenly, you would be able to hear the traffic noise from the street. Witty comebacks to widely accepted and nearly saintly wisdom seem inappropriate, and outright disagreement with a Gandhian sentiment borders on blasphemous.

This would seem to hold especially true when quoting Gandhi in support of an argument about how companies should approach customer service, not a topic that anyone claimed was near and dear to the Mahatma’s heart. Yet, here I am starting my column with Gandhi’s words. Somehow it helps to have a personage with Gandhi’s gravitas when trying to expose a flaw in accepted, conventional wisdom or commonplace thinking and behavior. That is, as you may have already guessed, what I will attempt to do here.

The social business revolution has provided a great jumping-off point for companies to consider how marketing, sales, and service resemble an Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail: a circle of experience with no end. Frequently, this proves for the good, as companies identify areas where customers endure frustration when, for example, the marketing folks who own the online channel do not coordinate with the customer service teams that run the phone channels.

However, this new consumer-led revolution also has reinforced the belief in improving both the bottom and top lines by exceeding customers’ expectations; in fact, this idea has spread from traditional customer service venues, such as the contact center, to the emerging social and online channels. Perfecting, or at the very least improving, customer experience has replaced customer loyalty as the ultimate corporate state of nirvana. An article in the Harvard Business Review in 2010 went so far as to say, “The idea that companies must delight their customers has become so entrenched that managers rarely examine it.”

Clearly they should. That same article examines the results of a massive consumer survey on customer experience. Once the cost/benefit analysis is done, the authors conclude that providing an extraordinary experience to customers does provide some benefit, but not enough to make up for the expense required to engender such an experience.

The reason for that, I believe, relates to Gandhi’s idea that there can be no compromise on the fundamentals. In customer service, the fundamentals are, not surprisingly, pretty simple. Customers want to have their issues resolved with as little friction as possible. When that fails to happen, customers lash out, as evidenced by the preponderance of negative experiences related on social media sites.

Dramatically good experiences will sway consumers in some industries, such as hospitality. But for most businesses, the payoff comes from, as my South Asian friends say, doing the needful. In other words, failing to meet the fundamentals turns out to have a much greater impact than exceeding those fundamentals.

If companies had unlimited budgets, this would matter very little. With no check on spending, companies could cover the fundamentals and focus on making the process of service and support as frictionless as possible. At the same time, they also could explore ways to provide extraordinary experiences and consistently amaze their customers. Unfortunately, in the real world, focusing on the wow experiences often comes at the expense of investments in the fundamentals of service. That is a compromise that companies simply cannot afford to make. 

Ian Jacobs (ian.jacobs@ovum.com) is a senior analyst at Ovum. He can be reached on Twitter as @iangjacobs.

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