A couple of weeks ago, I arrived at the office fuming and ranting after my bank committed The Unpardonable Sin: They made banking less convenient for me.

It had been happening for a while. First, they closed the branch closest to my house. Then they removed the ATM. Then they closed the branch and ATM closest to my office. The last straw was when I drove out of my way to the next-closest ATM, two ATMs in the same location, actually, only to find that neither could dispense cash. I ended up at a gas station, where I paid the generic ATM a three-dollar fee for access to my money, and wasted most of an hour doing it. I was not happy.

But I figured out two things:

  1. My bank doesn’t really care whether I bank with them or not.
  2. Convenience isn’t the issue. Digital connectivity has actually made retail banking—and most retail transactions—more convenient than ever. But convenience has come with a cost: Customer service is now primarily impersonal.

The first is simply true. They’re a very large bank, and I’m a very small customer. It’s possible I cost the bank more than I’m worth to them. Let’s just say no one’s going to lose a second of sleep when I change banks in a huff.

The second is more interesting. Because impersonal service isn’t bad; in fact, for most retail transactions, it’s exactly what a majority of people want. Which means it’s increasingly important to make sure your impersonal service—which is often served as user experience on the Internet—is easy and convenient, to minimize the need for human contact. And that when customers actually need more personal service from you—usually because they have a problem—you’re ready to respond professionally and compassionately.

The Rise of Impersonal Service

“Personal service” used to be a measure of excellence in retailing. Personal service is the reason you might shop at Nordstrom instead of Macy’s. It’s one of the things you like about Target—their longstanding reputation as a store that won’t hassle you when you need to return something. Ace is the place with the helpful hardware folks. Etc.

But digital technology has made a vast number of retail transactions so much easier. Digital technology has upped the ante for convenience. You can get everything from books to groceries to cocktail dresses to prescriptions to beds, delivered to your door, within hours of ordering.

Digital living is heavy on convenience and light on personal contact. Personal service has, for the most part, been replaced with impersonal service. And when it works, people love it.

You know what’s easy? Buying a book from Amazon with one click. Returning shoes you don’t want to Zappos. Signing up for the (shameless self-promotion) Well Done e-newsletter. You get done what you need to do, easily, without ever making personal contact with another human soul.

But for every great experience you’ve had buying something without a person to help, you’ve had at least two—maybe a dozen—less-than-optimal experiences. Online forms you can’t figure out how to complete. Instructions you can’t seem to find and can’t follow when you do. Perhaps most frustrating of all: How many times have you searched a website in vain for customer support or—worst of the worst—found yourself in some sort of automated-voice-response loop that is its own little circle of hell?

Great service—all great service—is about great user experience. There’s little more frustrating than bad impersonal service; in fact, the only thing worse is bad personal service. Especially since, in the Digital Age, if you ever have to talk with a human, something is probably wrong.

Your Personal Service Has To Be Great

That’s one big reason to pay close attention to your personal service. Which doesn’t necessarily mean in-person service; online chat, social media interaction, texting, and live telephone conversations are also one-to-one, thus personal.

Do you have a policy for social media interactions? Do you know how to handle commenters who complain about you online? Is your online chat team able to express itself with both subject-matter and grammatical clarity? Does your telephone support team speak clearly and patiently and compassionately?

These are customer service questions and generally fall outside the realm of marketing communications. But they’re essential to marketing. Customers want you to care, especially when they’re having problems. If you put up barriers or make a bad impression, customers will start shopping elsewhere.

Being personably impersonal and personally Peerless

Not all personal service is related to customer support or damage control. Nordstrom is doing just fine, thank you—even as Macy’s and Sears and J.C. Penney are foundering. When they can afford it, people will pay more for great service.

Personal service is essential to our business, too. Ad agencies are problem-solvers, and every challenge is a little bit different from the last. One size fits one.

As for my bank…convenience isn’t the issue. In most ways, retail banking is more convenient than it’s ever been. The issue is that my bank is depending entirely on the conveniences of impersonal service to keep me as a customer. If those aren’t enough for me, they really don’t care about retaining my business.

And lest you think all banks are closing branches: We have a new bank that’s moved in right up the street from our office. But it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that thriving in today’s retail banking environment means adding more impersonal service people want: online banking and bill paying, depositing checks with a photo, mobile-friendly banking, etc.

So where are you? Where would you plot yourself on the X/Y axis graph of amazing convenience/great personal service? Where would your competitors fall? Does your impersonal service make things easy? Does your personal service make things better? If so, we’d love to be your customer—and your ad agency. If not, the best advertising in the world won’t save you.

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Photo by Matt Watts (Customer service.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.