Poorly Planned Proactive Service Is Worse That Poor Customer Service


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It’s tax season in the United States. Despite the digital era we live in, completing your taxes yourself or with an accountant still means collecting forms–income statements from employers, mortgage interest statements, property tax statements, and other financial statements. Many companies provide their statements online in downloadable PDF format when they become available, so I don’t have a growing pile of paper on my desk. It’s still a lot of forms to contend with.

I have several forms I need to collect in order to prepare my taxes. A few years ago, I started maintaining a spreadsheet to track when I had received all of them. I eagerly await email notifications from companies to inform me the document I’m waiting for is ready for download. (And by the way, shame on those companies that don’t make this proactive announcement and require customers to check online or call in to customer service.)

A few weeks ago, I received an email that I had a form ready from an investment company I have an account with. Hooray, one more form to check off my list! I followed the link in the email, logged into my account, and arrived in the “statements and forms” section of their website.

Except there was no form.

“Hmm. This is strange,” I thought. I emailed customer service. Within a few hours, I received an answer: because there had not been any transactions in my account that triggered a tax situation, no form was generated.

Good news for me and my tax situation, but bad news in terms of how this reflects on their customer service and the overall customer experience. Consider the following.

Lack of Personalization

Given what I experienced, I’ll assume all of this particular financial institution’s customers received the tax form alert email. Like me, there were probably many who didn’t have a form waiting for them online. Some recent studies show how personalization is becoming the expectation for brands:

  • Three-quarters (74%) of customers are frustrated when content is not personalized (source: Infosys)
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of consumers think more positively of a brand when it provides content that is valuable, interesting or relevant (source: Rapt Media)

Of course, my financial institution does provide a degree or personalization: I log-in to the website, I see the value of various accounts, and I have news related to stocks and mutual funds I own. But personalization shouldn’t stop there. The financial institution should be catering its communications and my experiences based on my interactions with them, behaviors, and expressed interests. Incorrectly contacting a customer on an important issue such as tax information shows a complete disregard for simply parsing out which customers their automated emails don’t apply to.

Waste of Time

For my scenario, let’s consider the investment in time I made because I believed the financial institution was trying to help me. It only took a minute or two to open the email announcing my tax form was ready, browse the email and follow a link, log-in to the website, then dig around (in vain) to find the form. Several more minutes were invested in writing an email to customer service. I waited for and monitored my email for a response, then spent a few seconds reading the customer service team’s response. All of those short actions do add up to time lost.

Customer service and customer experience experts continue to identify proactive, personalized service as an important trend for companies to embrace and improve. One of the greatest benefits of proactive service is to save time–not only for the customer by preventing them from experiencing a problem or helping them to recover from it faster, but also for customer service because customer service does not need to address those issues. This financial institution had instead inconvenienced me and who knows how many other customers as well as created more work for its customer service department in additional calls, emails, and chats to respond to this failure.

Emotional Roller Coaster

There were a few ups and downs for me in this experience. Let’s start with elation. Remember how I said I diligently track receipt of my tax forms? I love it when I can check one off the list. When I received that email, I thought I was one step closer to finalizing my taxes. This was followed by confusion when I couldn’t locate the form. While my patience wasn’t unduly tested as I waited for a response from customer service, still I had to wait and wonder what was going on. While there was some relief in the response I received–”congratulations, there was no taxable activity on your account”–it was nevertheless frustrating to waste time and effort on this meaningless interaction.

Proactive service is about a company taking preemptive action with a customer to provide guidance or avoid a problem. A successful engagement should result in the customer feeling comfort and happiness, not frustration and doubt.

Tarnished Image

I realize the company had good intentions behind all this. Instead, this turned out to be a disjointed, disappointing, and frustrating experience. The result? For me, it was a negative impact on my impression of the brand. Will I expand my service with them and refer others to them? Probably not. Will I stop using them? Probably not (but enough missteps on their part would change that). Will I be skeptical of communications from them in the future? Definitely.

Proactive service is not unlike other customer service experiences. It must be deliberate and well-planned, with a positive customer outcome. Whether used to address a one-time circumstance or used in an ongoing manner, test and review plans before initiating them. Good intentions are meaningless when an action results in frustrated and inconvenienced customers, and can negatively impact their ongoing patronage.

Paul Selby
I am a product marketing consultant for Aventi Group. Aventi Group is the first product marketing agency solely dedicated to high-tech clients. We’re here to supplement your team and bring our expertise to bear on your top priorities, so you achieve high-quality results, fast.


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