Customers, Technology and Keeping It Honest

When there's a technology event, like Twitter going down or Facebook changing its terms of service without informing its users or Amazon removing certain books from its lists, it gets all the media attention in the world. People can't get enough of it.

From "How could this happen?" to "How could they do this?" users worldwide are up in arms. Commentators draw comparisons with the Orwellian world of "1984" (which in the case of Amazon's debacle was particularly apt) and talk about how nothing is really safe in cyberspace.

However, let's bring it a bit closer to home. Let's talk about your customer management systems.

Recently I decided I was tired of receiving emails from Dell. I don't own anything by Dell and I never have. I didn't have anything particularly against them. I just wasn't interested. After all, as anyone who has read me knows, I'm a long-time Mac person. I just love those guys in Cupertino.

But I digress.

There had been a real influx of Dell emails in my inbox and even though I did what I could in my system to add their URL to my "don't go near my inbox" list, they kept sneaking through. So I decided to go on a hunting expedition. I delved into the bottom of the email - where the small print is microscopic.

Eventually I found what I was looking for. In fact, I found even more. First I discovered how Dell got my email address at all. It was from a company called IT Business Edge which provides some really interesting reports. Then, I found the thankfully legally required and absolutely invaluable "to unsubscribe click here" link.

I was saved! I would finally be rid of these guys.

But not so fast. In fact, it didn't quite work out that way.

I followed the links (note the plural) through their various screens first telling them I wanted to unsubscribe, then telling them again that I wanted to unsubscribe, then getting the first screen back again only to have to tell them again that I really wanted to unsubscribe, finally going through one more round with the second screen until it seemed to be over. But it wasn't.

I received an email immediately which confirmed that I had unsubscribed and informing me that it could take up to ten days for my name to be removed from the list. That was okay with me. But then I received another email from Dell. I thought, innocent that I am, that since their system made me jump through multiple repeat hoops, it was probably the case that their system was generating multiple confirmation emails.

That wasn't the case. It was a different email advertising campaign altogether from a completely different Dell service area. Interestingly, at the bottom, it didn't show that I had been added to the list by IT Business Edge or anyone else. That part was missing. Instead, it said that I was subscribed because I had expressed interest - which I hadn't. Luckily, the unsubscribe link was still there.

I had to go through the same process again.

There are two outcomes from this. First, hopefully, there will be no more Dell emails - or at least not after ten days. Second, not only will I not use Dell but, as you can see, I'll take it upon myself to tell people of my distrust in their system - which leads, by extension to a distrust in their company.

After all, how can one trust an organization that seemingly tries to pull a fast one moving my email address after an unsubscribe to another of their marketing sites which I had never seen before and in which I clearly had not expressed interest?

Now I'm trying to decide if I want any more reports from IT Business Edge - because they end up being as culpable as Dell because of having sold my name to a questionable provider.

See how this goes? And all from a simple "unsubscribe" link.

If you're the Chief Executive - or even, in most cases, a senior executive - you're not going to be able to sweat these kinds of details. Nor should you. You don't have the time. But what you must do is make clear to whoever owns the customer management systems (usually a combination, at least, of IT and Marketing) what your philosophy of customer support is.

How do you want your customers treated? How do you want them to feel about your company and its products and services? How do you compare to best of breed, world class companies around the world? How humane is your technology and the customer's technology experience?

And, on a side note, have you ever used your own technology the way your customer does?

It's an interesting thing to do. In fact, it's much like the long-recommended practice of senior executives taking the time on a periodic basis to perform the tasks that their employees perform - with all the fascinating limitations and permutations that are not part of your life. You've got it easy. They don't.

In too many cases, neither, technologically or otherwise, do your customers.

That's why it's worth your time to periodically visit your internet site - just like a customer. Not intranet. Not even from your office. Use your kid's computer. Or ask if you can borrow a friend's Blackberry or iPhone. Try it at an airport kiosk. Get the real customer experience and see what you think.

Wander around the site. See how things work. Check out the privacy policies. Use a Hotmail or Yahoo! address and sign up for some sort of email contact. Try some of the links. Then try to unsubscribe.

After you've lived the customer experience, think about what you need to say at your next meeting with your customer management types. You'll know whether they deserve praise or a swift kick until they get it right.

And if you're from Dell and reading this, do me a favor. Don't reply.