If you haven’t yet, set your DVR to record “Customer (Dis)Service,” a new one-hour special on CNBC. It takes a hard look at the state of customer care across a range of touchpoints including in-person and telephone. The show finishes up with a brief look into the impact of social media on business through the lens of customer feedback. You can see the upcoming week’s CNBC schedule here.
The implied connection to marketing, while not a central element of the show, is present nonetheless. If the current state of customer service is now the subject of a TV documentary, then the beginning of mainstream adoption of social technology as a primary customer communication channel has arrived.
As the special report unfolds, it’s clear that a lot of people are upset with the way customer service works. No real news there. And, just to be fair, a lot of firms provide great customer service, though these firms are not the focus of this show. Nordstrom’s, Zappos, and Four Seasons all come to mind. The report, which examines the shortcomings of some aspects and practices defining typical customer service experiences, drives to an inescapable conclusion. If (your) customer service is less than what it could be, (you) risk activating and alienating an increasingly connected customer base. And that’s an expensive mistake.
This is where marketing gets involved. Customer conversations about experiences with the sales process, the product or service itself, or with customer service after the fact invariably find their way onto the social web. Of the three, customer service drives the majority of these conversations. People are more likely to write about what happened when they talked with a customer service agent about an issue rather than post simply about the initial issue they had with a service or product. Relatively few people expect “absolute perfection.” What most people do expect, however, is a simple, pleasant, and effective resolution when a problem is brought to the attention of customer care.
How does this impact marketing? If a negative conversation develops post-purchase, that conversation becomes a factor in the purchase decision of the “next” customer. The social web amplifies or dampens the power of your marketing programs. The impact of negative conversations is higher-than-needed marketing spend and lower-than-expected sales. Add to that the avoidable expense of call-backs and longer-than-necessary interactions with customer care and you can quickly see that “Customer (Dis)Service” results in a measurable and significant hit to margins.
None of this is rocket science. So why are so many brands not moving faster to seize the social web opportunity? What are challenges that stand in the way?
First, there’s the obvious shift in perspective: Advertising, PR, and marketing communications have long held the position as the controllers of the brand image. Celebrity endorsements, favorable studies, contrived customer scenarios, and more have been designed to present an idealized view of some underlying benefit associated with a product or service. It’s really no wonder that, in real life, at least some disappointment results.
Consider the AT&T spot showing the young man in a New York subway. He sees a girl on a train leaving the station. She flashes her phone and shows him the concert she is on her way to. He quickly uses his AT&T smartphone to find and purchase a show ticket and then boards the next train. Now let’s cut to reality, and the fact that most phones don’t work in the subway, and even if they do it takes longer than four seconds to search, find, and purchase a concert ticket. How many negative customer service calls – beginning with “I can’t do what you said I could” – did that ad generate? Every one of those calls took a bite out of AT&T’s margins as well as AT&T’s brand reputation.
Beyond setting artificially high hopes, there’s a more practical challenge of organizational alignment and employee training. Gearing up for collaborative customer experiences means rethinking and retraining what’s inside most organizations as well as how they communicate outside. I came across an article about Best Buy last week that really pointed this up. You can read the entire article, but here is the quick summary: a customer in need approached a manager in a Best Buy store at the direction of Best Buy’s Twitter-based Twelpforce. The manager responded by first dismissing social media as unreliable and then noting – incredibly – that “Twelpforce could be anyone.” Skipping for the moment the very visible “Verified Account” icon on the Twelpforce Twitter account page, this is clearly a case of an out-of-touch manager. And this is Best Buy, clearly a leader in the push for the integration of social media into its support processes. While it’s easy to knock Best Buy, the real insight here is in recognizing just how difficult getting social customer care “right” really is. Kudos to Best Buy as it continues to push forward. My guess is that the manager involved has since been schooled.
Finally, consider your customer service team. How are they being prepared, not just for social customer care – after all, that is simply the toolset – but for their future role as brand advocates?
Imagine three levels of customer service agent enlightenment.
In the first level, the agent sees his or her job as getting the customer off the phone as quickly as possible. Recall the “Metrocard” credit card spoof from SNL with Roseanne Barr and Phil Hartman. You can read the transcript here. For a real-life example, take a look at this YouTube posting of an actual interaction between an agent and customer trying to cancel an account.
The second level is marked by a genuine desire on the part of the customer service agent to resolve the issue. As much as we all like to complain about customer service, this level is probably representative of most professional care agents. As the CNBC report notes, more often than not there is a company policy – not an agent shortcoming – that actually prevents the agent from resolving the issue. Is it easy for a customer to connect and explain an issue? To request escalation? Are the agents sufficiently empowered to think on their feet? A few years back I had an interaction with Dish Network. The agent improvised a solution on the phone and I’m a 10-year loyal customer as a result.
That brings us to the third level: agents who are fully aware of their potential and able to create advocates during service calls. As I noted earlier, very few customers expect absolute perfection. Customers expect support, compassion, assistance, and help. This creates an opportunity for suitably trained and empowered agents. When agents both understand the brand positioning and are empowered to resolve issues they can actually move a customer from an initial attitude of “complaint” to an ultimate attitude of “Wow! Thank you!” Combine that with the true drivers of social media conversations – not the issue itself but the resolution of that issue – and the path to building advocates is obvious. Zappos built a profitable business on the fundamental notion of creating “Wow!” experiences through customer care. You can too.
As you press into 2012, expand beyond you marketing boundaries and build a relationship with customer service. Build your customer care program into your marketing plans, and start leveraging those interactions to build brand advocates.