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Life on the Road: The Importance of Customer Care

  |  October 10, 2012   |  Comments

As you are considering your social media strategy, be sure to consider customer care, and make sure it spans all channels that customers are likely to need.

We're all comfortable now with self-support and peer-based support environments and the critical role these play in social customer care. Think about how useful a well-run social support site can be, and not just at 2 a.m. when the phone banks are closed, either: peer-to-peer communities provide the opportunity to interact with others who have similar interests and needs and those who found an innovative solution to the very question you have. That's a big brand satisfaction booster and an advocacy driver rolled into one neat package.

That said, there also times when there is just no substitute for an agent, trained in the product or service, ready and wanting to help you. That "wanting" part is important, too, because being a customer care agent is a sort of cross between an RN and a crisis counselor: by the time customers have reached out to an agent, they're often past the point of rational behavior and expectations. They need it, they want it, and it has to be now. Or else. We've all been there.

So as I set out for Edinburgh (we were launching Lithium Social Web with our first round of EMEA enterprise customers), I got as ready as one can get for international business travel. The basics - things like hotels, planes, and trains - fell into place easily. But what to do about phone service? If you've been in this spot you know the issue: you're "all everything total mobile" plan stops when the cabin doors close on your outbound flight. What replaces can be truly scary: stories of phone bills totaling hundreds or even thousands of dollars rung up by hapless business travelers who thought "no roaming charges" meant "no roaming charges" are common in the Internet.

So, I called a T-Mobile agent, sure that I could get some sort of U.K./EU roaming package that was as simple to use as my travel power adapter. In the U.S., I pay a flat fee for "all you can eat." In the United Kingdom it would be $1.49/minute incoming or outgoing, plus a whopper of a data charge. Knowing my basic data consumption, I was easily going to incur several hundred dollars in charges for the week I'd be gone. Ouch.

The agent knew exactly what the issue was, and was very polite about explaining the plan, all the while also a bit frustrated that he could not offer me a better deal. T-Mobile is testing a simple global/roaming add-on, but it's only available for bigger business customers. But the agent kept trying: that's the "wanting to help" part coming out, and T-Mobile agents are very good at that. It turned out to be important.

T-Mobile was kind enough to unlock my smartphone: they'll do it for you, too, if you ask, and I suggest you do. With an unlocked phone, you can simply land and find a local supermarket where you can buy a local SIM card. You'll get a new number, but you can easily email that to your contacts (all of whom have free or very low-cost international calling from home, right?) and then buy a reasonably priced set of services overseas for your own calling and data needs. In less than 10 minutes I was set up with a new number, and my smartphone was connected to the 'net at 4G speeds.

As a test, I tried two different carriers: T-Mobile UK and another local provider. SIM cards are about a dollar, and you can "top them up" and activate service for less than $10. The T-Mobile SIM worked perfectly: I wanted to speak to an agent to ask about the data plans and what they would be if I was travelling outside the U.K. (my trip had been expended to include Paris). The agent - Heather, based in the Philippines - was incredibly nice. She reconfigured my phone in less than a minute, verified my 4G service, and even called me back a short time later to make sure everything was working! Wow.

The other carrier didn't fare so well: I loaded the SIM and turned it on. Voice worked fine, but data failed completely. Setting up the phone, I used the touchtone-controlled interface but had a problem with my payment. An agent was quickly on the line to help with that. The problem was, what the agent said was supposed to happen (after I paid, so I think you know where this is headed…) did not happen. Worse, once the agent had collected the money, agent-based service was no longer available. "Sorry, we're closed." "Sorry we're busy." Even the live chat was a fail. "Too many sessions right now. Please try again." The point here is that the agent was available when the company needed the extra touch that an agent can provide (for collecting the payment), but when I was on my own, and because it was a billing issue, the self-help community (and I was not the only one with this issue) could not help me.

Experiment done, I popped my T-Mobile SIM back in. My trip was extended, and I wound up traveling from Edinburgh to Paris, and back to Edinburgh before heading to London, Geneva, and Amsterdam over a total of 10 days. Each time I landed I received a text from T-Mobile thanking me for choosing T-Mobile, explaining what the rates would be in the country I was now in, and telling me how to reduce those rates by sending a specific code via SMS to buy an appropriate pack for that country. In London I had a couple of questions, and they were addressed via the combination of T-Mobile's @TMobileUKHelp Twitter-based agents and the T-Mobile peer-to-peer help forum. Social plus community-based self-help to the rescue.

Re-enter the airlines. My original trip on United Airlines was Austin  Edinburgh return, with a side trip on Air France to Paris. Simple. But that all changed when I got called to London, Geneva, and Amsterdam. I called United, and for a very modest change fee was able to return from Amsterdam, preferred seating intact. The agent I spoke with was super helpful, found the best offer, and had me set up in less than 15 minutes. Again, that's the "wanting to help" factor coming into play. It makes such a huge difference.

Speaking of wanting to help, in Edinburgh I stayed at the Dakota Hotel, which I had picked based on a recommendation: it was great. Originally a concept of Formula 1's David Coulthard, Dakota Hotels are ultra-hip boutique-style, right off major highways, and reasonably priced. Think Howard Johnson meets Ian Schrager. But the best part was the staff: helpful, friendly, courteous, kind. When I returned to the Dakota after two days in Paris (where likewise a warm staff combined with my grade-school French made for an excellent stay), it felt like I was coming home. Like, to my house. I mentioned that to Chris (the hotel's driver), and he just proudly smiled and said "Thank you for saying that. It is exactly the experience we try to deliver." Again, it's wanting to help.

I had a similar experience in Amsterdam at the Marriott Renaissance. I happened to meet the Executive Club Manager Joop under somewhat awkward circumstances. Let's just say that I was not exactly where I was supposed to be, albeit by an honest mistake. He was gracious, as was Melanie at the registration desk. Those interactions will result in my returning to that hotel as a first choice. It's funny how simple the service business really is: provide (great) service, do (more) business.

So what does all of this have to do with social media and marketing and business in general? First, each of the above represents a distinct touchpoint as experienced in a real-world setting. Rather than the aspirational TV spot pinned too often on an inflated claim (aka "puffery"), each of the scenarios I've recounted involved either an agent, a peer-to-peer, or programmatic support resource in a challenging but very typical real-world customer setting. In the cases where a well-implemented process was properly executed, the result was positive word of mouth and a genuine recommendation. (The latter drives NPS, if that matters to you.) In the cases where the process failed, not only did the negative social result erode the brand ever so slightly, the business lost revenue now and in the future. I paid T-Mobile U.K. about $100 over the 10 days I was on the road and will gladly do so again, whereas the carrier that failed earned £0.99 for a SIM and £5 one time for activation, and burned a phone number in the process. Given the quality of the agent at United, I gladly paid an additional fee for the convenience of having my flights booked perfectly and quickly: UA is my first choice for global travel, as Continental was for years prior. Bottom line: I'd recommend any of these brands without hesitation.

As you are considering your social media strategy, be sure to consider customer care, and make sure it spans all channels that customers are likely to need: your support program should include peer-to-peer, agent-based, and social web. It needs to scale, too, as your customers increasingly turn to the non-traditional community and social channels. Of course, if you read my column regularly you already knew that. What it all comes down to is that social media is a tangible, valuable extension of your brand. Getting the experience right at each key touchpoint is the secret to managing your brand on the social web. Start with customer care.

On the road image on home page via Shutterstock.

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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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