Participating in the Visible Backchannel

In a new twist on Moore’s Law, the speed that brand experiences are conveyed to others doubles every two years. And, that’s probably an understatement. It’s more important than ever to ensure that what’s promised (marketing) and what’s delivered (operations) are closely aligned.

Otherwise, odds are that a problematic conversation will show up on what my colleague and social change agent Ynema Mangum calls the visible backchannel.

This past week, digital strategists Peter Sorgenfrei and Warren Sukernek released a study of consumer attitudes toward the use of Twitter by brands. Eighty-nine percent of users indicated brands should engage their customers on Twitter, and 81 percent also had a better impression of brands that use Twitter for customer service.

As a social media practitioner and consumer, I share this point of view. I posted a couple of things about Starbucks during the last two weeks on Twitter. Within one or two minutes, others were agreeing and amplifying what I’d posted.

On one occasion I was sitting in a Starbucks near Times Square. In this tourist-heavy location, the number of patrons looking for an Internet connection is predictably high. Over a two-hour period, nearly a dozen people came in, asked the barista about connecting to the Internet, and then walked out.

My curiosity got the better of me, so the next time I saw this happen, I approached the counter area, feigning interest in the muffins. What I heard amazed me:

Patron: “How do I connect to the Internet?”

Barista: “The easiest way is to use your T-Mobile account.”

Patron: “But I don’t have a T-Mobile account.”

Barista: “In that case, there is an Internet café down the street.”

Patron: “I thought there was free AT&T Wi-Fi at Starbucks?”

Barista: “It’s only for certain Starbucks Gold Card members.”

I sat back down and recounted the conversation on Twitter. I was aided by Starbucks, who helped me set up my non-gold Starbucks card to take advantage of AT&T Wi-Fi.

Note to Starbucks: Create a handout or in-store sign that explains the Wi-Fi process. Also, feature it on the Web site.

Brand Autopsy’s John Moore joined in. Moore is an expert in social media, having worked with major retail brands including both Starbucks and Whole Foods Market. Moore pointed out that getting the front line experience right is probably the most difficult challenge facing any retail organization.

People expect brands to participate on the social Web: of those surveyed more than 60 percent have more than 100 Twitter followers. And almost 50 percent of respondents have posted more than 1,000 Tweets since they signed up for the service. The actual front-line experience you provide — positive or negative — is almost surely going to wind up on Twitter or a similar casual conversation channel. Once there, it will spread quickly.

Many brands, such as Four Seasons and Zappos, get the front-line experience right. How? They hire the right people and then orient them toward behaviors that make customers smile.

At Ad:Tech two week ago, Brian Kalma, Zappos director of user experience, talked about the relative lack of focus on productivity measures of customer service reps and instead the relatively heightened awareness conveyed throughout the company as to its real core purpose: complete and genuine satisfaction and the assurance of a repeat purchase.

In the case of distributed organizations like Starbucks, this is even more important. Getting the front-line experience right is essential in engendering the kinds of conversations that will propel a brand ahead of its competition. That’s especially important for a premium brand in a down economy. “Ad Age” recently ranked Dunkin’ Donuts as a better “Bang for Your Buck” than Starbucks, making Starbucks’ social presence all the more important as it continues to rediscover and redefine its brand and connection to its customers.

Compounding the difficulty for Starbucks: many locations aren’t actually under their control. Unfortunately, customers are provided no easy way to discern this.

On Election Day, Starbucks offered a free tall coffee to anyone who voted. Later in the day, this offer was extended to anyone who asked. Great idea and sincerely nice gesture. Except that many hotel-operated Starbucks and bookstore locations declined to participate.

Guess what the Starbucks conversation at Ad:Tech — in the Hilton Hotel — was all about? Oops.

The varying policies of independently owned locations often result in a negative comment showing up in a social post. Rather that striving to provide an incredible coffee experience and building the Starbuck’s brand, these locations are more likely operated to maximize profit per square foot. From their perspective, they’re doing the right thing. Customers see it differently.

I’m a Starbucks evangelist. I have a card, and use it regularly. I look forward to going to Starbucks.

One of the benefits of card membership (in addition to Wi-Fi) is that “extras” — like soy — are free. So you can imagine my reaction when I visited a nearby store a few days ago in Austin, paid about $1 more for my coffee, and was charged for soy on top of that.

I asked about it, and the barista politely responded, “I’m sorry, but we’re not a corporate store. You can use your card here, but we don’t offer the same benefits.” I walked around the block to my office, sat down, and posted the following on Twitter:

Dear Starbucks: In the spirit of transparency please have non-corporate stores post a sign on the door that says benefits of membership end here.

If that’s the response of an evangelist, imagine what a detractor would have posted. On the Border’s parent company, Brinker International, had the same issue with its non-owned stores. Different menus, policies, prices — in short, a different customer experience.

In both cases, the brand is the biggest loser. In the words of Twitter member Paula Thornton:

It’s that “we’re not Starbucks” stuff that I’ve gotten at Barnes & Noble before. Makes me want to scream “Then get rid of the logo!” It’s not having brand control and/or diluting it with the in-location spinouts. Guess cashflow outweighs all else.

Likewise, Twitter member Chuck Hester posted this immediately following my post:

@evansdave – AMEN on the starbucks comment. My gift card would not buy what I wanted at the Starbucks Sheraton NYC. BUMMED!

If your brand has independent locations then you must accept responsibility for the brand experience conveyed within those locations. When it doesn’t match your corporate experience, your brand gets dinged. People assume it’s a Starbucks inside Barnes & Noble. Instead, it’s Starbucks-brand coffee, served by Barnes & Noble or some appointed operator. It’s not Starbucks.

As you consider the social Web and the impact it has on your brand, consider the survey’s audience: 60 percent are male and the largest age concentration (just over 41 percent) in the 35 to 44 age group. It’s a decidedly mainstream audience, meaning that channels like Twitter are not fringe or youth.

The social Web, and Twitter in particular, can provide valuable, actionable insight. Ignore at your own peril. Get involved, participate, and take the time to assess your organizations’ ability to consistently deliver an excellent experience — across the entire frontline — in service of the brand you’re building.

Related reading

nurcin-erdogan-loeffler_wikipedia-definition-the-future_featured-image
pwc_experience-centre_hong-kong_featured-image
12919894_10154847711668475_3893080213398294388_n
kenneth_ning_emarsys_featured-image
<