When does Social Media carry more clout than your Voice of the Customer program?

Drug store chain with over 1,100 stores


Last week, Shoppers Drug Mart, the leader in Canada’s retail drug store marketplace, saw the writing on the wall…its Facebook wall, that is.  No sooner had Halloween ended than the drug store chain began streaming Christmas songs over its in-store airwaves. By the evening of November 1st, the complaints started rolling in as negative comments on Shoppers’ Facebook wall.  One by one, customers shared their written feelings through Facebook, and by 3pm on November 2nd, Shoppers responded with a post of its own saying that they would suspend all Christmas music until further notice.

With over 7,500 likes, as of this writing, and over 5,800 comments, this music issue clearly struck a few bad chords, to say the least.  It also hit the mainstream media – CTV, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, and others.

You have to wonder though, if Shoppers had taken phone calls from discontented customers about the music, or if people had indicated their concerns through the existing web and IVR-based Voice of the Customer (VoC) survey, would Shoppers have flinched?  Hard to tell.  Perhaps if there had been enough noise through these alternate channels, perhaps if some of the executives had listened to actual customer phone calls, or read written comments from the web survey, there might have been a response to the negative customer sentiment.

Having worked on VoC programs for about 8 years, what I’ve found is that unless a company’s culture is such that they have a sincere commitment and belief in the importance of the customer experience, the feedback they collect from customers tends to lose its priority behind operational or financial data.  Too many companies simply pay lip service to creating wow moments for their customers, or superficially try to improve their NPS (Net Promoter Score) because it’s part of employee job descriptions or compensation plans, or they want to move up from 4th place in the JD Power award for best in customer service.  VoC becomes another program, added to the stack of programs that people are working on.  And employees sense that VoC is complex because it relies on many thousands, perhaps millions of bits of information about customer perceptions.  When you look back at why so many VoC programs fail, some or all of these points were likely contributing factors.

Let me be clear.  I’m not insinuating that Shoppers Drug Mart is having problems with its VoC program or has failed in any way.  I’m simply using this incident as an example of how customer feedback through Social Media (through a Facebook page that has only been up for about a year) may have a stronger impact on change through customer voice, than a long-running VoC program.

Now it may very well be that at Shoppers, Social Media customer feedback is part of their VoC program for listening and responding to customers.  They also have a Twitter account @ShopprsDrugMart, that they use to field customer service issues across all of their stores, in addition to pushing out marketing messages.  I’d venture to guess that Marketing and/or Public Relations manages Social Media, and the Voice of the Customer program is managed through Customer Service or Operations.  Social Media is still finding its place within most organizations, and typically falls under the umbrella of the Marketing Department.  But the discussion of who should own it is great fodder for another blog post – many posts have already been written discussing the best place for Social Media to reside.

…what Social Media tends to do, if done right, is build humanity into a digital customer interaction

The point is, Social Media is sexy for most companies, and perhaps Marketing has made it so.  Social Media shifts control into the hands of our customers and prospective customers, and that creates fear in the minds of many corporate executives.  It also creates a permanent written record for all the world to see.  (Ooops, better get Legal looped in on this one.)  Finally though (of course there are many more benefits to Social Media, but being more intangible and harder to quantify means that the C-Suite would typically ignore these) what Social Media tends to do, if done right, is build humanity into a digital customer interaction.   Just look at the examples below, taken from Shoppers’ Facebook wall.

Three different people – John, Fiona, Barbara – real customers with pictures of their faces, sharing their emotions about the timing of the Christmas songs, and each is engaging other Shoppers’ customers who are providing their feedback, some for; some against the music.  These are not rows in a spreadsheet with a unique identifier; they are not written verbatims in a database; they don’t represent bars on a frequency-distribution chart.

for those of us in the Voice of the Customer world, not much has changed in the past 10 years

Let’s face it, for those of us in the Voice of the Customer world (we tend to work in silos don’t we?), not much has changed in the past 10 years.  The amount of customer feedback has increased, we have text analytic tools now to help us be more efficient at making sense of unstructured customer comments, but at the end of the day, the output is pretty much the same – spreadsheets, charts, graphs, scorecards, dynamic visualizations.  Nothing too sexy or exciting to look at that relate back to humans.  Nothing emotional to hook us in.  And as for IVR-captured responses, while we can hear the emotion of the respondents from the calls, these snippets of dialogue have to be listened to sequentially.  It’s a time-consuming process.  Generally speaking, it’s pretty boring output.

If I wanted to make a point to the executives in my company; if I wanted to get their consensus for changing a customer policy, I know which source of customer feedback I’d turn to.

The sad part is, most of us are sitting on reams of rich data about customer sentiment through our VoC programs.  Yet, decisions based on information from all of this data, that is actionable, may take weeks or months to implement.  We’re reading about and seeing decisions based on relatively fewer Social Media-based customer comments often taking less than a day to turn around.

I started by asking the question: “When does Social Media carry more clout than your Voice of the Customer program?”  Isn’t it time we incorporated Social feedback into our VoC programs?  The progressive VoC vendors have incorporated Social into their platforms.  But few companies seem to have taken them up on their offer.  Is it because the control of Social Media is siloed from that of Voice of the Customer?  Is it because Social Customer Service is so new that companies don’t know where it should be slotted?  Voice of the Customer programs are at a turning point.  It’s up to those of us who are practitioners in this space, to make sure that our VoC programs incorporate key Social channels that provide us with rich, humanized insights that support quick responses to our customers.

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 :)