August 2013

What Does Caring Customer Service Really Feel Like?

I don’t have any technical advice to share today. Instead, I want to share some stories. I’ve been thinking about how often we emphasize good customer service in the Local SEO world. We tell business owners that the possession or lack of caring customer service can make or break their reputations on the web, typically in the form of user reviews. I would like to share two anecdotes – one negative and one positive – about how my impression was formed of a company’s core values as a result of my interaction with their staff.


The Negative Experience
My husband and I are renters. We live in a small, timeworn house in the country with a big garden. We’re surrounded by beautiful old trees, including fruit trees that must have been planted before we were born. There are large, ranging hedges all over the multi-tenant property, filled with birds, and empty fields of grass that have mellowed to their summer gold just now. This is a rustic area where people ride horses down the road and wandering cows stop traffic. These peaceful qualities drew us to these quiet environs when we rented the house many years ago.

Then, a year or two back, the elderly owner gave over management of the property to a professional local property management company. Overnight, we and other tenants on the land felt the change. Suddenly our sagging row of mailboxes was filled with officious memos from the property management company about dumpster use, high weed mowing, on-site inspections.

Of course, this is the company’s job. They are supposed to manage the property, but the woman put in charge of tenant relations has managed to offend and aggravate many of my neighbors with her style of communication. In my own case, she became obsessed with a vine growing on our house that was growing here before we ever moved in. In attempting to resolve her concerns about the vine, I was the recipient of numerous ill-mannered, petulant and accusatory emails, phone calls and visits from this woefully unprofessional person.

We were willing to comply with her requests, but the disrespectful tone with which she communicated her goals made the transaction extremely unpleasant. I’m still considering whether I should bother to communicate my concerns about this woman’s lack of professionalism to her superiors. One of my neighbors made the effort to write a formal complaint about her own transactions with the property manager, but I’m not sure it would be worth my time to do the same. I am not at all convinced that anyone – the owner or the firm – would actually care about my experience, because my impression of the whole company has been set by my interactions with this person, and that impression is decidedly negative.

Should I ever be in a position to be a property owner who needs a property manager, I would absolutely not engage this company. I haven’t decided what to do about this. My options range from writing a negative review, to writing letters, to letting it go. Right now, I’m just mulling over the very bad taste in my mouth and thinking about what a lack of genuine caring feels like in a business transaction. This woman has signaled to me that:

– She doesn’t like tenants
– She doesn’t trust tenants
– She doesn’t like her work
– She doesn’t care if we have good feelings about the company she represents


The Positive Experience
Fortunately, I can compare and contrast my negative experience with a very positive one. I regularly visit a local farm to do my produce shopping. Over the years, we’ve come to know the farmers and staff there and one of the things that makes the experience of shopping with these people so positive is the way they show how much they appreciate our business. How do they do this?

– They smile and call out a greeting when we arrive.
– They chat about the weather with us (an old country custom).
– They put little extras in our bags, even just a couple of plums or a bouquet of herbs, or they give us a discount on a purchase from time to time, saying, “It’s you guys!”.
– The show us they trust us. Several times, their payment system has been broken and they’ve told us to pay them next time. We’ve even had to insist on writing them an IOU. They were perfectly willing to just let us pay some other time, believing that we would.
– The way they treat all of their customers shows that the staff really likes the work they do. A happy atmosphere pervades this humble, bountiful farm stand.

I don’t think the big difference between the two experiences has anything to do with free stuff or discounts. I think it has to do with the fact that we feel so human when we interact with the farmers. They care about their work and they care about their customers. They really get it that their business depends on a good product and good service and they have earned our loyalty. By contrast, the property management woman shows how little she cares about acting human with the people in her professional life – either she’s on some kind of an ego trip or simply has no social skills – with the result that she has created a cold and nasty atmosphere on a previously peaceful property.

So my thought for you, the local business owner, is that the warmth you genuinely feel for your work really shows. If you don’t feel genuine care, neither will your staff and neither will the customers who make your business possible. Can people be human in and around your business, or is there a sense of pressure to carry out business with impersonal efficiency that is actually harming your ability to build something good in the world?

For some years now, it has been my honor and pleasure to work as an Associate with the inbound marketing software company, Moz, where the tone of business is set by core values summed up in the acronym TAGFEE. The letters stand for transparent, authentic, generous, fun, exceptional and empathetic. I can absolutely attest to the fact that everyone involved with Moz works to live up to these ideals, and the environment they foster is the same as the one I encounter at the farm stand. I have to wonder what would happen to the property management company if they were ever introduced to TAGFEE. I have to wonder what would happen at any business where I’ve experienced bad customer service if they took a heartfelt look at TAGFEE.

My guess is that there would be a lot less negative reviews cluttering up the Internet and a rewarding move towards more human-to-human relations in the business world. I’d like that.

Hotels A Hotbed For Local Business NAP Consistency Issues

Mr. Bell Speaks On the Telephone

I’ve had occasion recently to be researching the hotel industry as it relates to Local Search Marketing, and something has come to my attention that I thought it would be worthwhile to jot down.

First, all readers must understand that the consistency with which a local business publishes its NAP (name, address, phone number) on the web is widely considered to be critical to rankings. In fact, David Mihm’s recently published Local Search Ranking Factors 2013 cites consistency of structured citations as the 3rd most important factor out of 83 – meaning that it’s extremely important to ensure that you are publishing consistent NAP data everywhere your business is listed on the web.

Now let’s look at hotels – giants in the local search market. When you think of hotel listings, the first directory that’s likely to spring to mind is TripAdvisor.com. TripAdvisor is to lodgings what Yelp is to restaurants, right? So, imagine my surprise, during an investigation of hotel listings in various regions of the U.S., at discovering how many hotels are listing a toll free phone number as their one and only number on their TripAdvisor listings.

I’ll zoom in on The Talbott Hotel in Chicago, IL (though I could have chosen any one of dozens of other hotels in other geographic markets). Here is the NAP on The Talbott Hotel’s TripAdvisor Page:

I haven’t had a recent hotel client and don’t know if the TripAdvisor dashboard currently gives you fields for both a local and a toll free phone number, but in all of the results I looked at, only one phone number was listed on each of the hotel listings in their index. As shown in the above screenshot, The Talbott Hotel is listing a toll free number only.

Why might this be problematic? Because it is generally believed that Big Daddy Google prefers that local area code phone numbers be used as the primary number for all local businesses.

So let’s take a look at Google now. Doing a branded search in the main engine for ‘The Talbott Chicago Il’, we see the following in the main results:

Now we see another single phone number. This time it’s a local one. Google’s various dashboards do allow for a business to list a primary local phone number and a secondary toll free number, but The Talbott apparently hasn’t done so. So, here we have the makings of a NAP consistency issue. TripAdvisor says the number starts 800 and Google says it starts 312.

Personal Trainer Google now puts me through a workout getting into the Google+ Local page for this hotel to double check the published NAP. From my branded search, I can click on the right column map and then click on the review link to get to the + Local page (thanks a whole lot, Google). Here’s what I see, while mopping the perspiration from my frowning brow:

Sure enough, in the mast and elsewhere on the page, only this single local number is published, with no mention of the 800 number listed on TripAdvisor.

Naturally, our next step is to visit the business’ website, to see if things become clearer. It gets a little worse here, actually (sorry Hotel Talbott):

The crucial footer area of the site has been optimized not with both the local and toll free numbers (to make things clear to Google’s bots and to human visitors), but displays a sole toll free VANITY phone number. Business owners may think that vanity phone numbers make it easier for their customers to remember and reach them, but Local SEOs get that far-away, pained look on their faces when the subject arises. Upshot: if you feel you must use a vanity number, use it on a radio or TV ad and put it in your website masthead in image text – not in real, crawlable text in that all-important website footer. And that brings us to our final screenshot:

The webmasters/marketers for this hotel have attempted to get it right by listing both a local and toll free number on the very vital Contact Us page, but there again, we have the vanity 800 number, so the day (and the data) are still cloudy for Google’s bots.

In the end, what we have here is incomplete and confusing phone signals published in various places on the web, making it hard for Google to hang onto a data cluster that makes good, easy sense to them.

If this were an isolated case, I wouldn’t have bothered to blog about it. But do you know how many of the top hotels in Chicago are following this same pattern of listing a single toll free number, instead of a local one, as their primary number on TripAdvisor?

9/20

That’s right. Nearly half of the hotels in this major city have citation consistency issues similar to what I’ve highlighted here, and the same thing is going on in city after city I’ve looked at. It’s a big, big problem.

Why This Problem Was Bound To Arise

Hotels are unique. They are not like the local pizza place or plumbing company in that the majority of people phoning them will be locally located. Hotels serve travelers, meaning that guests are phoning them from all over the planet to make reservations, and it’s only common courtesy to help these people avoid hefty charges for a long distance call. Toll free numbers represent courtesy in the hospitality industry. I understand this, and so should Google, but the fact remains that TripAdvisor is likely one of the key sources to which Google refers to understand hospitality industry data. Inconsistency in TripAdvisor data may create problems with Google.

What can be done about this?

1) Be sure you are listing both your local and toll free numbers in both the footer and contact page of your website.

2) Be sure you are listing both numbers on your Google+ Local page, too, with the local number set as primary and the toll free number set as secondary.

3) Encourage TripAdvisor to allow for the display of both numbers in their main display of core business NAP at the top of their listings. It will be a convenience for everybody, including guests, some of whom may be local people calling to make reservations for visiting relatives.

4) If TripAdvisor (or any other local directory) continues to only display a single number for each business, then you have to make a judgement call. If you feel having the toll free number listed as your primary number on your listing will generate enough calls to outweigh concerns about NAP consistency issues, then you may decide to continue to list it in this way. I can totally understand a decision like this and would be interested in feedback from hotel industry marketers and business owners regarding how they are reaching this decision.

5) Be sure you are listing both phone numbers on every other directory that allows you to do so, with the primary number being local and the secondary one being toll free.

6) If you are using a vanity number, don’t put it in crawlable text on your website. Put it in image text. I’ve never seen any mention of Google being able to translate the letters in a vanity number into numerical digits. Ditto with any form of call tracking number.

Now it’s your turn! What do you think of this advice? Am I suggesting that hotel owners bend too far over backwards to please Google and their handling of the data cluster? Do you have additional tips? Please add them! And, given the recent findings of Local Search Ranking Factors 2013, do you feel that the issue I’ve identified is super serious, sort of serious, or not really a big deal? Do you feel that consistent data in other places can overcome a single toll free number being listed as primary on a TripAdvisor page, or are rankings at stake if this choice is made? I would love to hear your thoughts and discuss this with you!

   

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