EVERYONE's feeling the recessionary pinch, but online businesses – particularly those selling ephemeral and risk-based products like say, travel insurance, have a distinct advantage.
No glassy storefront, no packaged inventory piled high somewhere in the boonies, no expensive print or TV advertising. Just a website that tells you to click around 'til your eyeballs dry up, and then "add to cart."
There's often a number you can call, but they'd rather you didn't, because that involves getting a human talking – talk isn't cheap anymore.
Don't you envy them? The lighter your boat, the more likely you'll float in a recession.
But online businesses are struggling with the rest of us, and as a Customer Evangelist will tell you, the smartest move you can make is to go back to 100 BC (100 years Before Cyberspace) and offer good, old fashioned personal service.
My 71-year-young mother is coming to visit me in New York.
She spends her days on a ladder stacking shelves at Peter's of Kensington  and encouraging Sydney's yuppies and yarries (yuppies who've 'arrived') to part with discretionary income on decidedly non-ephemeral products.
"Recession? Not here. Gentleman came in bought a four-drawer box for his cutlery - $3000 ..." she said (on the phone).
She hasn't the patience to learn the internet, other than to say, "I clicked on the finger and it displayed something." But she's not dead yet, she's still eating, breathing and abluting; she's a potential customer, and she buys her airline tickets from a traditional travel agent – a person she can sit in front of. But realspace travel agencies have costs, and she was initially quoted her $A777 insurance on a $A1300 airfare for a 23 day stay. Whoa, back a full yard!
From a 10,000 miles away I Googled around and found a travel insurance website with most of the information laid out. Rather than post a phone number, they offered that you provide yours ("we only call landlines"). So I asked them to give her a quick call and sell her a policy.
This is the email I got back:
Dear Irene Chiang
Our site is designed to provide all our quotes based on the information
you input. All our policies are displayed on our site. Please return to [site name] then click onto "Get a Quote"
Please follow the prompts and it will lead you to a choice of those
policies that meet your basic criteria. You should then read each policy to ensure you select the one that meets your full requirements ... Once we receive the completed form it will be sent to the insurer for assessment. From receipt of the completed application form, the underwriters can take from 24-72 hours to decide.
They may opt to :
* decline coverage totally (i.e. require us not to sell you ANY
* decline the pre-existing condition but cover the rest
* cover one or some of the pre-existing conditions but decline the
* charge an additional premium
* charge an additional premium and impose a non removable excess
* charge an additional premium and make changes to various
conditions and terms.
If you do not agree with the decision, you have the right to appeal the
What is wrong with this piece of selling? It's the first introduction I get to this company. Does it make you want to rush back to them for all your travel insurance needs?
Futurist Faith Popcorn (www.faithpopcorn.com ), when asked about what matters to people in 2009, mentioned some lo-tech things that have never gone out of style: "personal service", "customization", "relationship". These may seem obvious to the service-minded among us, but people do not need to be informed, so much as reminded. We're so busy tweeting  instead of meeting we forget there's a human being behind the @.
The above email, of course, is like waving a red feedback form to a playful Customer Evangelist. I replied:
Clearly, [x], you have no idea of what the words 'customer service' mean.
I'm in the USA, you and my mother are in Australia.
She is not internet savvy and can just basically do email and nothing else.
I was hoping you'd give her a quick call as you offered on your site, and quickly find out if the $200+ will suffice vs. the $600 one which you are pushing below.
If your margins are that paper thin you can't be bothered then she might as well go to Flight Center and at least be fleeced by a human being who will give her the time of day. I will be writing about appalling internet customer service like yours on my FastCompany.com blog.
I really thought the Aussies were getting better in the area of CS but I continue to remain disappointed.
Now before you berate me for becoming an insufferably rude New Yorker, I believe companies receive the very widest range of authentic emotion in their mailboxes daily. They should be very skilled at responding. No matter how unpleasant it is to read, it's a voluntary opinion survey, a barometer of customer satisfaction and free market research. Or it's just words.
I expected a response like this:
Dear Lynette, we'll call your mother right away.
Instead, I received a very long reply, none of it designed to entice us to buy a policy:
I trust you will read this reply to your DAUGHTER entirely as I am appalled at her lack of interest in assisting you herself when she has all the necessary tools. As an Italian migrant myself, I expected more from a child - if my daughters behaved like this I would have stern words as they are too old to spank. Regards)
You can write what you like HOWEVER be sure of your facts and the LAW.
Firstly we are an internet company and any application has to be via the internet, secondly we provide ALL the documentation to make an informed decision, thirdly we provide both email and telephone numbers for people to contact us or the insurer direct for clarification of any point that is not understood.
We did advise you about a need to complete a mandatory pre-existing form while referring you back to our site to read the appropriate product advice. We also have an FAQ page to answer basic questions which it is obvious you have not bothered to look at ....
Who knows what other items in the FAQ's might not have addressed your unasked questions.
The LAW part
AUSTRALIAN LAW under the Financial Services Reform Act (FSRA) Administered by the Australian Governments Australian Securities Investment Commission (ASIC) EXPRESSLY prohibit any person in the Financial Services area (including†Travel Insurance) from providing any 'recommendation". To do so would open them to prosecution and termination of their right to sell products in this industry. No policy is worth losing our business for a legal breach of the law.
We handle 4 of the main Australian Travel Insurers and we have NEVER, since 1999 'recommended" any policy to any person any way.
Why? Well it is not a LACK of customer service, but we have no idea about the person requesting the information, we do not know what camera, video or other equipment they have. We do not know what they have wrong with them, what they consider 'adequate' cover and the list goes on. This point is highlighted by your own statement that your mother is not internet savvy other than perhaps email.. I was meant to know that, or did I not read my crystal ball?
We are an INTERNET BASED company, we can answer general questions not made clear by the Product Disclosure Statement that is provided for all the insurers on our website.
YOU have access to the internet, our site, the list of options complete with all policy information booklets and you are internet savvy and you know your own mother, so the information to make an informed decision is clearly available to you for you to advise your mother.
You wish to fob that responsibility off to us, sorry but it does not work that way.
SO if you wish to refer your mother to Flight Centre to be 'fleeced' as you put it then I think it says more about you than our company.
You wish to bog [sic] us , there is nothing I can do to stop you, but I am sure you would not put this reply added to your bog as it would show your inadequacies more than any this company probably has (because none of us is perfect).
I am very sorry that your mother has such an uncaring child and you will note I have forwarded this email to her so she can see your tirade as well as your failings. I am assuming her English is better than my 85 year old mother who handles English better than she gives herself credit for.
Well, now! That's a lot of words. I do believe simply picking up the phone and wham, bam, one insurance policy coming up ma'am, would have used less of the company's time. The travel insurance market is directly affected by the travel market, which has declined. The phone and a cheap calling card (for calling cellphones) could help resurrect it.
But at least I now knew there was a real human behind the @, and acknowledged him. Unfortunately, the rep didn't agree, and told me to get knotted:
We all have better things to do with our time. We will continue doing business as we have advised you.
Mother went back to Flight Center and was offered several hundred dollars less than their original quote, bettering even that of the internet company.
Moral: Go the extra nanosecond in this recession. And stay cool. Everyone's stretched. Never get offended by customers. They're offering to help you to continue to be paid. Stay one step ahead of them at all times, but looking over your shoulder. And smiling.
Watch out, online merchants. Your sluggish, expensive offline competitors are closing the gap.
Card-carrying Customer Evangelist The Galfromdownunder  reminds you to be vigilent at all times and not bite the feedback that feeds you .
Picture: Even if a customer walks around with a kitchen sponge strapped to his forehead, he has good reasons for doing so and more importantly, enables you to be paid.