Monday, October 26, 2009

Stub Hub and the creepy feeling of being watched.

Even though I come from the creative side of the business, I’m a big fan of customer data. There’s no better way to build a relationship than using data to personalize communications according to a customer’s past buying habits.

Amazon, of course, does a great job of this. So does iTunes. But is there such a thing as going too far in the personalization of communications? In essence, getting too personal with your customers? I think so and here’s why:

I am not a regular customer of the online ticket reseller site Stub Hub, but I have used their service once or twice in the past. Occasionally I go to the site to see just how outrageous the ticket prices are for the game or show I can’t get into.

A case in point was a recent show by the rock band Social Distortion. After realizing the event was sold out in my area, I went to Stub Hub to check out the ticket prices. They were selling at a minimum of 4 times the face value of the ticket so I declined.

Sure enough, the next day in my inbox, I received a personalized e-mail from Stub Hub. It’s subject: “Social Distortion Tickets in a Flash!” The body of the e-mail read:

Hey Tom,
We noticed Social Distortion tickets were on your radar. Great tickets are still available, but act fast. Head back to and use our interactive maps to find your perfect seats.

Which would have been cool. Except I hadn’t sign up for Social Distortion ticket alerts—or any other kind of alerts for that matter. All I had done was a quick search for tickets and left the site. And a day later Stub Hub had come back to me with a personalized pitch.

Did Stub Hub go too far in trying to engage me in a dialog?

My take: If they had sent me an e-mail merely pitching their service I would not have minded. But reporting back to me on my searching behavior seemed wrong. What else did their little cookie know? It felt like I was being watched in a creepy “there’s a guy staring at me through my living room window” kind of way.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not surprised me that Stub Hub knew about my search or that they had the capability to push the information back to me in an e-mail. But in the words of an old Hall & Oates song, some things are better left unsaid.

This post originally appeared on Loyalty Truth, October 19, 2009. Tom Rapsas is an independent Creative Director/Writer/Strategist and can be reached at and via Twitter @tomrapsas.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Saturn and the death of a brand.

The end, when it came, was sudden. Just when it looked like the Saturn car company had been rescued by the Penske Group, the deal fell through and now, despite a loyal customer following, U.S. car company Saturn is no more.

As faithful Loyalty Redefined readers know, I have blogged about Saturn in the past, noting its social media miscues and also about the course correction the brand took to try and make things right. No matter what your take on the company is, for many the loss of Saturn is the loss of a beloved brand.

As David Aaker, author of Building Stronger Brands, put it "it was the only organization in the US that really had a quality culture to it…the loss of Saturn is a blow to a loyalty group attracted to the company's no pressure sales approach and solid customer service."

Some put the blame squarely on parent company GM. Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, (angrily) said: "It's criminal negligence. They got attacked internally, constantly, until today they were finally destroyed. How do you take something that was such a good idea and wreck it deliberately?"

As I write this, the Saturn Web site hums along, oblivious to the brand’s demise. It’s animated home page still buzzing with moving cars and people. I can still go thought the motions of ordering a new Saturn Aura that, alas, will never come.

The brand loyalist site Saturn Fans continues to provide news updates from around the Web, all related to the brand’s final days. They read like obituaries really, with headlines such as and “The Ride’s Over for Saturn Lovers” and “Farewell to Saturn’s Utopian Dream”.

Over at the company’s ImSaturn social network site the news was broken via a posted press release on the brand’s pink slip day, September 30. About 50 people have written in to what may be the site’s final post, with many customers either “heartbroken” over the “sad news” or bitter at GM vowing they “will NEVER get my business again.”

One more passionate fan wrote: “I hope someone can come along and bring the brand back as a proud American automobile company but that's a dream and the way things have gone, in so many ways lately, dreams don't stand much of a chance. Good luck to us, the true American dreamers...and believers.”

RIP Saturn, you have left a void in the hearts of a lot of American car buyers, another good idea put on the junk heap due to a lack of funding and foresight and commitment. For many, there appears to be no car company out there who can take your place.

This post was originally published on Loyalty Truth, October 8, 2009, by Tom Rapsas. Tom is an independent Creative Director/Writer/Strategist and can be reached at and via Twitter @tomrapsas.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Comcast and the two faces of customer service.

If you’re like me and work on the creative side of the business, you’d like to believe that good communications and a healthy social dialog are the keys to building relationships and ensuring customer loyalty.

But the fact is, your company is often only as good as the people you have on the front line. One bad experience either in-store, on the phone, or via an online chat, can often tarnish even your best marketing efforts.

Take Comcast. Is there any company whose customer service reputation swings more wildly across the great/terrible spectrum? Comcast has been both vilified for its customer service via the infamous “Comcast must die” Web site and glorified for its prompt @comcastcares replies on Twitter.

Which brings me to a recent personal encounter I had with the cable conglomerate. I’m a decade long Comcast customer and in April I found that two channels we occasionally watched at home, MSNBC and AMC, had disappeared from our two televisions that did not have a dedicated cable box.

I called 1-800-COMCAST and was told that I needed a digital converter to continue receiving these channels and could pick one up for free—by going to the dreaded local Comcast office.

What’s most off-putting about this office isn’t the untouched-since-the-‘70s interior or the unsmiling, laconic customer service reps—it’s, I kid you not, the counter-to-ceiling wall of thick bullet-proof glass the reps sit behind.

It’s the kind of set-up you see on TV in the visiting rooms of prisons, complete with vented portholes through which you talk to the person opposite you. It serves as a quite literal barrier to developing any kind of customer rapport, and gets you wondering why they need this kind of security in the first place.

So anyway, I went to the office to get my free converters—only to have the customer service rep behind the wall of glass tell me, with an unmistakable I-hate-my-job vibe, “we’re out of them, you need to come back in January”. A 9-month wait!

From the parking lot I made a call to 1-800-COMCAST to complain and received an apology. I was told that the converters were on order and should in fact be ready in September, a slightly more tolerable 5 months away.

Fast forward to a few days ago. Using Instant Chat at the Comcast Web site, I check to see if the converters might be ready. After being passed from one associate to another more versed with the converters, I’m informed they’re now available and I can have them shipped to my home. Yes!

Only, after confirming my address, I’m told that, oops, they can’t mail the converters to my area (for a reason never explained) and that I need to contact my local office to see if they have them. “Wait a second,” I chat back, “I don’t want to contact my local office, that’s why I’m talking to you.”

A canned response is sent back to me to the effect, “I am so sorry about your situation. I know you’re frustrated, but you need to contact your local office. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

Yes, for starters you can drop the canned faux sincerity. Then, you can break the rules and ship me my free converters. OR you can contact the local office for me and see if they have the converters. After all, I started our conversation by telling you that I was very tempted by a money-saving Verizon triple play offer I was receiving in the mail 3 or 4 times a week. Hint: You’re in danger of losing me as a long-time customer!

Funny thing is, I call 1-800-COMCAST an hour or so later on an unrelated Internet issue. And, after addressing the problem, the customer service rep quickly switches subjects. “Sir, I see you’re having an issue getting digital converters. Can I have them mailed to you in the next two weeks?”

Shocked, I reply “Yes, you can, thank you.”

Sometimes Comcast offers terrible customer service. Sometimes Comcast offers great customer service. And sometimes you get to see both of them in the very same day. But my guess is, most customers only see one side. And if it’s the terrible side, they don’t stay customers for very long.

(Now, let’s see if I get my converters!)

This post originally appeared on Loyalty Truth September 26, 2009. Tom Rapsas is an independent Creative Director/Writer/Strategist and can be reached at or via Twitter @tomrapsas.