Has your CEO heard the news? Big Companies are Abandoning Social Customer Service!

Great media headlines have a knack for pushing the right emotional buttons and leaving people with strong negative or positive feelings, especially when they haven’t read the rest of the article. And in today’s world of 140 characters and digital media inundation, many of us, including me (I must confess, at times) are guilty of only reading the top line. So it is with this headline that hit the digital press Friday morning: “These Big Companies Are Abandoning Twitter And Facebook For Customer Service“. Wow, sounds pretty dramatic! Oh, and to add to the drama, the featured image in the post is a picture of Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator” garb, giving the thumbs down.

So now imagine your CEO, SVP Marketing, SVP Store Operations, etc., getting this headline forwarded in an email from a personal friend or relative over the weekend, or seeing the image below when they click on the link.

ThumbsdownDo you see what they see? A headline and a metaphor of themselves, a leader, saying “not a chance”. The rest is a blur. That’s the message that will register with them. That’s the memory they’ll be left with. And it’s a shame, but that’s the reality for too many busy executives. What may seem important for someone who works in Social Media, or Digital Media, or Customer Support, may be but a blip on a CEO’s radar screen. And they’re often looking for cracks in the wall to discount all of these peripheral requests for extra funding.

So, before they or someone else at the Senior Executive level, ridicule Social Customer Service in the days and possibly weeks ahead, because of this article and any subsequent noise it stirs, let’s spend a bit of time with the details.

Two companies are mentioned in the post. That’s it.  Charter Communications, and Wegmans.  Temkin 2012 Customer Service Ratings Charter is the fourth largest cable provider in the US with 5.2 million customers across 25 states. Wegmans is a supermarket chain in the northeast US with 81 stores. And they’re both big companies. But here’s the difference. Charter sucks at customer service. In fact, according to Bruce Temkin, Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a highly respected research and consulting firm, in the 2012 Customer Service Ratings study completed by his firm (which covered 174 companies from 18 industries and polled 10,000 US customers), Charter ranked at the very bottom in terms of Customer Service (I’ve added a red box to highlight Charter’s position, in the table on the left). Isn’t cutting out Social Customer Service in line with them being Customer Service bottom feeders? Need we say more?

Charter ranked at the very bottom [of the 2012 Temkin Customer Service Ratings] in terms of Customer Service

Now Wegmans is at the other end of the spectrum for service and Customer Experience. First off, Wegmans just ranked number 5, last week, on the Fortune list of best companies to work for. And research shows that happy employees make happy customers. Fortune best companies to work forMichael Hess of CBS Moneywatch, in an article published in late 2011, asks the question: Could this [Wegmans] be the best company in the world?  As it happens, it was only a single one of their 81 stores (though the largest in New England) that shuttered its use of Social Media for Customer Service. Does anyone really care? Does it really matter to a single store of a brand that is so customer-focused? Come on!

Wegmans just ranked number 5, last week, on the Fortune list of best companies to work for.

So, “Big Companies abandoning Social Customer Service”? I think not.

Given this background information, would you not agree that the premise of the Business Insider article is suspect?  But it’s clear there’s still fear out there about using Social Media. And the author is playing to the fear of Senior Executives.  So given that many CEOs and their leadership team may be fearful of this new medium, because they don’t quite understand it, how might we help reduce the risk for them? Why should they care about Social Customer Service? Perhaps if we try to answer this from a Senior Executive’s point of view. What’s in it for them? What’s in it for the business?

…the author is playing to the fear of Senior Executives

  1. Social Customer Service helps drive greater revenues/more profitability – Social Customer Service is all about listening and responding to Customers through the Social Channel. It’s about managing customer service issues through Social Media. Most organizations recognize that price-competition isn’t a long term strategy. It’s great if you want to sell commodities, but this is not going to make the business profitable. In order to differentiate your products and services from your competitors, you need to provide great experiences for the people who buy from you, so that they spread the news; so that they tell their friends. Average experiences are boring; they’re not an option. Your customers view your company as a single brand; not a bunch of individual channels. But because your customers can choose to engage with you across the channel of their choice – in-store, Call Centre, web, mobile, Social – the experiences that they have with you need to be consistent. Social Media is simply another channel. Trouble is, you don’t control it. It’s just there. Ignore it at your peril; especially if you’re a large, well known brand. Embrace it. Don’t fear it. Using Twitter and Facebook for Customer Service provides an opportunity for the brand to create unique experiences that your customers will want to tell their friends and family about, and it can serve as an amplifier for word of mouth advocates for your brand. Word of mouth advocacy builds loyalty, engages more customers, keeps them longer, and enables you to charge a premium for your products and services. In short, it helps your business drive greater revenues and profits. As simple as this sounds it’s the essence of a Customer Experience Strategy, that smart companies are realizing they need to develop and execute in order to survive in today’s commoditized world.
  2. Social Customer Service helps manage the brand’s reputation – Social Customer Service is about responding quickly to negative feedback that has the potential to grow exponentially and “go viral”. It requires active listening skills, the ability to empathize, and the ability to provide thoughtful responses very succinctly – often with 140 character limitations. Depending on the volume of service issues you’re responding to, it might also require routing of the issue to various people in different departments within the organization. It’s also about building community and creating advocates that will come to your defense if people talk negatively about your brand on Social Media. Consider these examples of real life events that have actually happened in the past year:
    1) You’re in the travel business, and a couple who are to be married Sister's original postbook a honeymoon travel package with you, but two days before the wedding, the husband gets killed in a freak accident. A customer service agent follows policy and refuses to refund the bride-to-be for the couple’s travel fees, so her sister goes on the company’s Facebook page, that has over 62,000 fans, and seeds an outpouring of negative comments towards the company.
    2) You’re a very respected brand in the high-end food service business and someone notices a mouse scurrying across the floor of one of your stores. They tweet a warning out to their 14,000 followers. The story goes viral and hits the mainstream news media.
    3) You’re a major financial institution and your ATMs and access to personal account information go down for 2 days nation-wide because of an Information Systems glitch. Irate customers take to Twitter and Facebook to voice their anger.
  3. Social Customer Service is an Insurance Policy for protecting your brand’s reputation. In all three cases above, smart leadership, fast action, and the right messaging with customers helped circumvent brand reputation damage. Social Media gives a voice to your customers that until now was one-to-one with the brand – think about a phone call with a Call Centre Representative, an email to Customer Service, a problem in a store or a branch.  These are typically private conversations between a customer and an individual in the company.  However, with Social Media, a single customer’s voice can now grow to reach thousands of people within a day; hundreds of thousands within a few days. And the Social channel is not like a valve that Marketing or Customer Service can simply shut off. You can choose to ignore the Social noise about your brand, and risk tarnishing your reputation, or take the route of engaging with the noise-makers, giving your brand the opportunity to take back some control.

What else might be important to your Senior Leadership team in terms of positioning the virtues of using Social Media for Customer Service?  What do you suppose the author of the Business Insider article was hoping to gain from positioning his post the way he did?  What does your own company think of Social Customer Service?  Do your Executives get it?

Should you be investing in Social Customer Service? Have you asked your Customers?

My eye caught a couple of interesting tweets the other day at lunchtime. They were snippets of a Twitter chat that was streaming across my screen. In or out of the context of the chat dialogue that was running in the background, these two tweets raise some interesting questions about the importance of investing in a Social Customer Service strategy.

First tweet: “The “right” social channel depends on where your customers hang out. You party where the party is happening” and then second tweet: “…it makes little sense to be on Twitter if your customers don’t use it despite its popularity”.

Putting on my Customer Experience hat (because that’s my current lens), when we think of the various touchpoints where customers interact with a company to resolve service issues, Customer Care, the Call Centre, the IVR channel, the corporate website often come up in Journey Mapping exercises. However, we’re starting to see Social Media, and in particular, Social Customer Service, coming up as a touchpoint that people want to delve into in more depth in the mapping process.

Whether brands like it or not, customers are forcing their hands to use Social Media to communicate with them. Because customers can now control the message, they have the power to generate their own negative groundswell about a brand. Now whether this will impact a brand’s success depends on the brand strategy; i.e., consider the fake RyanAir Facebook page created by angry RyanAir customers. RyanAir has made a conscious choice, as a deep discount airline, not to engage with its customers on Social Media. Will the fake account impact sales? Probably not. But if a fake Twitter or Facebook account were set up to spoof a more mainstream or premium brand and was used to create negative buzz, or if an avalanche of negative comments went viral in Social Media, it could have some reputational damage for the brand.

Because customers can now control the message, they have the power to generate their own negative groundswell about a brand.

What I’ve discovered from working with clients at major brands across the country, speaking with colleagues, and just my own observations, is that companies are at different stages in the Social Customer Service life cycle.  And don’t kid yourself, these are early days for most. Companies are still experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.  While some companies have a strategy around how they’re rolling out Social Customer Care, others have just jumped into it in a “trial by fire” sort of way. Some are at a very early, very cautious stage with PR doing the listening; others have been at it for a couple of years and have a team of Customer Service agents engaging with customers. For many, Marketing is handling all the Social inquiries.  Some companies are listening and engaging 9 to 5, on week-days only; others, 24 x 7 and across the globe.

Rogers and TD Bank have multiple agents manning their Twitter accounts and engaging with customers about service issues. Flight Centre has multiple geographic accounts with multiple agents, so that it’s handling service issues 24×7. Canada Post is into the third phase of its recently launched Social Customer Service strategy (they just went live July 3rd) and is priming for high volume engagement over the Christmas season, according to Brian Beehler, their Director of Social Media. Interestingly, retailers in fashion especially, are quite diverse in how they engage. A quick scan of their Twitter accounts, while still marketing-heavy, show clear distinctions from zero engagement and one way push, to ongoing conversations and great engagement. One might intuitively think that fashion retailers would be pretty aligned in their Social strategies.  Yet just look at the low to high engagement continuum between The Bay, Holt Renfrew, Club Monaco and Aldo Shoes, respectively as you scan the activity in their Twitter profiles. Can you see how they differ?

Aldo does a great job with its Twitter profile

Others, like Town Shoes, doesn’t seem sure how they’re going to engage yet. So there’s a real mish-mash out there. Seems pretty random to me, but perhaps just a function of where the company is on the Social Media adoption curve.

In order to help build the business case for Social Customer Service and put it on the priority list, an important question companies should be asking is whether providing Customer Service via Social Media is a “Moment of Truth” (MoT) or not? In other words, will the interaction between customer and company at the Social touchpoint, be an event that helps define the customer’s opinion of the brand? Do we have an opportunity to leave our customer or prospect with a lasting memory of a great experience that they’ll want to share with their friends and colleagues?

In order to help build the business case for Social Customer Service…an important question companies should be asking is whether providing Customer Service via Social Media is a “Moment of Truth” or not?

At the company I work for, we have a methodology for defining “Moments of Truth” quantitatively. We define a “Moment of Truth” as a large gap (on a 100 point scale that’s relative to the size of the other gaps – usually over 30 points) between what the customer says is important to them and how satisfied they are with the touchpoint. [Note the red box around the Social Customer Service touchpoint, in the image below. The MoT gap is 36 points.] This “Moment of Truth” is determined by presenting our customers with a series of quantitative questions where they’re asked to rate the importance and satisfaction of various attributes about each touchpoint). So if customers are telling us that Social Customer Service is important to them, and they are highly dissatisfied with their experience at this touchpoint, this would suggest we have an opportunity to invest in and/or improve Social Customer Service and create lasting memories for them. We would prioritize this as a touchpoint we want to invest in. And by invest, I mean, not only to improve the experience through better tools, training of Social Agents, and interactions, but also to create an innovative approach that would differentiate us in the marketplace.

“Moments of Truth” help us focus in on what’s most important for our customers

Why are businesses investing in Customer Experience strategy in the first place? It’s to help differentiate themselves in a commoditized world. It’s to help them create lasting memories at specific touchpoints so that their customers want to share with their friends, family, and colleagues how they felt about banking at the newly-designed branches, experiencing the cool vibe at the restaurants, speaking to an empathetic, upbeat customer service rep on the phone about returning a product, getting a tweet about a delayed flight responded to positively within 3 minutes, etc.  The emotional rush that we get from an exceptional experience and the desire to share the story with people we know, is the essence of the Net Promoter Score a metric used by many leading organizations, it’s at the heart of Word of Mouth marketing, and it’s shown to have direct links to increased loyalty and increased profitability.

Why are businesses investing in Customer Experience strategy in the first place? It’s to help differentiate themselves in a commoditized world.

Let’s not forget that organizations have limited budgets. Social Customer Service is but a single touchpoint where our clients (depending on the business we’re in) can engage directly with us. Social Customer Service may well be worth pursuing; however, if we can’t build the business case for it, will our executives give us the funding to invest in the staff, training, and tools to make it a success? You may be able to show how an investment in Social Customer Care can offset some of your Call Centre costs (if you have a Call Centre); you may be able to sell it to the executive committee using fear as a tactic; i.e., if you ignore service requests on Social, it may lead to a PR nightmare. At the end of the day though, as organizations become more customer-centric in order to differentiate from their competitors, unless their customers are telling them that this is really important and the company is doing a lousy job at it, it’s probably going to be low on the priority scale for executive investment.

What do you think?  Do you think an investment in Social Customer Service is important for your own company?   How important do you think it is for your customers?

Not ready to use Twitter for Customer Service? Then why set up an account?

Imagine you’re booked on a flight across the country to visit your sick mother. Your cranky 5-year old daughter just threw up in your lap while your plane, sitting on the tarmac, was delayed over an hour and a half for takeoff, because Catering had misplaced the flight’s sandwiches. You’ve shared a play-by-play with the Social Media world and your followers on Twitter, not because you’re a rabble-rouser, but because this is what you do as a writer and successful “mom blogger“. It’s just who you authentically are.

So imagine tweeting out this stream shown here on the right [please read from bottom to top]. One might expect a response from Air Canada? I mean, you mentioned their name before you took off and while you were waiting for your connecting flight. The least they could have done was responded to you. It’s not like they had to have a steak waiting for you when you arrived in Vancouver airport. Although that might have been a great PR coup for Canada’s national air carrier.

So what might one expect Air Canada’s response to be? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not during the tweeting, after Catherine Connors (the passenger I’m writing about) had landed, or while she was facing the further potential dilemma of missing her connecting flight. In fact the last tweet by Air Canada had been 20 hours earlier. It appeared that whoever was managing Air Canada’s Twitter account, was not manning his or her post. Now that’s just my perception. It could be that Air Canada’s Twitter account was set up, according to corporate policy, to only send outbound tweets.

But get this…Westjet (Air Canada’s number one Canadian competitor) picked up on Catherine’s situation within minutes. Both the official @westjet account and @flygirlws, a Westjet employee who just wanted to help.

And it gets even better. Westjet doesn’t even offer a connecting flight from Vancouver to Kamploops, BC. But here they were, trying to find solutions for a distressed passenger. If nothing else, they were listening, engaging with her, and trying as best they could to help.

…if only I could get better help than shrugs and ’email customer relations’. @WestJet *called* me.” 1:08 PM Aug 26th via Twitter for iPhone in reply to @sharmstro ~herbadmother Catherine Connors

So what do we make of this? First off, no doubt Catherine Connors, whose Her Bad Mother blog has been mentioned in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the American Prospect, the London Times, as well as on CNN, ABC, CBC and the BBC online, who has over 13,000 Twitter followers and a Klout score of 70 (at the time of this writing), will probably not speak or write very positively about the Air Canada experience to her friends or followers (talk about helping to drive down their NPS, if that’s what Air Canada uses to measure loyalty).

Secondly, if you follow Catherine’s Twitter stream, a number of her followers actually tweeted with her through her ordeal (me being one of them). Notice @rachelofcourse’s Tweet to the right. She even mentions @dooce …hmmm, I wonder who @dooce is and if she has many followers? Get the picture?

Thirdly, let’s think from a customer’s perspective for a moment. Let’s say you like to communicate with your friends through Twitter and other Social tools. It might be instinctual for you to send out a tweet to a Brand expecting some type of reply…I mean most big consumer brands are on Twitter now, aren’t they? And if they are, by this time in the evolution of Twitter, do they not know that Twitter is about authentic two-way dialogue; not a one-way push of marketing content? Surely, there’s someone or a group of people back in the recesses of Air Canada that manage the brand’s Twitter account and can engage in a two-way dialogue?

So what does this say of the Air Canada culture vs the WestJet culture, and how employees are empowered to act on their company’s behalf? Remember, people power a Twitter account. There’s an actual human being behind both @aircanada and @westjet. When Twitter accounts are set up to represent organizations, especially large brands, we often forget that humans are monitoring them. What does this say about each organization’s committment to the Passenger Experience? One company is actively listening (and actively engaging with the customer); the other is deaf. To make matters worse for Air Canada, they actually opened the door wide open for their number one Canadian competitor to walk in and impress their customer simply by listening and offering “moral support”, as Catherine put it.

One company is actively listening (and actively engaging with the customer); the other is deaf.

What do you think? Am I being unfair in my assessment of how these two airlines compare in terms of their committment to the Customer Experience? Maybe Air Canada has a strategy in place but is not quite there yet. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Oh, by the way, according to Catherine, she did finally make a connecting flight with Air Canada (not the one she had originally been booked on), squeaking in on stand-by, but it was despite her communication efforts with them. WestJest was prepared to get her and her daughter to Kamloops via Calgary, and one of her Twitter followers even offered to drive her…and her mother also seems to be feeling better now :)