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?

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.

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 :)