The last time I counted, there were almost 500 subscription box companies....and that's just the ones I know about. The competition to capture that elusive recurring payment is fierce. Certain categories (beauty, children, snacks) are beyond saturated with competitors. Not surprisingly, quite a few companies fail every year. There must be intense speculation about how to differentiate from the competition, improve perceived value and retain customers. Well, I have some advice for sub box company owners and managers: Stand up on your hind legs and communicate!!!
Tom Peters, the well-known management guru and author of "In Search of Excellence" has often pointed out how little effort it takes for a company to provide "excellent" service and how even the smallest things distinguish one company from another in a consumer's mind. When you place an order in a fast food restaurant, how often do you receive a sullen barely intelligible series of grunts from the order taker? If that same employee is trained to smile, look you in the eye and speak clearly, how does that affect your impression of that restaurant? More importantly, what effect does it have on your likelihood of returning? To some extent, the dumbing down of America has numbed us to service like that which is why just a simple and sincere "thank you" can put a business WAY ahead of its competition. The point is that it just doesn't take much to catapult your service from mundane to exceptional.
Since most e-commerce relies on virtually anonymous interaction, it is critical that sub box companies communicate effectively. That means responding quickly and with sensitivity to customer inquiries. That may seem pretty obvious but it is amazing how many companies fail to grasp such an essential component of success. To illustrate, here are a few situations I've encountered recently:
- A box company with quite a promising concept apparently went out of business this past summer. There was absolutely no communication of any kind to their customers. The only way I knew about the situation was when I noticed a charge on my credit card bill for which I'd never received a box. No amount of e-mailing or phone calling elicited a response. I think I know one big reason they went under!
- I e-mailed one brand new company with a sincere compliment about their concept and a vendor resource that would be quite beneficial to them. Two weeks later, I have had no response whatsoever. An enthusiastic potential customer reached out to them. If you know anything about social media, you know that new businesses pay dearly for such engagement. Guess what I've decided about subscribing?
- Some box companies' Facebook pages are full of annoyed comments from customers desperate for a personal response...going public is their last resort after ignored e-mails and phone calls. How do you think such frustration impacts that business?
- The charges for one company are billed under a completely unrelated name. When that name appears on your credit card bill, there is no way to connect it with the correct company. I spent a couple of hours over several days making phone calls and sending e-mails to try to identify the charge. Although I did talk to the correct company at least three times, explaining the problem every time, never ONCE did the rep explain that they share a billing service with another company. That sharing arrangement resulted in misidentification of their charges on credit card statements. Were the reps uninformed? Or were they hiding a really sloppy billing situation? Either way, the lack of transparency was alarming and I am no longer a customer.
- A reader contacted me saying that he wanted to subscribe to one of the boxes I had reviewed. He wrote the company requesting a little clarification about their service. After more than a week, he had received NO response....zip, nada, nothing. On his behalf, I contacted someone at the company with whom I'd had prior communication. No response. Of course he did not subscribe.
We've all been there. Any such communication lapse leaves a bad taste. How much more effort is required to overcome that kind of impression than to avoid it in the first place? (Hey Mr./Ms. CEO; there's a real cost-cutting idea for you!) I know that a lot of box companies are shoestring operations and may get overwhelmed at times with customer inquiries. They may be under-capitalized and find themselves caught without adequate resources to provide decent customer service. Some may be plagued by owner ignorance...not understanding the time commitment that owning your own business entails. Of course, none of these matter to the customer. Aside from providing a great product, there just isn't anything more important to business success than stellar communication. (Sometimes I think great communication even trumps great product!)
"Your Sample Choice email should be sent to you not later than the end of the day tomorrow. If you are unable to view it in any folder at that time, please let me know as I want to assist! :)
That one sentence provided a solution, a time commitment and an expression of compassion (We hear your pain!) Is it any wonder that BirchBox is one of the most successful and longest running businesses in this industry? They set the customer service standard for sub box companies and they continually raise the bar. They over-communicate in an effort to humanize the faceless nature of e-commerce. Their competitors should take notice if they expect to be around a year from now.
A few box company owners have a crystal clear understanding about the importance of communications to overall success. Try e-mailing Yumvelope some time. Chances are you'll hear back directly from their Founder, Sam Gold. I've run into a few other companies with that same level of owner engagement. You can bet that makes a positive impression!
I hope this little rant is the wake up call that a few box companies clearly need. Subscription boxes are fun and they creatively address the cocooning trend in this country (a whole other subject). Whether or not this exploding industry achieves permanent market traction remains to be seen. But (with a nod to Oprah) one thing I know for sure is that exceptional communication is a key to success for any business. Aside from being good business, it's just plain common sense.
Now all you sub box companies...please go find all the great stuff you can round up, cram it in a pretty box and ship it to my house!
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