Social technology is transforming operational policies across the organization, and so the opportunity for social media is clearly present across all three fundamental consumer touch points: the sales process, the actual product or service experience, and post-sale and service processes. If you’re looking for ways to control social media – to influence or change the conversations on the social web – these three touch point collections are the way to do it. In fact, they are the only way to do it.
Radian6, Alterian, NetBase, Collective Intellect, and over a dozen others have the marketing and PR needs of social media monitoring and campaign management well covered. [Disclosure: I serve on the Marketing Advisory Board for NetBase.] There are tools ranging from “free” to “considerably more than free” for nearly every application. For the actual product or service experience platforms like Salesforce.com’s “Force Ideas” platform – on which were built well-known innovation and product re-engineering social sites including “Dell IdeaStorm” and “My Starbucks Idea” – serve to link customers directly with internal product and service design teams.
Next up: customer care, and not a moment too soon. Consider the following, each being a direct experience of mine in just the past 10 days. Multiply these by a few hundred million…and you’ll quickly realize that – taken as a whole – these experiences and the stories they generate can easily equal or exceed the net influence of a single Super Bowl ad at a cost that is generally lower! Of course, driving influence is sort of soft as metrics go, so let’s cut to the chase here: attention paid to customer care can drive sales. You can measure that. Attention paid to customer care can also reduce your ad spend requirements, but that’s a story for a different column. The focus here is customer care.
My first customer service experience involves two big brands: Continental Airlines (now rebranding itself as United) and Expedia. A group of us were traveling together for business: being employed in a start-up, we all wear Iots of hats and I got tasked with booking travel. No sweat, I thought. Normally, I’d go straight to Continental.com (where I am Platinum Elite), knowing, for example, that even if I make a mistake I’ve got 24 hours to change or cancel non-refundable tickets without cost. But…I chose to go to Expedia as it seemed like it would be easier to book a group of four. Long story short, I booked Continental’s “PM” flights outbound instead of “AM” flights. My mistake, clearly.
I called Expedia, and got placed on hold. In the interim, I called Continental. The agent I spoke with said “Normally, no problem to change these…except that you booked them on Expedia. You have to change them there.” Meanwhile – I’d now been on hold for 10 minutes at Expedia – I’d heard the Expedia message: “We cannot refund change fees that are imposed by the airlines.” If true, it meant I was out $600 for my mistake. I tweeted Expedia, and called Continental back. I’d now been on hold with Expedia for over 20 minutes.
Continental answered promptly: I explained the situation, and the service agent looked at my history and spoke with her supervisor. She transferred the booking from Expedia to Continental and authorized a full credit for my errant purchase. She also thanked me for my business. At the 45-minute mark, I hung up with Expedia. I also tweeted about the process, and sometime later got a tweet back from Expedia asking me to contact the company. Ironically, I heard from others via Twitter who’d had the same experience with Expedia long before I actually heard from Expedia. The next day I emailed Expedia: five days later I got a note back restating Expedia’s policies, and pointing out that since the dates of the actual travel had now passed, it considered this closed.
Crazy as it seems, the above is not a criticism of Expedia, per se. The brand has fans, and it is well regarded in its market. Instead, it is a candid look at how Expedia has prioritized sales and cost control over customer care, and as a result has created a very negative experience for a measurable number of customers. The responses to my tweets from others in my network made it clear that my experience was hardly isolated.
Consider the operational decisions that drove my experience: first, I made a mistake, so I own that component. Second, Expedia’s phones are clearly overloaded, and its call-abandonment rates are non-zero: when I tried to reach it, I couldn’t. Evidently, Expedia is choosing to disregard at least some customers needing help in favor of lowering costs and protecting margins. Hey, it’s Expedia’s business, but it’s certainly not how Zappos is run, and Zappos seem to have done pretty well by any financial measure. Finally, Expedia’s own customer advocacy policies are clearly out-of-touch: in this case, the airline was willing to waive the penalties (and did!). All Expedia had to do was commit to a sufficient staffing level that it would have had the resources to go to bat for a customer. Alternately, Expedia could have worked out – in advance – the same policies as the airlines would have offered. Expedia has not done this.
Look at this example through the same lens as marketing and PR, and at the tools they would apply to social media. Now connect that to customer care: while the tools used by marketing that support active listening are well-developed, at big-brand customer-care scale, they break down: despite the online demos to the contrary, looking through a list of discovered conversations and manually assigning them for follow-up simply does not work when there are 1,000 or more posts to be reviewed. Instead, the result is exactly the experience that I had with Expedia: a day late and a dollar short. (In my case, five days late and $600 short, but I guess that’s just inflation applied to an old saw.)
Most importantly, there is a revenue case to be made here: it’s not just about the fuzzy warmth of customer love, or the potential brand damage caused by some teed-off hack with WordPress. As I noted in a prior article, I have routinely opted to pay more to fly on Continental, out of my pocket, personally, precisely because Continental has consistently taken care of me. Loyalty is a two-way street: Continental gets this, and has earned my business as a result. Expedia had the opportunity to do the same with a new customer. #FAIL.
The next experience involves The Teaching Company and its “Great Courses” programs. You’ve probably seen these advertised in The Economist or The Atlantic. I purchased one of the courses on DVD and one as an “audio download” to compare the two formats. What I found was that the audio download was more useful for me: the DVD “visual” content was satisfactory, but the pure utility of being able to listen to the lectures while driving, for example, made the audio download much more attractive to me. I’ve written about exactly this benefit to audio podcasting as a component of executive thought leadership programs, and it surely applied here.
So, I figured it was worth a call to see if I could exchange the DVD set for its audio download equivalent. What happened next was a perfect example of how to run a customer service department in a way that builds loyalty and drives sales. First, the phone was answered – by a person – on the second ring. Vicki introduced herself, and I recounted the above. She said, “We actually have a new option for customers expressing this same issue: You can purchase the audio download as an upgrade to your DVD subscription for five dollars per module.” My course had five modules, so for $25 and less than five minutes on the phone, I was not only happier, I had actually spent more. I talked with Vicki for a moment about how attractive that option would be for all customers: if The Teaching Company made the audio download option a part of the visible ordering process – “Check here to add the audio download option: $5 per module” – then, instead of wondering which format is the best choice and possibly delaying the actual purchase, a lot of customers would probably just buy the audio download upgrade along with the DVDs. It would not surprise me at all to see this innovation as part of its ordering process very soon.
The final example involves Mercedes-Benz of Austin. In a prior blog post, I talked about an experience in which a mix-up resulted in our getting about $1,500 of repair work (AC system – not repairing is not an option in Texas!) done for about $800. Ask yourself: “Would your auto dealer have done this?” So, last week, when my wife’s car needed tires, I did the due diligence and called around: the exact same Michelin tires, for a set of four, totaled about $150 more at the Mercedes dealer versus the other local tire stores. Now, guess where the tires are going to be replaced? If you said “Mercedes-Benz of Austin,” you are correct. The appointment is Monday, August 29.
Look back at these four real-life examples. In three cases, a customer was treated well, by a trained and thoughtful customer service team. In these cases there is clear proof that specific actions drove customer loyalty and preference higher, and, that the customer not only spent more but also recounted and shared the experiences on the social web. What would your mornings be like as a marketing professional if they all started with that story? Compare this with the Expedia case: despite my attempts to reach the company (even using the channels it recommended), it was not until five days later (!) that Expedia offered an email summary, which in effect said “Oh well.” For those of you who subscribe to the Net Promoter methodology, how likely do you think I am to recommend Expedia? How likely do you think I am to recommend (and continue to buy myself) United, The Teaching Company, or Mercedes? It’s not rocket science.
The bottom line is this: if you want to “control the conversations” on the social web and win in a tough economy, spend some time in customer care. That is where many – in fact, along with stories about the product or service itself, I’d bet most – of the conversations on the social web about brands, products, and services are born. Put measures in place that track the upsell, acquisition, and retention gains as a direct result of customer care actions. In the battle for “good profits and true growth,” customer care is your highly visible secret weapon.