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How to Make Customer Service Matter Again Part 2

Part 13 in a series introducing my new book, The End of Business as Usual…this series serves as the book’s prequel.

These days, customer service seems to be a contradiction of words and intentions. Year after year, customers are appealing for attention, efficiency and a communicated sense of being appreciated. After all, what is the value of customer acquisition if retention itself isn’t valued? Now with social networks becoming the preferred channel of communication among connected consumers, businesses are losing ground and faith. The reality is that customers will share their experiences whether positive or negative and they will influence the decisions of others. The question is, how are you changing your service model to shape and steer experiences that deliver value to customers and also back to your business?

Social networks are emotional landscapes that are populated by human beings, not consumers. It is for this reason that many existing customer service approaches to social networks are the equivalent of the tips of icebergs we see above water. The real opportunity lies underneath the waterline and as you can imagine, it is beyond formidable. As part of this special series, my good friend Frank Eliason decried that social media customer service is a failure! He surely startled everyone including those who are championing change from within. To explain, I’ll provide a bit of context to his position. In order to do so however, we’ll need to peel back an additional layer to demonstrate where customer service and social media are missing confluence. I refer to this phenomenon as the Horseshoe or the Arc Effect.

On either end, social media and customer service are either established or developing within the organization. While each exist, they do not naturally co-exist in regards to process, systems, vision, or collaborative workstreams. Allow me to clarify. Today, social media is mostly owned by one of three functions within businesses today, 1) marketing, 2) marketing communications, or 3) public relations. Social media essentially exists within its own silo and is largely disconnected from other divisions.

When a customer tweets at the company with a problem, the social media team is either unqualified to respond or chooses only to focus on those interactions that correspond with their focus or the company’s marketing efforts. Either way, the customer doesn’t see, nor do they care about, who owns social media. They see one company and they simply need an informed and empathetic response. Even when a company has a service team dedicated to social media, it is often a progressive front with a traditional infrastructure – or perhaps said another way, making something appear better than it is. When a customer is engaged, they’re often prompted to take the interaction offline, say through email or phone with a specialized representative, or they’re simply referred to a particular web address, phone number, or email address to start the process from the beginning through existing, less preferred channels.

With social media on one side and customer service on the other, a gap emerges where the social customer is left to fend for themselves. Businesses must look at creating a holistic experience where customer service extends to social media, providing engagement and resolution at the time and place of the social expression.

Case in point, Niklas Femerstrand is a web developer who discovered a security gap in a particular web page owned by American Express. Long story short, the security hole left an administration panel for Web site debugging wide open for anyone to access and provided a potential avenue for attackers to target AMEX customers. Rather than exploit the gateway, he alerted AMEX via the channel he relies on for personal and professional communication…Twitter. What happens next only demonstrates the horseshoe effect and why closing the gap sooner than later will benefit customers and the company alike.

In his own words, Femerstrand expresses his disbelief when he could not get through to the company on a network where it maintains multiple presences,  “When somebody voluntarily contacts a company and repeatedly mentions words like ‘security vulnerability’ and ‘hacker’ one would think the company would act as quickly as possible.”

If you follow the exchange below, you’ll see that Femerstrand made an honest to goodness attempt to reach what he deemed to be the most direct channel to the company, @AskAmex. Please do take a moment to read each line item so that you can both see and feel his frustration and also visualize the horseshoe effect that separated social media from customer service.

As you can see, the exchange is priceless. Poor ^Courtney…

Femerstrand was clear. He didn’t want to be referred to a traditional service backend.  While Courtney was staffing the shift for @AskAmex, she was obviously not trained to handle such a situation and therefore demonstrated the horseshoe effect perfectly. So what is Femerstrand left to do when he was insistent that he wanted to help the company, but did not have time or patience to go through a “technical support jungle?” He blogged not only about the experience, but he also exposed the code and tipped security publications everywhere.

What’s the ROI of a Good Customer Experience

In his post about the failure of social customer service, Frank Eliason also notes that part of the problem has to do with how customer service is measured or valued within the organization today. Traditional metrics that are deeply rooted within the call center today are used as a baseline for an entirely new paradigm. Fortunately or unfortunately, the connected customer defines the rules of engagement and based on the interaction, will in turn share their experience whether it’s positive or negative.

As Eliason explains…

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.

The time is now for new metrics. And by new metrics, I’m not referring to those that simply measure time to resolution, cost per tweets, wait times or Tweet reduction. The opportunity for increased engagement is the real opportunity for customer service. This isn’t about getting away from the customer or simply about solving problems. This is about creating exceptional and shareable experiences! Customer service can contribute to engagement, advocacy, loyalty, and what I call NPS 2.0 aka SPS (Social Promoter Score). It’s not the traditional NPS of whether or not someone would refer a product or company. In social media, we can see if someone actually did and compare that to those who are clearly public detractors. We can also view those detractors that recommend against a purchase.

Additionally, the new doors that are opening to customer service and customer engagement don’t simply have to be relegated to negative experiences. For example, I recently flew United Airlines and I was fortunate enough to have an exceptional experience on a flight from New York to San Francisco. I was so elated with the wonderful customer focus of one flight attendant in particular, that I decided to share it with @United.

I wasn’t surprised when the response was the equivalent of digital crickets. But, I had high hopes for some form of acknowledgement. And even though I know I was daydreaming, I would love to have seen the semblance of a system where that feedback would get back to both Meg Callan and her manager. All too often, social customer service focuses on optimizing the systems and strategies to contend with experiences when they negatively impact social streams. But I believe that if businesses can provide mechanisms where customers, employees, and positive experiences are rewarded, more people will become willful advocates than detractors.

If you’re unclear where to begin, then simply ask. When Google+ was new on the scene, prior to the release of its official brand pages, several companies such as Dell and Ford asked customers how they can use the new network to engage more effectively with customers. In one such case, Michael Dell personally asked followers on his profile if they would like to connect with Dell service via video directly on Hangouts.

The response, to say the least, was phenomenal. Customers were elated that Michael Dell would ask people what they want while also demonstrating how an organization could use new tools to improve customer experiences. The result is support, loyalty, and advocacy. Additionally, the result of one simple post resulted in an array of influential press. I guess that says everything about that state of customer service. If businesses ask how to better help customers and press breaks out as a result, well…at least we’re on the right track.

Closing the social customer horseshoe to create a complete circle is the equivalent of a holistic experience. Fixing customer service is not the goal here. Improving customer service and delivering an integrated experience will not only help customers feel valued, but also establish a competitive advantage. In the end, businesses that invest in customer retention and acquisition to deliver positive experiences, regardless of platform, will strengthen relationships and loyalty and additionally contribute to organic advocacy.


Order The End of Business as Usual today…

Part 1 – Digital Darwinism, Who’s Next
Part 2
– Social Media’s Impending Flood of Customer Unlikes and Unfollows
Part 3
– Social Media Customer Service is a Failure!
Part 4
– I think we need some time apart, it’s not me, it’s you
Part 5
– We are the 5th P: People
Part 6
– The State of Social Media 2011: Social is the new normal
Part 7
– I like you, but not in that way
Part 8
– Are You Building a Social Brand or a Social Business?
Part 9
– CMO’s are at the Crossroads of Customer Transactions and Engagement
Part 10
– From Social Commerce to Syndicated Commerce
Part 11
– You can’t go back to create a new beginning, but you can begin to change the ending
Part 12 – How to Make Customer Service Matter Again Part 1

34 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “How to Make Customer Service Matter Again Part 2”

  1. Scott Wells - Iron on Patches says:

    Are there other examples of smaller companies than Dell who can engage their customers using social media in better ways?  Our site is on twitter but I find not enough people know who we are in our niche market to really even care to get tweets.  Are there other ways to get a word of mouth trend rolling for smaller comanies? 

  2. Excellent piece Brian!  Especially pertinent as I am experiencing the customer service gap right now with Verizon.  The social media team was quick to respond when I posted a concern on Twitter.  However, Verizon’s customer service system appears so terribly broken that after 7 – 10 people getting involved, the issue I spoke about still persists.  This clearly proves that just engaging customers via social media is not helpful unless the departments within a company is willing & able to work with the social media team. 

    • briansolis says:

      Remya, this is unbelievable and believable at the same time. I too have experienced this with many businesses and it was the inspiration for the horseshoe effect. Cheers!

  3. Joshua March says:

    Thanks Brian. Completely agree – we are now starting to see real dedicated social customer service teams develop, but most companies have a really long way to go. We’ve also seen our customers start to use sentiment as a new form of net promoter score – I wrote on this a month ago:

  4. Sarahlemelin says:

    Excellent blog Brian. Customer service makes a tremendous difference and its amazing how some seem to have forgotten its importance. Now with the days of social media making it easier than ever to benefit or be hurt by word of mouth marketing, companies should be paying greater attention to these details. 

  5. Hi Brian! Thanks for posting this very important topic for people especially companies to be aware of. Customer service is one big factor that a business should consider since this is the time where we can directly communicate with our customers and hear them out.

  6. What a fabulous post…I have also had top notch help online and then the norm of total ignorance. The customer service question on social media is a big one (and scary one) for many businesses – not only are they fearful of any type of backlash or negativity, but the idea of having trained people to tackle the public who contact them online is not yet sinking in as something you can do, and can do it well if planned out.

  7. says:

    Thanks for the post – good prompt to take another look at how one is using and managing a company Twitter account. I definitely agree and experience with our @xero account that customers shouldn’t need to figure out where to go, regardless of their query, when they ask @xero a question whether it be product support related or something about our company or some accounting query for their small business, engagement should happen. I too have the experience now that I spend my days responding to the @xero account that when I tweet a company who pushes their brand on Twitter that I expect them to respond … especially when I see that they have @ replied to others recently … my crickets experience with @united was this “@united HELP! What do we do? Freaking out we’re going to miss our flight. Just started raining in NYC & traffic is JAMMED 🙁 HELP!” I realize they’re really busy and probably couldn’t’ve helped at that time but even a couple days later a message to say what to do next time would’ve helped. These experiences I have only help me figure out how to better serve our customers through our company account. ^OG

  8. Interesting post. This is clearly starting to emerge as a topic in the industry, at least from its most forward- thinking, original members (not the ones still talking about pointless “engagement” or even worst “fans numbers”). That was an article recently on the HBR about the perverse incentives companies are currently giving to socially savvy consumers to voice complaints (and sometimes faking them) on social media channels, where they are prioritised and dealt with more quickly to “shut the customer up”. This is is clearly confusing “having a so-called social media customer service team” with “being a social business”, at least…so many missed opportunities. 

  9. Mike64 says:

    Brian, this is likely the most interesting blog I have read today. Thanks. I agree with almost all of it 🙂

  10. really nice and amazing post i like it a lot

  11. hardaway says:

    I see this, too. But when a social media person who is authentically trying to help in an organization and responds to a negative tweet, she might be told “we usually find it is better not to respond be ause it escalates the issue and it is posted online.” what’s up with that?

    I never get answers, even from Starbucks. I want rice milk to be available at Starbucks because I can’t drink milk and don’t want to drink GMO soy. So I tweeted @starbucks and heard nothing I went to their acclaimed MYStsrbucksIdeas and found that someone else had indeed proposed my idea, someone else had voted it up, and it was in a black hole called “under review.” Well, what does that mean? This particular idea has been under review for over a year.

    I think we need to boycott products and services that don’t care about us.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Excellent post and a great illustration of the futility of trying to make a new paradigm (social media, new culture of customer engagement) work on top of antiquated, hierarchical or silo based organisational structures.

    Social media should not be the sole tool of the marketing or PR department any more than computers, the telephone or talking should only be used by those teams. If companies empower their staff to provide cutomers with the best possible experience, at every possible touch point and at every possible stage of the customer journey, everything else will fall in to place. The tools they use to do this are really incidental.   

  13. I agree, I think there should be a spread of awareness regarding how to properly use social media as a tool to genuinely interact and connect with its followers. Since it truly is not a simple PR release bot, but a means to actually have a conversation with their consumers, and if done right, the resulting effect would be quite monumental.

  14. rich pesce says:

    Great post. Re: your experience with United. I had a similar experience with Amtrak. Exceptional service on the Acela from DC to NYC and I wanted to share with Amtrak. Multiple tweets, a blog post from a colleague and….digital crickets from Amtrak. Left me not wanting to share good experiences with them moving forward.

  15. FYI – Images in this post are broken. Excellent post!

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