Thursday, July 12, 2018

Bad Ambassadors

The desire of brands to win advocacy is a generally good thing – it causes firms to think beyond the one-time sale, to providing a product that leaves customers so satisfied that they will not only repurchase but also advocate to other prospects in favor of the brand.   However, like any good thing, it can be done to excess – and at some point pursuing advocacy for the sake of having advocates becomes harmful to the brand.

The consumption of a product is for its functional benefits – but the consumption of a brand is often for non-functional benefits.   I add “often” because some brands are valued for their reputation for quality in terms of functional benefits, but in most cases products are commoditized: the offering of one brand is no better or worse than the next in terms of its functional qualities, such that the only difference is psychological.  This is generally true of most crowded markets where product offerings have become commoditized.

One of the chief psychological benefits is social recognition: Brand X and Brand Y are functionally indistinct, but are associated with certain social groups.  “We” use Brand X and “they” use Brand Y.   So the distinction between the brands is social identity – belonging to one group rather than another.   Hence a person chooses the brand that aligns with the identity to a group to which they wish to belong, and shuns the brand that aligns with any group whose membership is mutually exclusive to the desired group.

And therein lies the problem: when a brand is selected by a group that is considered undesirable by its existing consumers, the alignment of the brand becomes unclear: is it still aligned with “us” or is it now aligned with “them”?  And if it is no longer “our” band, then there is no longer any value to being associated with it – and possibly value in distancing from it because it is no longer in line with the identity of the desired social group (and is in line with the identity of an undesirable social group).

Where the undesirable group has selected the product of its own accord, there is very little that a brand can do to regain its esteem: brand exists in the mind of the customer.   If the brand decides to go with the flow, to embrace the new breed of customers it has attracted, it can remain viable, though the character of the brand and the qualities of the market it serves will undergo a dramatic transformation – in effect, the brand will have changed markets.    If the brand resists the flow, rejects the new breed of customers and attempts to retain its loyal market, it may find that it is fighting an uphill battle.   Success at this will be very difficult.

However, it is very often the case that the brand initiated this selection: it marketed to the undesirables in an attempt to grow its market, foolishly believing that its loyal customers would remain loyal even when the brand became adopted by the undesirable new customers.  It seems to be counting ambassadors, failing to recognize that not all ambassadors are good ones.  This is suicide.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Putting People Before Profit

At a recent event, one of the attendees stood up and proudly shared a very dubious success story:  he had been listening in on a phone call in which one of his company’s service representatives was dealing with a customer who was closing an account, and the rep spent about fifteen minutes with the customer to talk them into keeping the account open with a one-dollar balance in case it would be needed again.   In the speaker’s opinion, the rep had done a wonderful job of saving the account.

Not everyone applauded at the end of his story – maybe three-quarters of the audience – though there is no telling how many of them thought the story truly represented a laudable success or were just clapping to be polite.   It is to be hoped that most of them recognize that what this fellow was praising as a success story was not at all a good thing, and a sign that the company is paying attention to the wrong numbers.

In case it isn’t obvious, the value of a one-dollar account is negligible.  At current rates, a dollar of capital might earn five cents worth of revenue while incurring about three cents in expenses, leaving the company with a two-cent gross profit every year the account remains open.   If the account remains open for fifty years, it will earn one dollar and, after G&A expenses, add a couple of dimes to the company’s bottom line.  Meanwhile, the fifteen minutes of CSR time likely had a fully-loaded cost of around 15 dollars.   Net loss, fourteen dollars, even if you don’t discount the value of future revenues for inflation.

The reason the speaker thought this incident to be a success is because he’s thinking of one statistic: the number of customers the firm has.  It’s likely because he’s being managed to do so – incentivized to grow and retain the number of customers without paying attention to whether the accounts he’s getting and keeping are at all profitable.   The more such accounts he creates and saves, the more his company loses rather than gains on the bottom line.   It's counterproductive performance, and the sign of a siloed and blindfolded culture in which each department thinks of its own goals regardless of their impact on the organization as a whole.  

The firm likely has enough good customers to keep it afloat – it can afford to take some losses.  But this is also a myopic perspective.  Every dollar in expenses incurred to retain unprofitable accounts is a dollar in interest that should be spent on retaining the profitable ones (or a quarter in interest, if the firm keeps the rest for itself).   I checked his company’s interest rates , and they are far below the market leaders – so much lower that it doesn’t make financial sense to do business with his firm.    Chances are, the cost of maintaining unprofitable accounts is at least part of the reason.

How many good and profitable customers are leaving his firm, which cannot pay to retain them because of the losses taken to retain unprofitable ones?  One can only speculate.   The truth is kept well away from the public, and perhaps is even unknown to decision-makers at the company, who continue to watch and press upon their employees to chase a growing head-count without consideration of whether the “heads” are worth having or how long the firm can sustain itself in this manner.