Chris Brogan had a very interesting post on Trust Agents this morning.  It got me thinking about how  people become trustworthy in the internet age, when relationships may be many, but have weaker bonds than say, the friendships you make in your off-line life, through work, school,  church, or other daily encounters.

In a presentation this weekend at Podcamp Philly, Christopher Penn said everything is customer service, and every step along a transaction chain, in effect, is an opportunity to provide customer service.  This got me thinking about how important customer service is becoming in most of my business and personal financial transactions.  Why now?  Why didn’t customer service weigh so heavily for me in the past?  Let me talk for a brief bit about abundance.

Below is a great talk Malcolm Gladwell did at the TED conference in 2004, talking about how the abundance of consumer products we find on the shelves is largely due to the insights of one man, Howard Moskowitz.  (This, and so many other TED talks are definitely worth your time, so be sure to check out others as well, hopefully after you have finished reading this post….)

** Chris Anderson wrote a book a few years ago called The Long Tail, which also discusses the almost infinite choice of things we now have online, and Seth Godin frequently discusses the difficulty of differentiating yourself from the pack out there on the tail, encouraging all of us to Be Remarkable and stick up above the rest of the sameness that’s out there now.  But how do you become remarkable?

So let’s do some “sociological math” here and add up these insights.  If you take the insight that customer service, or the opportunity to provide customer service is everywhere, and consider that in light of the abundance of choice we all face with every purchase, whether it’s online or in person, I came to the following conclusion:

Now, in an age of abundance, the only differentiation besides price is customer service, or the Relationship you create between your brand and your audience.

Let’s add in the foloowing as well: Ze Frank describes a brand as the “emotional aftertaste” you get from an interaction, and Chris Penn elaborates on this by comparing the difference in your likelihood to buy “Grandma’s Cookies” versus “Old People Cookies”- Grandma’s emotional aftertaste tends to be more loving and sweet, and much less generic than “old people”, unless you REALLY dislike your Grandma.

Examples of Creating a Relationship and Becoming a Trust Agent

Let’s take a quick look at some consumer experiences I’ve had to illustrate the point.

For example, Apple wins, for me, because the customer service is great, the “community” users have created from the days of the Macintosh User Groups, and whether thecompany allows social networking on their site or not, the forums still allow users to help each other out- and that’s probably good enough.

Likewise, when I go to an Apple Store or call customer support, I get actual human support.  I get people who are understanding and wait, talking to me, while I download a third party plug-in for imovie so I can get my kid’s video project for school finished, and wait with me until everything is working.  That keeps me delighted- that is remarkable, and that’s why the next computer we buy will also be an Apple.  The price is always a differentiation in the marketplace, but the relationship tips the balance where it matters.

Similarly, Land’s End delighted me almost fifteen years ago now, when a coat of mine developed a hole in the pocket shortly after getting it.  I called customer service, and they insisted on sending me a new coat, so I wouldn’t go a day without one, and could use that box to send the old one back.  This was back in 1992 or 1993, but this takes any possible fear out of any email/catalog/web transaction with them.  They earned my trust, and as a result, not only do I spread this story to all my friends, but I always consider their products before looking at a competitor, say, LL Bean, because of it.  (And I do like LL Bean as well, for the record.)

Price isn’t the only factor in the decision matrix anymore.

Last example- FiOS is finally coming to my neighborhood, and I have had intermittent problems with Comcast.  But I also have Comcast Cares, Frank Eliason, from twitter on my side- any problems, Frank makes sure I get taken care of, and has called me at home, from his home, to make sure everything is fine.  I haven’t yet met Frank in person, but I feel a loyalty to him and the company because they have gone above and beyond to make sure I have what I need- and this makes me very unlikely to switch, even if I suspect FiOS might be a bit better, or maybe even a bit cheaper- it has to be more than just nominal price and quality to disrupt what I currently have, when I have Frank for customer care.

Can We Quantify This?

Every business wants to know the Return on Investment, or ROI for its customer service/community evangelists/Outreach efforts- I suggest the following equation for the math geeks out there:

Purchase = Remarkability or Necessity

We make a purchase when something is really special and catches our eye, like that cute item in the checkout aisle at the bookstore, you don’t really need, or when we have a real need to fulfill.

Remarkability = (Brand experience + Price) x Customer Service Experience

To be remarkable, the brand experience, combined with price is important, but it is enhanced considerably by the customer service experience.  I may like a brand, or have heard good things about it.  I may be willing to pay the price, high or low, or take a chance on a new version of a product, say, V8 fusion, if I already like V8 juice.  If the prior relationship with that brand is positive,  I’m more likely to give your new product a go, and less likely if the prior experience is poor or non-remarkable in any way.

But what is tipping the balance between all the brands on the shelf, virtual and physical, is becoming more and more dependent on the customer service I receive, or the customer stories you hear from others.

The Long Tail of Customer Experience

Just like I indicated above, Land’s End still gets business from me, not only because their products fill a need, but they enjoy a long tail of customer service excellence- I like them, even if I haven’t needed a lot of customer service since that incident, because they treated me well back then.  Sites like, DealTime, Consumer Reports and more collect stories from customers about what they like and hate about products.  Even Twitter and other social networks provide information to people every day on what brands seem great and which have led to less than great experiences.  And this information stays in Google and on the Web for a long, long time.  This means every time you have a chance to interact with a customer, any issues, especially if they aren’t addressed, may haunt  you forever online.  And this means, long after that particular not-so-great transaction took place, you may still lose sales to competitors based on one bad experience- consumers can now broadcast, making every mistake you make all that more costly when it comes to relationships online.

One answer would be to never make mistakes, but that’s simply not practical.  The other option is to make sure you are human; that you understand that each of those customer service experiences act as a multiplier towards your positive or negative remarkability, and then you can reap the true ROI of social media investment- creating a brand aftertaste everyone wants to try.