Relationships matter more than demographics

Originally posted 7/18/17.

From what the news shows, people don’t like to be lumped into certain categories, be it actors being typecast or stereotypes being used in airports or police profiling. But has anyone looked at marketing demographics and what they mean? I would surmise that demographics are another stereotype for marketing purposes to determine what you will buy, watch, consume, or vote. With bell curves and fancy equations, sure we could say a certain percentage of people are predisposed to buy a certain way, but who can you trust with those numbers? Looking at survey trends from all of my help desk experience, our return rates were in the low 20-30 percent, leading me to believe that most people wouldn’t submit to being asked to take a survey, especially with all of the robo-calls, spam e-mail, and scammers sounding very similar. These methods would more than likely be ignored.

Demographics in retail

I worked for a large retail chain for about 5 years, specializing in computer sales and support for individuals and small businesses. During this time there, we had team meetings monthly to discuss numbers and overall business practices and changes from upper management. Some of these changes were operational and informative on how to better serve the customer, others appeared to be directed marketing to people of specific demographics as set by the company and marketing trends. 

We had a set of people in mind when selling products and services so that we could try to tailor the experience based on assumed tastes. It seemed easy enough to understand how certain folks may not opt for in-home services and others would buy a service plan for everything. The math was there and appeared indisputable. For example, a young man between ages of 18-30 would probably be in the store to buy a video game and caffeinated beverage or the latest and greatest console or gadget. People of the age 55 and above would be looking for practical items and warranties for a sense of ease and comfort. There would be families who would be on a tighter budget, but they would always buy the service or replacement plans.

Fast forward about 10-12 years, and I take a walk into the same retail chain. I look at the people buying items from the store and what is in their hands or cart. I listen to the conversations and how guarded these people are. Demographics have shifted. No more is it the “Empty Nesters” that I can count on for large appliance purchases. The young man in the previous paragraph spends most of his time online as he is savvy enough to know better than to buy something from a big box store. And the family that used to be tight with their budget now spends more and more on electronic devices than before, not limiting themselves to a low level laptop or smaller LCD television. 

Look at car salesman as well. I walk onto a lot in my work clothes (i.e. dress casual), and I’m swarmed by salesmen who want me to jump into the sporty new car. Regardless of what I want, they bring keys to cars outside of my budget (they don’t know that), and far from what I asked for. All this is due to the immediate need to decide what I will like for me all based on how I look and what I drive. If you want your needs ignored, go to a car dealership and suffer through all of the lack of care and consideration. See how they go in the “back office” to “talk with the manager” about your requests only to come back empty handed and smirking inside thinking you have no idea how much of a ride they’re taking you for. Now apply that same mentality to the service industry and let me know if that gets you anywhere.

Considering the topic of this blog, do these demographics apply to customer service roles, and should we apply them at all?

Relationships in Service

From what I’ve experienced working in call centers of multiple sizes, I can say for a fact that demographics of users in the traditional marketing sense don’t work. A phone call from an internal user or external user is still just a phone call asking for help. So why should the user’s age or race dictate what issues they may experience? We can run metrics on items such as what site has more frequent calls, which floor of the building has the least user training, and centralizing outbreaks of large scale problems, but calls will still come in from all walks of life.

I know for my age and background, places will try to market to me like crazy for the newest gadgets and overpriced services. What they fail to understand is that I do my homework, I’m thrifty, and I’m realistic with my expectations of what I buy. Why should anyone use my race, age, and background to market to me without even giving me the time of day to get to know me? For large scale companies, the answer is always “there are too many people for personalization.” 

In service roles, we do not need demographics, we need relationships. What these corporate giants and marketing strategists fail to understand is that the seemingly insurmountable number of relationships are all driven by the front line. No one can build a proper rapport like the salesman or service representative who understands that these generalizations of cross-sections of America do not work in every case. The relationship we build with the user/customer/client in that short time, even if we only speak to them once, should be a good experience no matter what. I want to be the person that user calls and asks for because they have had a great experience. I also want the user to be happy with the company I work for, mostly because the company is reflected by my performance, but also so that I can evenly distribute some of the calls! 

The beauty of each interaction is that I have a new experience most of the time. I don’t know who the user is, why they called, or where they are, but I can find a new way to relate and build that rapport so that no matter what news I have to deliver, they can be satisfied with the experience. Granted, this skill takes time to develop, and will continue to grow the more it is in use. This also has the pitfall of being a skill to lose such as those of French, Latin, or Spanish classes taken in high school, so take care to use it frequently!

Along with reaching out to the user and relating to them is empathy for their situation. I can easily relate to people who have lost everything they worked hard for, as I have had a similar experience in my life, as empathy is the heart of the relationship. If I can empathize with the user, their problem is now my problem, and I will take ownership to help resolve it. Alternatively, if I fail to empathize or try to force it, it will come off as though I’m indifferent and the tone is set from there. 

This delicate balance is what we strive for in our home relationships as well. We sympathize with our kids and empathize with our partners. We should seek the same style of relationship with our customers, because they are people too, people who need a support system for their concerns just like you and I. The unexpected support can go a long way.

I can definitely say that I have had an experience while working in retail that fits this perfectly:

She walked in with both hands bloody and a cracked Windows laptop with dried remnants of tears on her face. She asked if we could fix her computer, which was definitely beyond my ability in store, and needed to be shipped out. I looked up her information and gave her some time to relax and breathe. When it came time to ask the normal questions (did you back up your data, do you have a service plan), I could only ask if she was okay. She choked back her feelings and explained that she had recently been in a rough relationship at home, her fiance locked her out of the house and smashed her laptop, and her hands were hurt and bleeding from breaking a window to get into her house. 

I immediately took her hard drive out of the laptop, plugged it into our backup station and verified it could be read. I then asked her to come by and tell me what she needed from the computer. Once I validated we could retrieve the files, I had her sign the appropriate forms and pay for the service before we shipped it, with the promise she could have that data in her hands shortly. When all was said and done, she gave me a hug and thanked me profusely. I never saw her again after that. But I know that she got what she needed and was happy enough with that. 

You might say this was a special case, that each situation differs. I feel otherwise – every customer, no matter who they are, is a special case. Each must be treated as a person and not a mark for our profits. If we take care of the person, the profits take care of themselves.

So, who have you taken care of today?

-James

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