Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

Social Media Customer Service is a Failure!

Part three in a series introducing The End of Business as Usual…Written by Frank Eliason (@frankeliason)

Certainly not a statement you would expect to hear from the person formerly known as @ComcastCares, but I think it is an important perspective to consider if we are to build stronger relationships with customers. As I look around I see many interesting aspects of social media from large and small businesses. and I am very excited to see companies trying new things to reach their customers. But we are now moving in a new direction and I think too few see it yet.

Today I am SVP of Social Media for Citibank (of course thoughts here are my own). I have had the privilege to see the impact social media can have on big businesses and I look forward to watching this come to reality. A few key observations I have had are:

– It all starts with trust

– Stories are the most powerful way to create & reinforce change

– Human connections are against the grain for many businesses, but imperative for social media success

– Many people are trying to make money off business leaders who do not understand social media (and they are being successful at it)

– We are so stuck on measurements, yet we are measuring the wrong things

I sometimes refer to the last twenty years in business as the Jack Welch era. While he is a business leader whom I have tremendous respect for, I also believe times are changing. Companies have been striving to focus on greater levels of metrics. For those who study Six Sigma, you have seen it first hand. When I first learned the Six Sigma process I was very excited. It was not about opinion, but instead where the metrics guided you. I completely understand why executives loved it. What many did not realize is those running the projects typically chose metrics that told the story they wanted to tell.

I am seeing the same trouble with social media today. People are focusing on the completely wrong metrics and not properly educating executives on the real story of social media. Today, companies are focusing on metrics such as ‘likes,’ fans, followers, etc. These metrics tell you nothing of substance. Few companies tie this information directly to their Customers through measurements such as the net promoter score of the social Customer, what products they are buying, etc. Most companies proclaim to be ‘listening’ in the space but very few have changed or implement processes or products based on this listening. Huge ROI can be gained just by measuring changes that stem from listening.  It’s sad to say, but the only changes I have seen are those due to large or threatening groundswells. And in my view, change was only made to silence the noise.

It is easy to pick on businesses where problems play out in social media. After all, it’s there for everyone to witness. The fact is that every business, large or small, can find out useful information via social media. It’s not just about listening, it’s about gaining insights and intelligence.  It should not take a groundswell of any proportion to get people within your organization to start to think about the Consumer. The world as we know it has already shifted. This is indeed the end of business as usual, but few are willing to admit it.

It’s not just the lack of intelligence or powers of observation that fail businesses. Traditional marketing is not as effective as it once was perceived to be. When I do watch TV, I tend to fast-forward passed commercials. I ignore virtually everything that enters my mailbox. When I am online, I, like you, pay more attention to what I am looking for or reading than digital ads. When I do go to buy a product, also like you, read reviews on websites like Amazon or I ask my social graph for their thoughts. The pendulum has shifted!

This brings me to the failure of social service. The other day someone tweeted me asking about current costs of phone calls versus the cost per Tweet for customer service. Ugh! This is new media and yet we’re already focusing on old metrics. The truth is that the service world has been broken for years because of the emphasis of handle time or calls per hour. Companies do not want to talk to you, and it shows. The fact is most do not want to Tweet with you either. Since they are worried about brand sentiment, they may appease you to shut you up. Sorry, shutting your customer up is not customer service and trying to expedite resolution isn’t a metric for the new world of consumer influence.

Many businesses run new media efforts through PR or marketing. I have even seen a few that run social media through their outside marketing agencies (talk about being close to the customer). Anyway, I have tried a few of these out over the years. My view is that these disconnected businesses are attempting to placate consumers, to minimize or eliminate the complaint. In order for social media service to scale, change MUST happen. Companies must care. New metrics must surface that place the customer back in customer service.

I do not get a sense however, that much has changed in the way businesses run, no matter how engaged in social media they are today. This is not because the scaling is not possible, because for the most part you can queue up a tweet just as easily as you queue up a call. The trouble is the efforts are not leading to wholesale change in the way companies interact with their customers. If you are simply placating loud customers, all you are really doing is encouraging others to focus on the channels where they believe resolution awaits.

What people failed to see regarding the Dell or Comcast success stories in the early social media days, is the amount of work that went on behind Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The true transformation of these businesses what not in taking to social network, but instead building the back end to start fixing the problems that created negative experiences in the first place. In my list above, I mention the power of stories, and both Dell and Comcast utilized these online conversations or stories to help drive improvements. I am sure both companies will admit that this is an ongoing process and that wholesale change does take time.

Social media is creating change in how businesses conduct themselves and placing still underestimated power in the hands of consumers and employees. If you truly want to influence brand perception, companies must:

– Empower employees (they are the life blood and the greatest ambassadors for your brand)

– Improve the customer experience, not just through service, but the entire experience with your company (please note I did not limit that to products or departments because most businesses are one brand)

– Be more nimble and not so stuck on processes that prevent change

– STOP being afraid of your customer! If anyone is afraid to speak to a Customer, you are doing the wrong things

– STOP minimizing the value of your customer! They are more influential to you in the post-commerce phase than you can imagine.

As Brian says in the next book, the brand of your business is the culmination of shared experiences. And as a result, we are entering a time when business will change dramatically. It already has in the eyes of the consumer, but few executives have connected the dots. The bottom line is that businesses need to have wholesale improvements over the way they interact with customers. This changes is currently being driven by the customer, but it also must be driven by empowered employees who want to see success in their business and processes that support transformation and adaptation.

How do you drive change at your business?

Is your business afraid of the Customer?

Do people within your company want nothing to do with the Customer Service department, or even worse, look down on it?

I personally love the customer; they are my passion and success. I represent them in everything I do. I use their stories to drive change. It is something you may want to do to.


The End of Business as Usual will be available in the coming weeks. You can pre-order now at Amazon | Barnes and Noble | 800CEOREAD.

Part 1 – Digital Darwinism, Who’s Next
Part 2 – Social Media’s Impending Flood of Customer Unlikes and Unfollows

108 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Social Media Customer Service is a Failure!”

  1. Dan says:

    When I first read the title of your post, I was annoyed; I am the social media department for the company I work for, and I think I provide excellent customer service as a part of my role.  Having read the entire article, I completely agree with you.  I have to deliver “old metrics” to people who don’t fully understand the value of social media, however in the meantime I can use it to listen and engage.  I will be pre-ordering your book purely on the back of this article (as long as it ships to the UK) so thank you for sharing!

  2. FreeBalance says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Old metrics were built based on organization structure where specialized departments measure one or two way interactions like customer calls. Social media provides a network effect. Those who see it as an extension of marketing or customer support are doomed: they will not realize the transformation potential. They won’t be able to leverage social media for product or process innovation. They will be considered “out of network” and “out of touch” through constant marketing barrages. 

    The “discipline of market leaders” suggested that companies can succeed if they are able to achieve innovation, customer intimacy or efficiencies. The thought back then was that an organization could not achieve more than one of these disciplines. For example, customer intimate organizations were like to lose efficiency and less likely to innovate because customers tend to look for incremental improvements while non-customers tend to look for breakthrough improvements. Social media has the potential to unite all three of these disciplines. But, not for companies who are trying to use social media just another support or marketing channel. 

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think much of what was said in the article stems from companies not having educated themselves. They have heard all those success stories and want the same – NOW! But as said, it is a long long process and cannot be a quick fix. I actually think the word “viral” should be nixed from the social media vocabulary because for some reason people often think that something was just whipped together, thrown into the social media space and became hugely successful. Most of the time hard work goes into a successful campaign. I completely agree that social media always has been and more and more will be about stories. All the recent changes on Facebook, google etc. call for a focus on content marketing. Companies don’t need a social media department or its employees to just post stuff, they need them to tell stories and have them listen and engage with the stories of their customers.
    It’s like engaging in a conversation with a person off-line. If there is only gibberish coming out of his/her mouth – I am not interested. If he/she tells an interesting story that is worth it to tell my friends – the story will travel.

    • Evelyn Chang says:

      I totally agree with you that many people, even marketer themselves like to focus on the word “viral” as if social media marketing is like a magic wand and choose not to mention all the hard work that’s necessary to make the magic happen!

  4. margaretfrancis says:

    Great post. You are so right that the real change comes from true customer orientation and organizational change, not from adding another channel on which customers can complain. So how do we elevate that discussion out of customer service?  Because the companies I see making positive changes are the ones in which the executives viscerally understand customer needs and rise to the challenge of delivering on them, rather than the ones that quantitatively measure every last operational metric. 

  5. Koen Peeters says:

    Do you mean customers in the broad sense? As in Brand > retail customer > consumer?

  6. Great post! I think that instead of being afraid of your customer(s), you should involve them in everything you do. Make them a part of your company much like employees are part of your company. Talk to them. Share with them. Be with them. And they will always be with you …

    • Wading into the discussion here from across the pond in UK.  No, I am not a social media expert, nor even a customer service expert but I AM a learning specialist and apart from this post from Frank being ‘spot on’ for me, I comment from another side (perspective) to this debate.  J. Brett has just mentioned it – “…you should involve them [customers] in everything you do, make them part of your company much like employees are part of your company”  Oh would that be true!  I would welcome examples of where companies actually listen and involve their workforce in their development plans.  Sadly, I don’t see this happen enough.  For me all of this is about how a company learns.  Learns from its customers; Learns from its workforce and then takes action based upon what it is learning.  Social Media offers us in business [and especially trainers, coaches, mentors, HR personnel etc…] a unique opportunity to observe the views and thoughts shared in a non-structured, voluntary way whether inside the company [I am facilitating such a discussion in Madrid in November] or as part of its marketing strategy.  Observed, reviewed, listened to, discussed and then acted upon would give an organisation the ‘edge’ over its competition.  I am a part-time lecturer in London and just last night we were talking about how HR folks just don’t want to get engaged in Social Media inside a company for lots of different reasons.  Hmmmm, perhaps that will bring me some further comments in this blog?

  7. Kristine Marie says:

    I have to agree. I, too, was a bit aggitated with the title of the article. (I am responsible for the social media for a local nonprofit.) However, I also battle with the same issues. All too often do I get questions about how much will the cost be and how many fans/followers we have on a given day. I simply have to hack this up to a lack of education on social media. You are correct in that many companies still are turning to traditional media for their only source of advertising and publicity. They just are not aware of the opportunities that are available to them. If they would just branch out and explore all the possibilities, companies would be far more effective and customers would be much happier.

  8. Jose Jimenez says:

    What a great read!

    As a consumer I get frustrated by companies and their efforts to not speak to the customer. All in the name of keeping costs down as far as they are concerned but at what cost in the long term?

    With regard to concentrating on the wrong metrics, you see it everywhere. People swap likes to bump up the numbers but these figures are worthless really. Twitter is the same. Many people use programs to get follows and they dont really have an interest in the content that is being produced as long as they have an audience to broadcast their message to. The management probably see the figures (likes, followers, etc), check growth and say well done. Education is definitely the name of the game and if small businesses can do it well, Im sure large SMEs/SMBs and the big corporations can too.

    • Bill Waters says:

      Sory Jose, I disagree.  The bigger and older the SME/SBE the harder the change. 

      I became a pioneer of social media in our area in the late 90’s and am grateful to see where we have come, albeit slower than I would have liked.  As an ‘agency’ whose core deliverable is social media services for companies, I have found that the bigger and older the company, the more resistant and fearful of change.  In our role, we focus on Culture Change, not on being the outside company that pretends to know everything about the company and their customers.

      What I’ve experienced is that bigger companies end up being run by accountants, numbers people who know relatively nothing about relationships, trust and engagement.  They live to serve shareholders, which requires a quarter by quarter strategy and does not allow for long term strategies very easily.  I’m generalizing, of course, but if bigger companies want to be around in twenty years, they’ll have to give the reigns to visionaries who understand relationship building and put the accountants where they belong.  It’s hard to change organizations that have been measuring things the same way for over 30 years. 

      This is how the ‘little fishies’ will end up eating the ‘big fishies’.  Big and old companies tend to move too slow, have systems that are legacied, have employees conditioned over many years to act and believe the same way, and have vision that is failing.  The shift of power to the consumer is making it happen.

    • Jose Jimenez says:

      Hi Bill, Im not sure where you actually disagree with me. I never made any claims that bigger/older SMEs/SMBs have it easy or easier than small companies. I agree with your points btw.

  9. I completely agree with everything you say in your article, even the title. As it currently stands – customer service delivered by social media is a failure (in most scenarios). As you mention in the article, part of the problem is the metrics.

    So my question is what are your thoughts on how to measure social media in regards to NPS. In my specific situation, we often try to compare social media NPS to one-on-one NPS, and it’s like trying to compare apples and oranges. Social media NPS often measures an entire experience from stumbling across a social media customer service outlet (Twitter, Facebook, forums, etc.), trying to find an existing answer, throwing your own question out there, and waiting/hoping/gambling on a response/solution. One-on-one support is significantly different. The customer knows they’re in the right place and if they’re going to get an answer, this is where it will be. 

    So, if you are the person responsible for improving the social media side of things or at least measuring success and ROI, how should you be measuring social media NPS?


    • FrankEliason says:

      Focus on listening and distributing that info for strong ROi. Also try to find ways to identify fans and followers or even detractors as Customers. Link the two and you can build strong ROi by knowing what your Customer wants the world to know about them.

  10. Mike Mumford says:

    Frank – Come to Detroit and find out how 3 of the biggest companies in America with millions of customers are ENGAGING and having success.  Option is always open as I have told you and you will be amazed at why you see.  Old metrics don’t apply. Come under the radar and we may even get you to a Tiger game!

    • FrankEliason says:

      Detroit has helped to lead the way. It is interesting where industries who learned first were a little damaged. Necessity is a great thing and I love learning from them

    • kpare says:

      Mike – Detroit has products. Let’s see Ford Explorer vs. credit default swaps? Let me think. Go Tigers!

  11. Extreme John says:

    Excellent post. Great customer engagement builds great customer satisfaction. Successful businesses nowadays give  value to their customers more than their profits and yet they still manage to get ROI. I too believe that good customer service through empowerment of employees is one of the best contributory factors to the overall success of a business.

  12. Customer says:

    same question here – what are your thoughts on how to measure social media in regards to NPS ?

    • Frank says:

      I have many thoughts. First key is to identify social profiles with Customer base. By connecting CRM data to Social CRM it can be very powerful. For service providers, as you help people within social, track their NPS. For product providers it may be more difficult but their is a trail to follow, especially as new forms of coupons are more individual.

    • Ricky Yean says:

      Hi Frank – would love to know how you link CRM data together with social. What kind of systems do you use and how can they be improved? 

    • I think those systems are still in the early days and just starting to improve.  First step is linking accounts based on interactions.  CRM systems are starting to embrace the concept, the key is accurately tying them together

  13. Great post. I am interested in create new metrics for companies. Because I have thought about it… Like all good metrics, the SMCS (Social Media Customer Service) isn’t about the numbers alone, is about new perceptions, behaviors and strategies to continuously create trust for customers. The new metrics has important implications for strategy. Where to Begin: First, companies can’t assess social media performance as if it existed in a vacuum. Second, the new metrics makes it possible to craft strategies that directly affect companies  performance and then measure the impact on social media. Greetings from Brazil.

  14. Nicole says:

    Having also worked at Comcast (in several departments that dealt in customer service), when Comcast started scanning sites and using social media as a way to assist customers, I could see improvements for THOSE customers, the ones that were vocal on the web.  Good customer service takes the time to identify and resolve the issue, but if we spent more time than they thought should be used to resolve the issue, then we got in trouble.  I know there are some issues customer service cannot resolve, most of those resolve around price and product, we cannot make the price what you want it to be, what you feel entitled to pay… the other thing is we cannot change the product we are selling, (ie we can not turn a radio into a tv, or a horse into a unicorn…).  But pretty much anything else, with the time and the resources can be resolved, and it seemed at the infancy of using social media for customer service, that these things were given. Social media customer service needs to continue to be treated that way too, in my mind all customer service should get time and resources to resolve the issues at hand… but Social Media customer service is like having a radio station listen in on our phone customer service and broadcast it, it’s VERY VERY PUBLIC.  And the public can see whether the customer is getting lip service, or real genuine service, and it will spread very quickly if it’s bad.  Sometimes it spreads if it’s good too.

    Thanks Frank.

  15. Anonymous says:

    You are right, of course.  But the problem behind the problem is that executives see social media as a technology not as a distinct marketing tool that needs to be integrated into the entire marketing mix.  We had the same problem at the beginning of the web site era…and it continues today.  SEO, for example, focuses on getting the most hits, not necessarily the quality hits.  All the emerging media are being driven by the public from the demand side and the techies from the supply side.  What gets lost is the quality of interaction.  Marketing, no matter the matrix, is still about communicating with customers/users/prospects in a way that matters to them.  And the real matrix is still the ROI.  Does your social media strategy improve your revenues, customer retention, or profitability.  Doesn’t matter how much you talk if no one cares.

  16. kpar says:

    ” It all starts with trust”   Bless you
    for writing this piece – considering where you are pleasantly employed…
    My sense is that the trust between most larger financial institutions and
    consumers has been almost critically destroyed.

    I’m thinking that the messages/behaviors that might help to slowly rebuild
    trust – must come from your senior execs. I’d like to think overtime that if
    this takes place that your organization will have a fighting chance. In my
    talks with the next gen of potential financial industry clients (not to mention
    the existing clients like me)  I’ve found that their deep seeded cynicism
    and distrust of financial organizations is pretty well justified.  As you know the fear and loathing against
    bankers is fierce. It is unfortunate that it will take years (if ever) for them
    to win back the trust that they desire. Social media techniques utilized by
    Wall St. organizations will probably be perceived as the usual “window
    dressing” … designed to win back customers. I noted one financial institution using the term SOCIAL CURRENCY – Really? “Gosh gee batman – how stupid do they think we are?   Bottomline –  the poisoned trees have
    fallen in all our woods and everyone saw it happen.  

    The authenticity that will build trust needs to be a globally
    macro fixed thing – social media programs in this case serve pretty much as micro
    modeling tools that tell senior mangers what they already know? This kind of info senior managers can not embrace. Their value system is
    corrupt. Fatal errors have been identified by consumers worldwide.

    • FrankEliason says:

      I disagree that trust is rebuilt by only senior executives. In my view the whole is more important. That being said, my view is te banking industry, if more open to discussion, would not be in the same position. Many companies in the midst of crisis tend to close discussion, but to me that is the most important time. There are so many more aspects to any crisis that the general public may not understand, but if you help them do that, they will become your biggest fans.

  17. Pingback: Self Service Blog
  18. PamMktgNut says:

    Good post Frank. I love your statement “stop being afraid of your customer.”  This speaks truth to where many businesses are today. They avoid the discussions related to customer engagement. If I had $500 for every time I have been asked to simply “put the Facebook up and figure out the strategy later” let’s just say I’d have a lot more vacations than I currently do 😉 

    I know that just as any business, AT&T is not perfect.  However, I did have a positive experience with AT&T online customer service that was good enough to inspire me to write a blog post. Not only did they solve my issue that I nicely tweeted about, but they also did it without me having to talk to anybody. Yet when they were done they left a message on my voice mail, cell phone voice mail, Twitter DM and email.  All I had to do was send one tweet and one DM. Exceptional follow thru in my book! 

    Here is the post I wrote to summarize.


  19. Larastarr says:

    I’d love to invite you to appear on the major-market network radio show I produce to discuss this topic, but the only way to contact you is by connecting on social media and taking three steps to do so and a simple email address would make it so much easier. Fail?

  20. Thanks. Great post. Hat tip to @TomMartin for the link. I totally agree. It would be great to hear a little more about metrics that do a better job telling the true story. Care to elaborate? 

  21. Great post @twitter-124473570:disqus – I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t think a lot of companies get that there are new metrics that need to be measured.. and the application of those to gain business insights is key… but the question is… what will it take to create this change? People like you have set best practice standards for social customer service, Brian Solis has lead the way with amazing thought leaders, I’ve contributed by writing some of the world’s first ROI social media models… and yet we all see business– in many ways business as usual…

    Social media and its integration into business IS THE MOST IMPORTANT thing that has happened to business in 100 years. Yet we are on the verge of spotting that success capabilities… It comes down to leadership and culture — to change that — requires open minds and education — business cases that show the early majority the business value of social media… ROI calculations that show the business value… So that’s been my focus as of late… helping companies understand these concepts and helping vendors reframe with marketing messages to address the early majority

    In case anyone is interested in the social media ROI —
    White papers on the ROI of social media

    Videos on the ROI of social media

  22. All of you… Everyone should believe what this guy said. Social Media is a failure… So stop using this service. This’s end of the business. Stop!

    Let me use this service all alone. Let me just the one can offer this service to client

  23. Tora says:

    reading! Integration of customers in all day management is one of the most
    important trends in now days, like open innovation, that customers are involved
    in development of new products. I do believe companies with positive change
    come from not being afraid of creating conversation with the customers and
    instead understanding their value and their needs. In that way companies show
    that they care, which is so important. Social media is a great channel for start such a conversation.

  24. Sometimes, there are instances that this kind of
    stuff fails. This is just a normal scenario that can be corrected.

  25. KYScot says:

    Does anyone know of a company that has created a new executive position of “Chief Listening Officer”?

  26. Anonymous says:

    I’d say this is true for most business online with Amazon being a notable exception.  Alot of these businesses think they can slap up a website with no contact information exposed and have the “customer service” run itself through automation.  This is nerd fantasy at best.  The customer service needs to be integrated into the system and reaching a person when necessary should be as easy as possible.  Most sites make it almost impossible.

  27. Baochi Nguyen says:

    Excellent points all around. 

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