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Tech Companies and “The Service Problem”

Over the past few weeks I have had occasion to talk with a number of digital leaders who lamented the experience of working with tech start-ups. I want to start by saying that these critics are not people who don’t appreciate innovation – to the person, they love it – but at the same time they find it difficult or off-putting to deal with the companies that are driving the change in the industry.

Versus our experience with the media companies we deal with on a more regular basis, service from tech firms generally doesn’t stack up. Our core complaint is that the tech company is there when an IO needs to be processed, but impossible to reach when you want to talk about business issues or address issues in a program that is running.

While sales people tend to be thinner on the ground for tech firms than media companies, that doesn’t excuse bad service. The ironic thing is that while media companies are desperate to hear more about business issues – to be treated as partners – tech companies tend not to be. Not always, but frequently.

So why aren’t tech firms as responsive? First, I think we need to recognize that the tech world values TECH, not service. VCs are primarily concerned with the quality of the tech team, thinking that for the right product other disciplines can be backfilled in. Not an excuse, but a fact just the same.

Second, most consumer facing tech solutions were devised to meet consumer needs, not advertiser needs. We all know that most media-rooted properties – magazines for instance – exist because advertisers want access to an audience AND consumers want information. So media companies tend to be more flexible about providing more and more intrusive ways to reach out to readers. Contrast that with a service like Twitter. I will wager that virtually no attention was paid to advertiser needs when that product was first conceived. The result is a service that is highly appealing for consumers but harder for brands to get their heads around.

Third, media company models and service structures were conceived in an era of information scarcity – where producing, say, the best shelter magazine meant consumers got exponentially more “with you” than “without you.” Scarcity meant more revenue, and that they could afford to pay for more service providers. By contrast, au courant tech companies are developed in an era of consumer control – where that shelter content competes with thousands or tens of thousands of other “fish in the sea,” and the vast majority of those “fish” offer up their content for free. It is only natural, then, that those companies place more emphasis on ensuring that they deliver what consumers want rather than what advertisers want.

Fourth, great service for advertisers tends to focus on qualitative factors, custom offerings, and high touch experiences. Those are not the core strengths of tech companies. I think of it like this. That tech CEO is trying to change the world, not change the way I feel about anti-perspirant stains on fabric. Not an excuse for bad service, but something to consider as we ponder what we can realistically expect to get from them in terms of service.

Finally, they really haven’t had to care about us until recently. Put yourself in their shoes for a sec. If your sole source of revenue is a VC, and the VC vales tech leadership over everything else, what incentive would you have to build out a partner services org? But as those VCs shift to wanting tech companies to start generating revenue more quickly, the companies themselves need to find ways of satisfying the very people that make that possible. In addition to their consumer users.

In a market driven economy, money talks, and if a tech company wants $500K of your budget, you have the right to expect them to treat you right, answer your calls and messages, listen to your needs and go back and see if they can address them. If they don’t do those things, they shouldn’t get your money.

There is no excuse for bad service. But it might be useful to give a well meaning team the benefit of the doubt if they really are in the process of changing the world. In many cases, these teams are filled with people who must make up their service strategies as they go along, and it is possible that you could forge a great relationship with a great company in the process of helping them better help you.

But marketers absolutely have the right to expect service to improve over time. In my view, dealing with a few growing pains along the way is acceptable if the tech company really is transformational in nature. But persistent crappy service isn’t acceptable. And even the largest transformational tech companies need to remember that just as consumers have thousands of choices online, so too do marketers.

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