Epic Fail: Customer Service – How Citibank Failed and Why They’ll Never Know

March 27, 2008 at 6:38 am | Posted in Advertising, Amazon, Citibank, Communication, Companies, Decision making, General, Godin, Seth - Meatball Sundae, Marketing, Online marketing, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment
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Update: I’ve received some attention from the post below, but I feel as though I should clarify a few things.

The email from Citibank was lame, but for a huge company, not totally surprising. However, the arrival of this email does not necessarily negate that the company is listening. Toward the end of the post, I make that connection and most of the time, it’s true. In this case, however, I don’t think it is responsible to connect one lame email with a company’s entire attitude.

That said, the moral of the post – companies who fail to listen will be overtaken by those that do – still stands. I believe that will only become more apparent as time goes on. -End update

To fail may be human, but for a company to fail at customer service these days may well be disaster.

You may remember when I mentioned a Citibank ad last week in a post about features versus benefits in advertising. Their print ad was spot-on when it spoke about how Citibank fit into their customers’ lives (plus, who can resist a cute puppy?).

Citibank fail small

Epic Fail

So when I sent them an email noting my complimentary post, I expected at least a quick “thanks!” That’s the response I got from Moosejaw (they even promised to send me some schwag which must have gotten lost in the mail…). So imagine my surprise then almost 48 hours later, they reply with a standard “sorry, we can’t even respond to your email” email.

The email isn’t that important and I don’t expect a pat on the back from a multi-national company. However, the time delay tells me that this was not an auto-generated email – some person sitting at a computer was getting paid to send Citibank customers (or fans!) crappy, say-nothing emails. Which means their customer service representative’s job is to rebuff customers or potential customers.Amazon small

What It Means To Be Human

Yet, on the same day I received this epic fail, I went to Amazon.com. On the top of the homepage – the very first thing you saw – Amazon was thanking its customers for buying the Kindle, offering special discounts for those who ordered in advance, and relating in a totally human way by showing off the Kindle cake. How different is this response?

Maybe Seth Godin is right (again). About two-thirds through the first disc of the Meatball Sundae audio disc, Godin talks about the difference between companies that sold stuff (meatballs) before the internet and those that grew their business on and through the internet (the sundae). (Incidentally, notice that there are two friendly mentions on the Meatball Sundae Amazon page that tell me the book is available on a Kindle.)

The point of his whole book is that you can’t just use the fun new web tools – blogs, wikis, Facebook, etc. – to sell that same regular stuff. These new tools require a whole new business model. And the reality is that it is really, really difficult to do this if you are in the meatball business.

Sometimes you can learn from failure; hell, sometimes it’s down-right hilarious. But to fail at customer service these days, when it’s as easy and cheap as an email, is ludicrous. Sure, Citibank is the old model, selling meatballs like they have for a hundred years. But it’s time to clean the dust out of your ears and start listening to your customers. Either that or you won’t have to worry about them being customers for much longer.


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