Customer Experience – The good, the bad and the ugly

In today’s fast-paced world there are an overwhelming amount of options for consumers. In the past, if you needed a specific item you would get in your car, drive to a specific store that specialized in the sale of that item, perhaps ask a sales representative about the different choices (if there were any) and either buy or not buy the item. If you were unhappy with the service, you would have the option to ask for a manager to voice your compliment/concern/complaint. If you wanted to take that compliment/concern/complaint further, you would have to look up a corporate phone number by referencing a billing statement or perhaps looking in the yellow-pages.

This is how many Yellow Page books I had to keep just to keep track of the surrounding towns.

Fast forward to 2014. You can pick up your smartphone, browse for items being sold from all over the world, read product reviews, check prices, live-chat with customer service, find corporate emails/phone numbers to directly to send compliments/complaints/concerns, and immediately share your experience with the entire world via numerous social-media outlets.  In this fast paced ever-changing landscape of e-commerce versus brick-and-mortar, what defines a good customer experience?

In my experience, in order for a company to attract and retain customers they need to master the following brand attributes: authenticity, content consistency across all platforms, subject matter expertise, and accessibility.

Amazon continues to set the bar as the leader for a positive customer experience. Most recently Amazon topped USA Today’s 2014 Customer Service Hall of Fame list. As a consumer, I consistently find myself valuing and trusting Amazon’s customer reviews. Amazon encourages their customers to provide product reviews and makes it easy for them to do so.

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I recently polled a group of my friends and asked which companies they had had the worst customer service experience. The top offender was Comcast, which is not surprising as they seem to be on every list outlining poor customer service, from Temkin’s to Ranker’s ratings.

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Social media is changing the customer experience landscape by allowing customers to immediately and publicly hold companies accountable when they are not being authentic, offering consistency, properly sharing expertise on the product/service, and/or being easily accessible. Successful companies know how to effectively manage and leverage compliments/complaints/concerns to turn them into a moment to debut their authenticity and to remain true to their brand.

American Express engaging a complaining customer definitively and in a timely manner.

Companies who are not able to manage social media crisis will need to immediately reevaluate their brand to ensure that they are not opening the door for their competitors to take advantage of this.

Example of poor customer service leading a frustrated customer engaging with a competitor.

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Influences in the Industry

The change in the way that we eat happened gradually; the change from local farms to factory farms didn’t happen overnight. Today, most of our food comes from very far away.

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Factory farm locations in the US. Note the lack of equal distribution – factory farms tend to be far away from large population centers.

For a lot of us, we simply kept on buying and consuming food from local stores, irrespective of the source of the food. A small handful of people, however, have been very vocal about this change and have worked hard to keep food production local. These voices, coupled with the advances in social media outlets, began to shape the conversation and create a community.

The concept of producing and procuring food at the local level goes back to the Localism Movement. Those who subscribed to it wanted to keep production from becoming centralized, with the goal being that each local unit can benefit from both the production and consumption of a product or service. Community gardens, farmer’s markets, and farm shares are all examples of localism’s influence on food production.

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Orly Munzing founded Strolling of the Heifers in an effort to bring attention to the plight of local Vermont farmers. The event not only brought attention to the local economy, but grew in magnitude – in 2002 Strolling of the Heifers was a one day event, and by 2013 it became a week long affair and was rated one of 2013’s top 10 summer festivals. Orly’s dedication escalated local food from a niche movement to something that is well within the public conscience.

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Strolling of the Heifers collage.

Similiary, Carlo Petrini saw a local problem that he wanted to bring to worldwide attention; a new McDonald’s being built just outside the Spanish Steps in Rome spurred Petrini to start the Slow Food Movement. Slow Food is a movement which looks to keep the characteristics of food, such as production, consumption, flavor, and varieties, local and decentralized. Slow food has grown a simple manifesto in 1986 to having 100,000 members across 15 countries in 2011. Furthermore, the movement has spawned the opening of a university of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, which confers undergraduate and graduate degrees in food science. The success of the university has spawned similar programs in the US.

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Gastronomy students at UNH

Today, social media allows local communities to communicate and organize. Before social media, producers such as farmers and activists had to actively push their message. Now social media now allows consumers to speak directly to the producers to create a pull effect. More and more consumers are looking for fresh and local options, and farmers are responding. As such, food localism is becoming both accepted and mainstream.

Food Production and Climate Change

This week I have been reading a lot about climate change and how our food production and consumption go hand-in-hand with the causation factors for our planets increasing temperature. This topic can be very overwhelming but at the same time there substantial changes going on not only at the local level with community-based conservation, but also on a much larger scale like the The People’s Climate March in NYC last month.

My perspective on these topics really started to take shape after reading The Big Pivot by where author Andrew Winston specifically outlines the issues we need to tackle and provides thoughtful instructions on how we can go about doing so. Winston explains that our main issues are that we live in a “hotter, scarcer and more open world”, and that we not only need to slow down climate change, but we also have to prepare to live in a world already affected by it.

Food production and climate change is in a strange feedback loop – Our food production contributes to climate change, climate change alters our food production, and these alterations lead to worsening contributions to climate change.

For instance, the introduction of modern beef ranching has increased both beef demand and the distance between source and consumption. The methane produced by cows is a major greenhouse gas (that’s right – you can blame last year’s freezing winter on cow farts), as is the CO2 produced by the beef distribution network.  Ranchers will inevitably need to move their herds to more climate stable pastures, thus increasing transportation related CO2.

I believe my solution to this issue is fairly straightforward – we need to continuously evaluate our diets while favoring locally sourced food production. Though I’m not here to tell anyone to eat less meat or go vegan, I think it would be fair to acknowledge that our society’s meat consumption is considerably more than it used to be. Similarly, we rarely talk about just how far our foods travel to get to our plates. By buying from local farms, we simultaneously support out surrounding communities, reduce the CO2 output from food transportation, eat healthier and fresher. Seems like a win-win to me.

Here are some farm shares in my local area that I’m looking to trying out.

Stillman’s Turkey Farm

Walden Local Meat

Red Fire Farms