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?

ING Direct’s FOR SALE sign needs to include: “…featuring an awesome Customer Experience”

Who will the “big fish” be?

“Some news to get while on Vacation!!” That was the reply I got from Jaime Stein, ING Direct Canada’s Manager of Social Media, when I sent him a direct message on Twitter last Thursday. Word had gotten out in the media about the Bank’s impending sale, and I was curious if Jaime had some inside information. “Nothing.” He asked me what I knew. “No idea”, I said. Jaime and I had kept in touch over Twitter since connecting at ING Direct’s first “Meet and Tweet” in Toronto [PIC] back in January 2010. (Jaime was Manager of Digital Media at the Canadian Football League back then). He’d only been in his new role at ING Direct for 5 months when he got word that his company was being sold.

If you haven’t already heard, ING Groep NV, the Dutch parent, is planning to sell off the Canadian Direct Banking unit in order to restructure and pay down a good portion of its remaining debt to the government from the 2008 financial bailout. The Canadian Financial Services market is abuzz with speculation.  Who will the buyer end up being?  National Bank?  Scotiabank?  Manulife Financial?  PC Financial?  You can be sure that a slew of Barbarians are just chomping at the Gate.

When you read through the various opinion articles, from both Canada and abroad, and the analyst predictions, the stories are about return on assets, book value, the impact on the banking sector, market share opportunity, predicted purchase price.  Nowhere is there any mention of the human side – the uniqueness of the ING Direct Canada brand, the transparency of Peter Aceto, the CEO, their involvement in building and supporting community, the unique culture created by the 1,100 employees, the Café experience, the high proportion of millennial customers.

Why is it that the human side is so often ignored in these stories of corporate acquisition?

Why is it that the human side is so often ignored in these stories of corporate acquisition? Aren’t stories of human interest, culture and people what make for engaging articles? Isn’t it the stories of great leadership and approaches to creating social good, that engage peoples’ interest?

ING Direct Teams ING Direct Olympic Event - Vancouver British Columbia Photos courtesy of WWF-Canada/Linda Lee and Kris Krüg, respectively, on Flickr

When I look at ING Direct, I see an organization that has employees committed to the brand, I see a CEO that has taken risks in such a regulated market and puts himself out openly and regularly on Social Media, I see a company that has taken very simple financial products and has bundled wonderful experiences around them, I see a Social Brand that has put its values proudly on display for all to see.  To think that ING Direct’s value proposition is about its direct online approach to delivering their product – they can offer lower fees and higher rates of return than the Big 5 because they don’t have the overhead of physical space – would be naive.  What’s really differentiated them in the marketplace is how they execute, how they build brand advocacy from within, how they’ve created an open organization, their leverage of Social Media as a tool of engagement and collaboration, and how they’ve developed trust with their clients.  ING Direct has built a brand that offers its customers unique experiences they don’t get with other financial institutions. The commoditized world in which we live would do well to learn from these guys.

What’s really differentiated them in the marketplace is how they execute, how they build brand advocacy from within, how they’ve created an open organization, their leverage of Social Media as a tool of engagement, and how they’ve developed trust with their clients.

When we think back to TD Bank’s acquisition of Canada Trust in 2000, it learned that it could differentiate itself on the retail side, through a focus on customer service, and doing it well would lead to increased profitability.  When they subsequently bought Commerce Bank in the US seven years later, TD learned how to offer unique branch experiences, and what that also meant for the bottom line.  TD Financial understood that banking services are highly commoditized; that the only way to offer something competitive in the market is to create unique experiences for their customers, and continually work to innovate and keep those experiences fresh and exciting.  And as a result, TD leads the market in customer loyalty.  It’s in an enviable position to hold.

Fast forward to this week. The Canadian Banking Sector is primed for a bit of a shake-up right now, with ING Direct’s “FOR SALE” sign out on the front lawn.  The almost $40 billion in assets or the return on assets are not all that’s at stake here.  (Consider that CIBC, the fifth largest of the Big 5 had assets of over $350 billion at the end of last year, and RBC, at number one, had assets of over $750 billion). I see the real opportunity as being among ING Direct’s almost 2 million loyal customers and its 1,100 engaged employees. ING Direct has a groundswell of advocates. And you know what they say about the value of brand advocates. The prospectus for this sale needs to highlight “awesome Customer Experience” as a key asset. It needs to highlight the human factors; the strong culture; the strength of brand advocates both within the company and among its clients.

The prospectus for this sale needs to highlight “awesome Customer Experience” as a key asset.

As we speculate about potential buyers, it’s possible that TD Financial may end up picking up ING Direct. Anything’s possible. Remember, it has to work both ways. If that happens, you can be sure they’ll win the JD Power award for highest in Customer Satisfaction for an 8th year in a row.  If one of the other big banks succeeds, they’ll have a better chance of dethroning TD, if they are prepared to learn from the ING culture and can think outside the hard asset box. If one of the smaller guys buys them, this could get exciting.  Word is, we’ll find out by the Fall.  Let’s hope for the best, for the sake of the employees and the customers of ING Direct.

Backfiring Twitter tactics are symptomatic of a much larger problem

Ok, so by now we’ve read all the posts about Rogers’ #Rogers1Number hashtag promotion backfiring on Friday.  Another case of déjà vu?  It seems like every week another brand is biting the dust on Social Media by putting together a marketing campaign hoping to get some great positive exposure, only to have management woken up to the phone ringing off the hook by colleagues proclaiming: “red alert!”.   And sure, we can just chalk it up to social media naivety on the part of the brand, or blame it on a Social Media intern, or on the person or company that developed the campaign; i.e., they weren’t clear enough about how to use the hashtag, and customers took advantage.  The fact is, companies cannot control the message on Social Media.  Surely we know this by now.  Brands can put out whatever message they want.  And customers will react to it any way they want.  And guess who has the last say?  The customer.

You can’t fake tweets, as Toyota tried to do during the recent Super Bowl game.  You can’t fool people.  You have to time your tweets properly, and make sure they’re in good taste, as Kenneth Cole found out early last year during the Egyptian uprising.  And clearly, you can’t control how people will use a hashtag that you’ve created for a specific, often well-intentioned purpose, as McDonald’s recently discovered with #McDStories (and as if they hadn’t learned, their St. Patrick’s Day #shamrocking hashtag, has already turned into a “bashtag“), RIM learned the hard way with its #BeBold campaign, and Rogers similarly just found out.

The fact is, companies cannot control the message on Social Media….And guess who has the last say? The customer.

Hashtag hijacking is becoming a popular trend among disgruntled tweeters.  But can you really prevent it from happening?   Twitter is an efficient vehicle for the masses to feed off one another and amplify their collective voice.  It’s fast becoming the voice of the detractor, when it comes to brands trying to control the message.  I’ve spoken to a number of Senior Executives who won’t venture into the Social space for this very reason – they fear that all their dirty laundry will be aired online for the world to see.  And they’re probably right.

But isn’t this a symptom of a much bigger problem?

You can be sure that many of these larger organizations, like McDonald’s, Rogers, Toyota, and RIM have been soliciting feedback from their customers over countless years.  Customer Satisfaction surveys, focus groups, Voice of the Customer programs, etc., are often overdone by many of these companies.  So undoubtedly, they already know how customers feel about them.  The brand sentiment scores don’t hide the truth.  We know who the  “promoters” are as well as the “detractors”.  These are terms popularized by Fred Reichheld of Bain & Company, through his research on the correlation between corporate profitability and customer behaviour.  Most large organizations use the metric that he developed – the Net Promoter Score (NPS®) or some derivative, to segment customers and measure Loyalty or Customer Experience, because of its simplicity and predictive accuracy.

To calculate this metric – Net Promoter® Score – all you need to do is take the percentage of customers who are Promoters, or those who rate the “likelihood to recommend” at 9 or 10, and subtract the percentage of Detractors, or those that would rate it between 0 and 6.  Referring to the diagram above, coloured for ease of identification, note that there are 3.5 times as many chances of providing a rating in the red (0 through 6) as there are of providing a green rating ( 9 and 10).  So right off the bat, we’re starting from a place that’s stacked against customer advocates.  Now, of course, this is only one metric used to measure customer advocacy.  But because it’s so widely used, we’re probably safe to make certain assumptions. (By the way, I’m agnostic when it comes to loyalty metrics, so I’m not advocating the use of NPS®, but simply using it to make a point.)

Twitter “bashtags” are often symptomatic of problems at the very core of an organization – the brand promise and strategy do not align with the customer…

So if these large multinationals have all this satisfaction and loyalty data about their customers, in addition to NPS® scores, how are they applying the knowledge?  A key question is, are the Social Media or Marketing folks who manage the Twitter campaigns, collaborating with the Customer Service or Operations folks who typically “own” the research?  Often, because of the way organizations are structured and the way departments are siloed, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing when it comes to the customer.  The sharing of information, horizontally, across an organization, isn’t at the level it needs to be.  Departments are often working with their own independent versions of customer information, rather than working from a single, centralized version of the truth.  And, it’s highly likely that the same customer who completed the follow-up telephone survey about their recent wireless phone upgrade or the online survey about their most recent service appointment at the automobile dealership, is the same person that tweeted about a recent experience.  If this customer is a “detractor”, it may not look pretty when his or her hashtagged tweet hits the Twitterverse for all to see and comment on.

Twitter “bashtags” are often symptomatic of problems at the very core of an organization – the brand promise and strategy do not align with the customer, but rather with the products that the company sells.  For these organizations, it’s all about pushing more product and selling higher margin goods and services.  And customers know it and resent it.  Remember, information about brands and the products and services they sell are easily searchable on the web, and very often a one-button “share” between friends.  Newsworthy information gets amplified rapidly.  As companies realize that the only way to differentiate in this commoditized, digitized world is by creating unique, wonderful experiences for their customers (stories and memories that can be shared, by putting their customers at the centre of their businesses), and by creating a culture where employees are empowered and proud to wear the brand on their sleeves, will we see a reduction in the number and frequency of Twitter promotions that backfire.

Think about companies that are customer-centric – companies like Wegmans, Nordstrom, LL Bean, Chik-fil-A, ING Direct, Apple, Westjet, USAA, Lexus, Four Seasons.  These organizations appear to be executing a comprehensive Customer Experience strategy.  They may be at different points in their customer-centric journeys, but they’re walking the walk and their customers know it.

Now think about the organization that you work for.  Is it sincere about putting the customer first, or is it just paying lip service?  Do you think a Twitter campaign would work in your company’s favour, or would it backfire?

Footnote1: I think it deserves mentioning that I am a long-standing customer of Rogers.  I’ve been a wireless, cable, and internet customer of theirs for well over 20 years.  And I actually use Rogers1Number.  I’ve been using it for about a month now.  I see its real value while travelling and being able to call any number in Canada at no extra charge.   I’ve seen improvements in Rogers’ customer service over the years.  I think they’re doing great things on the Social side, in terms of opening up and becoming more transparent.  But overall, they’re clearly still a very much product-focussed company.  And until that changes, they will continue to experience backlashes similar to this Twitter one, but across their other customer touch points as well.

Footnote2: I also did consulting work, a few years ago for Rogers through a previous company, with their technology and their finance groups.

Customer Experience at the Speed of Trust

Nothing is as fast as the speed of trust. These words resonate from a best-seller written by Stephen M. R. Covey back in 2006. Speed happens when people trust each other. Obstacles are reduced, if not eliminated. Information is shared openly. There is a high degree of accountability. Costs go down. Sounds like customer utopia, no?

Trust is the basis of customer loyalty, the holy grail of customer relationships. But organizations are at different points in their quest for loyal customers. To create a sustainable competitive advantage nowadays, Customer Experience needs to be part of the organization’s overall strategy; otherwise, commoditization becomes the norm, and price wars prevail. However, in many cases it may take years before an organization can become customer-centric. One question on the minds of most executives is: can we get there any faster? Can we somehow reduce the length of the journey?

They say it takes 28 days to break a bad habit. What if the strategy of being product-focussed is not a deliberate strategy, but nothing more than a bad habit which has been taken for granted? You think we could break it in a month? I highly doubt it. But even if we could, imagine how long it would take for your customers to not only detect the change, but also for you, as a company, to begin to put your customers at the centre of your world and have them feel that you truly care about their best interests. Changing people’s attitudes; their belief system, transforming a culture…such transformations are journeys, often taking years for an organization to reap sustainable benefits from. (That’s not to preclude short-term gains being made along the way that show progress and keep the momentum going.)

Your organization is going through transformational change. Why should I as your customer, trust that you’ll change for the better? Why would I trust that the path you take will work…for me?

I like how Simon Sinek defines trust. He says: trust is a feeling. It comes from a sense of common values and beliefs. Trust is important because when we’re surrounded by people who share the same beliefs as we do, we’re more confident to take risks; to experiment and make mistakes; to go off and explore. We know that there’s someone from within our community who believes what we believe, will watch our back, and will help us when we fall over.

Think about it. When we truly trust someone, we let our guard down. We simply believe. In a business setting, when we meet someone who is trustworthy, are we as rigorous about doing background checks? Are we as concerned about the details of the contract or statement of work they present us with? Are we as rigid with our budgets or can we be more flexible? Our gut tells us that they’ll be fair with us, that they’ll be reasonable, that they have integrity. Think of all the measures we put in place because we don’t trust people. Think of all the money that’s wasted on legal reviews and compliance; think of all the time we spend developing policies and procedures to protect ourselves. Now think about how easy it is to do a deal on a handshake when you trust the other person.

Think of all the measures we put in place because we don’t trust people. Think of all the money that’s wasted on legal reviews and compliance; think of all the time we spend developing policies and procedures to protect ourselves.

When we trust a company that we’ve bought a product or service from, we’re more likely to recommend them to our friends and family. We’re confident that by recommending the brand or the organization we’re going to maintain our own integrity. We’re putting our good name on the line. We want the other person to feel just as good about the experience as we did.

Social media is a huge boon to trust. Social media opens up a window into an organization. When an organization puts itself out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and blogging sites, their personality comes through. They become transparent. We catch glimpses of their communication style, the openness of their leadership, their integrity as an organization, and their approach to giving and receiving feedback.

Most of us know of companies that have implemented a well-executed social media strategy; you don’t have to look very far. Companies like JetBlue, Dell, Best Buy, Ford, Zappos, and Starbucks, to name a few, understand the importance of transparency. We probably have come across others that may have hired interns, outsourced their social community management, or jumped into Social because it’s “free”, and have failed miserably at portraying themselves as a trusted brand; i.e., they’re not responsive, they don’t share content that is meaningful, they don’t engage their customers, and they blatantly try to sell. When we think about how we’ve tried to engage with these companies that have missed the social sweet spot, how do we feel? Are these companies that we would trust to deliver a great experience to a friend or family member that we care about?

Social media is a huge boon to trust. Social media opens up a window into an organization. When an organization puts itself out on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and blogging sites, their personality comes through. They become transparent.

I was intrigued just last week, by our Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). Under pressure by citizens to improve customer service even at a time when budgets have been cut back, the TTC had its first Town Hall meeting, guided by their leadership, that besides being open to the public, was live-streamed, televised, and simultaneously tweeted about. The recently hired Chief Customer Service Officer, obviously socially savvy, responded to each and every Town Hall tweet over the weekend. Since when do you see someone in the public service working outside of regular business hours? The TTC is a very bureaucratic, mistrusted, often-ridiculed public service. Citizens are clearly angry about upcoming service cut-backs and wait times. Yet, the TTC opened up. We think of them as very “old school”, yet they’re taking positive steps to becoming transparent. They are building trust. And while trust isn’t earned overnight, it’s a first step in becoming customer-centric.

Charlene Li, in her book Open Leadership, writes about leading in this socially-connected world. She describes openness as being the new normal. She talks about the importance, as a business leader, of being able to let go of command and control. When you start to dig a little, you often find that the companies that have truly grasped the concept of transparency and its link to trust, have leaders who, according to Li’s definition, are “open”. These same leaders have created a culture founded on trust, among other brand promises, and seem to recognize the importance of having a “customer-first” culture. Li is saying: “Open up or die”. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, once said: “If you’re not fast, you’re dead”. There appears to be a clear link between openness, trust, speed, and a fanatical devotion to the customer. While you don’t necessarily have to be open to be customer-centric (look at Apple, for example), Social Media is clearly a scalable lever that can be used by a company to become open and transparent. Transparency builds trust. And trust is the foundation for delivering an enhanced customer experience. An organization that is trusted by its customers is one that has eliminated many obstacles for doing business with them.

So go ahead, get Social, especially if you’re sitting on the fence; but do it strategically. Everyone’s telling you the time is now. Even if your research is telling you that the customer segment that would engage with you via Social channels makes up a very small portion of your overall customer base, it’s more important to show the world that you’re an organization that can be trusted. And who knows, your transparency may be picked up by a blogger, a journalist for a major newspaper, a Gen Y’er who decides to make a video about you that goes viral. It’s all in your customers’ hands now. Remember, the sooner you open up, the sooner you’ll be able to establish trust, and the sooner you may move the needle on your Customer Experience strategy.