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The Tripod of Brand Differentiation

August 21, 2016

Light BulbsLast summer we decided to downsize our living accommodations, since we’ve been empty nesters for a few years. During the winter I decided it was time to get rid of all my stereo equipment, which was taking up too much space. I’d had some experience with Bose sound devices and after some further research decided to go with its new SoundTouch 30 system. At about 35 pounds, this compact system kicks out excellence sound, in keeping with Bose’s reputation.

Instead of ordering off their website, I decided to visit Bose’s downtown Ottawa store so that I could ask some questions. The sales experience at the Rideau Centre store was excellent. Because the store didn’t have the colour I wanted the sales rep arranged with one of their Toronto stores to ship it to my home. He also called Bose’s tech support so that I could inquire into connecting my turntable to the SoundTouch. A pre-amp was promptly sent to me, shipping fee waived.

The unit arrived within a few days, and it was a matter of a few minutes to get it connected to my Wifi. The sound quality proved what I expected. All was good.

Some five months after I’d been using the SoundTouch, I encountered a problem with the Bose app, which resides on both my iPhone and laptops. After repeated attempts to fix the problem I decided it was time to call Bose tech support.

Woman on Phone

I’ve dealt with a variety of tech support people over the years with many companies. Some were very good, but most were lackluster. And when it comes to customer service, it’s been mostly a miserable experience. The exception here, it should be noted, has been Apple Care, whose phone and live chat support is very good.

However, a new low was reached that day with Bose. It wasn’t that the tech support agent was rude; he wasn’t. The issue was that he didn’t know what he was doing. I had to wait half an hour on hold to have someone answer, and then another 30 minutes going through the motions with him. He didn’t seem to have any more of a clue than me how to fix the problem. I finally asked him why he hadn’t escalated it to a more senior tech, such as what Apple Care does. He said fine, disappeared for a few minutes and then reappeared. But in this case he merely passed on whatever the invisible senior tech person had said: send back the unit. Bose would send me another one once it had my receipt from UPS that it was in their possession. A slew of emails followed my transaction with tech support, including a shipping label.

I thought about my experience and the request from Bose. The next day, acting on intuition, I phoned the Bose Rideau Centre store and spoke to the manager. Very customer focused, he was shocked at how I’d been treated and the conclusion tech support had reached, namely returning the unit.

The manager then asked me a series of questions, and then walked me through some diagnostics. The solution to get the app to work took only a few minutes. The manager could not get over that tech support hadn’t asked me to go through the steps that he had me follow. When I expressed my view that this was one of the most incompetent tech experiences I’d ever had, the manager replied that Bose had recently outsourced its tech support. Well, that explains a lot. It was reminiscent of companies such as Dell and HP whose customer support, once very good, tanked when they took their eyes off the customer service ball.

Emoticon Smiling.jpeg

Bose, despite having superior products and (in my case) excellent customer sales, failed when it came to customer tech support. I completed the Bose customer tech service questionnaire that I received the next day. When I pressed the “Submit” button, an error message appeared (a few weeks later I received another automated survey to complete, which also failed to submit). On top of that, the day after my tech support call I emailed Bose to share my experience. It took three weeks to receive a reply from someone in customer service. I provided additional information and waited several days to receive a second response.

It took several more weeks to finally get some resolution with a senior tech on the phone. But it was a protracted and unnecessary experience.

There are three legs to brand differentiation: product quality, sales experience and follow-up service. When it comes to this tripod, Bose is missing one leg. In this instance, it doesn’t matter if you have exceptional products and great sales people if your customer service support sucks. This is how the reputations of companies rise and fall.

Indifference to customer feedback extends across industries. Witness my feedback to a popular natural foods store in Ottawa after my Bose experience. I thought I’d start shopping at Rainbow Foods, which has a wide selection of products. On my third trip to the store I attempted to engage an employee who appeared intent on tasking, ie, stocking shelves. She was in her sixties and one of the retail associates. She had little interest in helping me, so I gave up, put down the product I was holding and walked out of the store. I then sent some feedback to Rainbow Foods on their website. I never received a response. Indifference.

Tech Guy

Contrast this experience to a recent one, which proved illuminating. I purchased a manual coffee grinder from GSI Outdoors, a family-owned company (founded in San Diego and now based in Spokane, WA) specializing in outdoor camping equipment. I had trouble getting it to work so returned it to the outdoor retail store where I’d bought it. I then went on GSI’s website to share my experience with their product. Two days later I had a phone call from a very friendly fellow who apologized for my inconvenience. He then promised to mail me a free one, which arrived in five business days, just in time for our three week road trip. That’s how it’s done. Kudos to GSI Outdoors. And I’ll add that during our trip the grinder worked beautifully.

In the summer 2016 issue of Canadian Business Magazine, brand strategy consultant Bruce Philip offered some pointed insights on customer service in his column:

Customer experience—especially in Canada—is the most dismal and ignored corner of marketing. Poorly measured, conferring little corporate glory and mired in office politics, customers’ affection is taken for granted—or, worse, considered unimportant by too many companies…. The worst of it, most companies never find out they’re failing….yesterday’s hard-won customers just slip away.

The message here is when you’re competing in a tough, fast-changing marketplace it’s vital to be on your game. A company’s only as good as the three legs on which it stands and competes. If one leg is shaky, it places the company in a vulnerable position. Too many companies, large and small, have learnt this the hard way.

I hope that Bose gets it—soon. They make great sound products. The manager at the Rideau Centre store was one of the best sales people I’ve encountered. It must be hugely frustrating for capable people such as him to hear from customers with easy-to -solve problems but who ran into the wall of weak tech support service. Take a cue from GSI Outdoors on how to practice excellent customer service.

If you’re part of an organization that prides itself on producing superior products, whether it’s furnaces, artisan roasted coffee beans or furniture, and that believes in providing great sales experiences, then don’t park customer followup service in the back seat. It belongs in the front seat. Ensure that the tripod of brand differentiation is rock solid. Each leg supports the other.

Keeping the tripod balanced is the challenge for corporate leadership.

As a consumer, you want to associate with brands whose powerful presence creates a halo effect that rubs off on you.   
— Tom Peters

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