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What 2 Billion Smartphones Mean for Customer Service

  |  September 7, 2011   |  Comments

Businesses must serve some - but not all - customers in social channels.

New Media Age's Ilana Fox wrote an intriguing post, Stop pandering to customers on social media. Her central point: "We have proper channels for complaints…tell whining customers to use them." My initial reaction was "Well, that's certainly a huge step backwards." But as I thought Ilana's post, I found myself agreeing with parts of it. So let's talk about those parts.

To be clear, I have a point of view on this issue:

-Customers own the conversations that they start, and they are free to start whatever conversations they want. It's a free world, eh?

-Brands (including their employees, representatives, and paid advocates) own whatever response -including no response - they see fit to offer to a customer-initiated post or ongoing conversation. That same "free world" works both ways: After all, as U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney put it "Corporations are people too, my friend."

So while a business has the option to declare this or that channel as preferred, I disagree with the wisdom of actually implementing "except social" as a policy.

Southwest Airlines:

When I worked with GSD&M in the early 2000s, Southwest Airlines (a client) had a policy of not accepting email from customers. Here is the explanation from Southwest as it appeared on the company's website in 2005, courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Why We Don't Accept E-mail
Call us traditional, but we elect to steer clear of the chat-style, respond-on-demand, quick casual format and focus on meaningful Customer dialogue. This is not because we don't care. It's because that style counters our commitment to Customer Service.
Our Customers deserve accurate, specific, personal, and professionally written answers, and it takes time to research, investigate, and compose a real business letter. We answer every letter we receive in the order it arrives, and we streamline in order to keep our costs low, our People productive, our operating efficiency high, and our responses warm and personal.


Flash forward to 2011, and take a look at the Southwest Airlines "Contact Us" page now:


Southwest changed its policy and now supports multiple customer communication channels. And, there is an important lesson here, from a brand that has always known exactly what it stood for and focused on delivering value. In 2005, Southwest considered high quality service in the context of its own internal questions about cost and efficacy of dealing with customers in what was a somewhat new channel for service at the time. It elected not to entertain email, and explained why in plain language. At some point later, after the organization had thought through a policy, developed a comfort level, and listened to the feedback of its customers on this issue it changed that policy and elected to support email.

Today, Southwest maintains an active social presence, on Facebook and Twitter as well as through its blog. In February 2011, Southwest's Laurel Moffat discussed the company's comprehensive social media monitoring and response program during a Kansas City American Marketing Association event. (Her talk is featured on Innovation Excellence.)

Ignore Your Customers at Your Own Risk

The idea that a brand can require customers to do anything is questionable. On matters involving terms, conditions, warranty rights, and refund policies, the firm has full rights. But telling customers how they can talk? To each other?! No way. And it's in that last little nuance - talking to each other - that the idea of restricting customer service to "appropriate channels" falls like a lead zeppelin. Remember, customers own their conversations, and that includes where and with whom they choose to have them.

In my response to Ilana, I noted that brands interrupt us (aka, advertise) on TV, on the radio, along the roadway, on my mobile phone, at meal time - all without asking me if that's OK, and in many cases even though I've said it's not. So now, as I find myself looking at my smartphone in the face of some service need, I have a choice: I can find and call an 800-number and walk through an IVR - or I can simply post the issue on Twitter and assume (I know…) that since this brand has explicitly decided to push itself into every other part of my life that surely it is also present and listening on the social web. If a brand representative responds promptly and thoughtfully - like Boingo always does - then I will be loyal to that brand. If they blow me off - like Expedia did - then I will look for an alternative in the future.

If a brand manager ignores the social web as a service channel, she also chooses to turn away from a vital source of feedback, of opportunities to shine, and from the unique strength of the social channel to resolve issue in public. No one - and no brand - is perfect. So when something goes wrong and it is corrected promptly in public, the response offers hope for all other potential customers.

Is social hard? Yes. Is social risky? Yes. Is social new? Yes again. But 50 years ago, more or less the only way to communicate with a company was by writing a letter. In 1961, Ronald Katz launched Telecredit, and with it began an innovation sequence that essentially created interactive voice communication (IVR). That technology enabled phone centers to take over from the letter carriers and service agents who read them. The same transformation is happening now. More people worldwide have access to a mobile phone than have access to a toilet. By 2017, nearly two billion people will have smartphones. Think that will change customer service dynamics? You bet it will, and right now is the time to be getting ready.

Social Media and the Whiny Customer

Here's where Ilana really gets it right: Whiny customers don't warrant a response. But people asking for help do.

Take a look at the social response matrix, developed by the United States Air Force and adapted for business by Altimeter.

The USAF/Altimeter matrix provides a straightforward guideline. With regard to a post that references your product or service, is the post correct, and does it warrant a response? If it warrants a response, correct facts as necessary and respond. If it does not warrant response - or if your response would not add value - don't respond. Comedians and brand-detractors (hard core, vocal brand haters) do not warrant a response. Customers asking for support do.

Take this a step further. Suppose you are using a listening tool like Radian6, Netbase, Alterian, Visible Technologies, or others and you have found a customer post.

After evaluating the post, you decide to respond. Now what? For starters, you can respond in the channel, replying via Twitter for example, and thanking the person for the comment. At this point, you could also offer to redirect the conversation to your preferred channel. Customers generally do not post socially with the expectation of resolution via that social channel. Rather, they post with the expectation of getting a response that leads to resolution. Sending back an answer, or a link to an article, or an automated call-back number all lead to resolution. Your social media strategy for customer service needs to contemplate each of these scenarios.

Finally, one point that I agree 100 percent with Ilana. In her post, she writes: "I'd like companies to focus their attention - and their budgets - to improving their offerings so they get fewer complaints in the first place." If you only take away thing one this from this column, from Ilana's post, or from anything else ever said by any social media strategist, let it be that. More than anything else, listening to and engaging with customers on the social web drives a feedback loop that powers continuous improvement. In an age of two billion smartphones, that feedback illuminates your best path forward.


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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