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Listening Is a Skill Well Learned

  |  September 15, 2010   |  Comments

Four personal examples of companies that listened to their customers and ones that didn't – and how that affected the relationship.

One of the new truths of the social Web and the conversations that take place on it is that listening, in the most basic sense of the word, is now an established best practice. While accurate, automated sentiment and semantic analysis is still the dream, monitoring the social Web for mentions of your product or service and then doing something based on that information is now table stakes for anyone seriously interested in building a strong brand.

Over the past year, as I have been posting my own customer service experiences at ReadThis.com, I've been surprised in the variation of responses by brand managers, company representatives, and brand enthusiasts. The results have been mixed, to be sure, which surprised me given the relatively high claimed rates of adoption of social media - upwards of 80 percent - cited by consumer-facing businesses in technology adoption studies.

The impression that I've gotten - probably not all that different from many other consumers - is that brands using social media are still very early in their recognition of what the medium is all about. To wit, it's for the most part used as one more talking channel rather than a truly engaging and participative medium. The good news is that a move toward dialog and away from monologue will come with experience; the downside is that consumers are still generally ahead in their applied understanding of what the social Web is all about. The current imbalance between listening and speaking puts those marketers failing to grasp this nuance of social media as a contributor to the development of customer loyalty in a bad spot.

Consider the following examples, which I posted on my blog and on Twitter.

  • Last April, I was flying home from Seattle on Continental Airlines: I arrived at Sea-Tac airport only to discover I'd mistakenly booked my return on the wrong day.
  • Over the summer, I visited SeaWorld San Antonio with our Cub Scout pack.
  • In Early August, I ran into technical issues configuring a Wi-Fi router for my mother-in-law, a SuddenLink (ISP) customer.
  • In Charleston, SC my family and some friends stopped for ice cream at a Häagen-Dazs.

Big note: My personal blog and Twitter presence are no more visited than those of any other average blogger or Twitter user, and if anything less-so. On the social Web, I'm the same as any other consumer using these tools. That said, the use of any listening tool - from the free Google Alerts to the paid DIY tools from Collective Intellect, Alterian's SM2, NetBase, Lithium's Scout Labs, or Radian6 would readily discover any of my posts (as well as those of anyone else).

Here they are, along with the results.

Continental Airlines

In my post about my experience with Continental Airlines, I described how, despite my own mistake in booking my ticket, and without a moment's hesitation, the airline's agent in Seattle reissued my non-refundable, non-changeable ticket (yes, I do everything possible when traveling to minimize my clients' costs) on the spot, without fees, and with a smile. I was blown away. Her service re-impressed on me why I consistently choose Continental (I am a Platinum Elite customer.)

I promptly thanked @Continental on Twitter, and wrote a short post about the experience on my blog. Less than 15 minutes later, I had a post back from Continental, adding that it was happy that it all worked out so quickly. From the reply, it was clear that not only had Continental seen the Twitter post, they had also read my blog. I really wasn't expecting a reply, so I was now doubly impressed as a customer. Check-plus for @Continental.

SeaWorld

Our family has held a season pass or fun pass for something like seven consecutive years (basically since our son, now nine, turned two.) We have been to the park many times, and each time we have come away thinking "That is a day our child will remember." (Disclosure: I worked at GSD&M, where that particular SeaWorld advertising campaign was created.)

When we attended the SeaWorld Adventure Camps program with the Cub Scouts, we left the park feeling let down. The educational program was fine, but the experience was absolutely unremarkable. We got the distinct impression that we were less valued than "paying park guests" (even though we actually paid more per person). Mostly, we wondered how many of the first-time visitors to the Adventure Camp would come back based on the camp experience.

I posted about the experience and was careful to avoid the snarky self-indulgent comments that all-too-often enter customer experience related discussions that take place online. Being snarky helps no one: check out the USAF social media response matrix if you doubt this. Instead, I included some specific, constructive, and simple-to-implement process and policy ideas that would have made a difference: easy things, like changing the instructions provided by SeaWorld ahead of time to reflect what actually happens during the camp. That was over a month ago: I've not heard a word from SeaWorld or its new owner, Blackstone.

Häagen-Dazs

Moving on to what should have been a great experience (who doesn't like ice cream?), our visit to Häagen-Dazs was decidedly negative: a series of impersonal service missteps in the store we visited (historic district, Charleston, SC), punctuated with hand-made signs like "No Public Restrooms," something I had always thought was required in a restaurant. I posted about this experience, suggesting that when you set up a business in the middle of a tourist area, the trade-off for all that street traffic is the realization that some basic accommodations for those customers is reasonable. Not a word from Häagen-Dazs. After its botched product launch in New Delhi last year, you'd think it'd be, in the words of Rohit Bhargava, actively listening and monitoring the way that the stores carrying its brand name are actually run.

You might be tempted at this point to say "Sure Dave, say nice things and you may get a thank you; say negative things and you can expect silence." But that would be to miss the most valuable aspect of a strong, well-thought-out listening program. Case-in-point: SuddenLink.

SuddenLink

Volunteering to configure a Wi-Fi router for my mother-in-law - normally a 15 minute undertaking - I got stuck. I called the ISP, SuddenLink (who answered promptly on a Sunday afternoon) and was told "As it is not our router, we can't help you." OK, fair enough. The SuddenLink representative I spoke with connected me to Cisco, where I was told (very politely, and with an apology) that because the router was not under warranty, helping me get it running would cost $30. To Cisco's credit, I was also offered a new (and better) router for a discounted price. Needing the router set up then, I went back to the Web and solved the problem myself, based on a tip I'd read in a post from someone that had a similar issue. I recounted the experience on my blog, noting that the ultimate "fix" should have been immediately obvious to the SuddenLink representative - and that it was independent of any specific brand of router. The problem was that I had not properly reset the modem, which in retrospect ought to have been the first question the representative asked me.

In my post, I suggested SuddenLink consider two things. First, create a note in the customer service database that phone-based representatives access during calls: if the caller a) has a SuddenLink telephone modem, and b) is having difficulty configuring a Wi-Fi router, the representative should review the modem reset procedure (which, as I discovered, is a common issue, as it is not simply power-cycling the device as it would be with most any other modem). Second, taking a tip from Dell, I suggested SuddenLink consider providing a forum on the SuddenLink website where customers can post their own solutions to problems like this one. This was the first thing I looked for on the SuddenLink site.

So here was my half-snarky post (starting with its title, "SuddenLink or SuddenDeath") but which also suggested some constructive steps to improve the experience. On the USAF social media response matrix, I was on thin ice in terms of expecting a response. Guess what? Just a few hours after posting I heard from @SuddenLinkTina, apologizing that my issue was not immediately resolved, and that SuddenLink was actively considering a customer-helps-customer addition to the website. Wow! In 140 characters - and with a clearly consumer-centric perspective powering what she wrote - @SuddenLinkTina converted me to an advocate for the brand.

Look at the steps that led to this conversion. First, SuddenLink provides good service, so it passes the "we do what we say" test. Second, the company actually answered the support line promptly, so it gets a bonus point for that. Next, it apologizes when it sees something that could have been handled better, so now it is really moving up on the customer appreciation scale. Hey, no one is perfect - neither customers, nor the businesses that serve them. Apologies go a long way to restoring harmony. Finally, to top it all off, SuddenLink accepts customer's suggestions and thereby encourages them to participate further. This is how the social Web works, and SuddenLink is a great example of the simple steps that can lead to beneficial conversations on the social Web, and to more satisfied customers for your business as a result.

So there you have it: four posts directly referencing a specific brand, product, or service, and a 5 percent response rate. Both of the responses led to or affirmed a strong relationship between a customer and a brand, while the two "no response" examples did nothing to address a relationship that is in danger, with at least one of them having been an extremely positive relationship prior to the events noted.

Yes, social media can be tricky, and brand teams are right to consider carefully how they approach it. At the same time, listening is a basic skill, and being recognized as a customer with an issue is something that we all understand and respond to, in particular outside the office in situations where we are the customer. Take a look at your own listening program. It's rightly "Step One" of your social media program.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Evans

Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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