The marketing advantage of real humans

A year or so ago, when Mrs. N4N and I were dissatisfied with the configuration of our new Dell computer, it was a struggle to get a real live (fluently English-speaking) customer service rep on the phone, let alone someone to resolve our gripes.

Our experience is pretty common. Retailers like Dell make it easy for customers to contact them to buy stuff, and very difficult to do so thereafter.

Now it turns out that Netflix, which is facing growing competition from Blockbuster over the lucrative home DVD market, is bolstering its fleet of real live customer service reps -- and in Oregon, no less -- as a way of trying to ward off this challenge.

From the NY Times:

Netflix is bucking several trends in customer service. Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm, and Duke University studied 600 companies last year and found a continued increase not just in outsourcing, but also offshoring, in which call centers are moved overseas.

“I don’t think there’s any trend to pull back,” said Matt Mani, a senior associate at Booz Allen. “This is a unique strategy for Netflix. There’s so much more competition, this is something they’ve done to get closer to the customer, because without that, there’s really no connection a customer has to Netflix.”

Netflix’s decision to greet anxious consumers with a human voice, not an e-mail, is also unusual in corporate customer service. “It’s very interesting and counter to everything anybody else is doing,” said Tom Adams, the president of Adams Media Research, a market research firm in Carmel, Calif. “Everyone else is making it almost impossible to find a human.”

In contrast, Blockbuster outsources a portion of its customer service, and when people do call, they are encouraged to use the Web site instead. Its call center is open only during business hours, said Shane Evangelist, senior vice president and general manager for Blockbuster Online, because the majority of customers prefer e-mail support, which is available 24 hours a day. “Our online customers are comfortable using e-mail to communicate,” he said.

Even though this is motivated by profit, rather than altruism, I say, good for Netflix! Some small sliver of people, myself included, won't go over to Blockbuster since it seems like a blander entity. But if real humans offer Netflix a competitive advantage, more companies are bound to do likewise.

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