Social CRM: Customer Service for the Next Generation

Wow! Last week’s SXSW 2011 saw 19,000 paid registrants, the show’s largest attendance yet. This year’s show was especially moving for me because as I presented my latest book, “Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement” with co-author Jake McKee, I had a déjà-vu moment: I realized that the standing-room-only Texas Ballroom at the Hyatt was the same room that I had presented in for the first-ever SXSW Interactive festival…in 1995! I am so appreciative for the show, for what it means to Austin, TX, and for all that SXSW has meant for me.

Over the years, the show has evolved from multimedia to online culture to interactive – and now to social technology, arguably the defining theme of both the show and Austin. Panels this year included cultural examinations, technology discussions, and a focus on mobile, the global Tech Summit, and a healthy dose of marketing and PR-driven social customer relationship management (CRM). I say “marketing and PR-driven” because, for the most part, that’s still the orientation of most social media programs, even those with visibility into the customer service processes. One panel, “The Hero Inside: Invisible Customer Support,” described itself like this: “In a customer support world, changing the mind set from successful support calls to measuring ‘time to happy’ can be an empowering and innovative proposition.” The panel featured USA Today’s Jon Swartz, Microsoft’s Toby Richards, former Forrester analyst Bruce Temkin, now the head of research firm The Temkin Group, and Kimarie Matthews of Wells Fargo.

The panel set out to explore customer service and the impact of satisfaction metrics versus productivity metrics, a theme that the team at Zappos would surely recognize. Jon Swartz started off with a story about Frontier Airlines: for whatever reason, his flight to Austin was significantly delayed. Hey, it happens, right? So Jon took to Twitter only after trying Frontier’s phone-based support (“Your estimated wait time is 20 minutes…”). Frontier’s social team responded quickly, and offered to rebook him on a competing flight, pick up those expenses, and refund his original ticket. But this isn’t what the ensuing conversation in the session was about, and there is an important lesson here: the conversation, lead initially from the floor by a show attendee, was “Great for you Jon, but would Frontier have done that if it weren’t for the fact that you’re a reporter for USA Today?”

Many people in the audience thought the arrangement should have been proactively extended to all disaffected passengers. Panelist Bruce Temkin, on the other hand, noted correctly that “Not all customers are equal,” a point that clearly resonated with some people. Across all industries there’s a need to protect your best customers, though the social Web is changing the definition of “best customers.” There is also the argument, from what I hear, that goes like this: “For all those of the mindset that Twitter is a bunch of pointless trivia and those using it should get a life,” take note: real people solve real problems using Twitter when conventional channels fail. For them, Twitter is not trivial: they are using it to make their “real life” better.

The challenges of social media and customer service came up. Whether you call it an “informed care” team or social CRM, the point is still the same: How customers resolve issues is important to brand reputation, and, is (now) inextricably tied into the conversation on the social Web. Kimarie Matthews stressed the importance of maintaining control over one’s service centers. “We’d never outsource that!” she said.

As with all things social, however, actual practice is never that simple: Googling “Wells Fargo Customer Service” I was surprised to see the results listed at for the bank: on a 10-point scale with 0 representing the worst, issue resolution was rated 1.5; friendliness was 2.6; and product knowledge was 2.1. The site noted 247 negative comments versus 13 positive, with three employee comments, two of which were highly negative. Recognize that sites like are probably predisposed to complainers – but recognize as well that the Net Promoter Score groups “0 through 6” as “detractors” versus only nines and tens as “promoters” in recognition of the well-established and disparate impact of complainers versus advocates. Clearly, there is more to the story than any single number or ratings site, though overall, the site’s range of scores across brands looked about right: Zappos ranked supreme, scoring 197 out of a possible 200 points while Facebook mopped up the rear: out of 1,813 total comments, 1,806 comments were negative with a resulting score of 14/200, considered “terrible” in the rating’s site scoring system.

Knowing how well Wells Fargo performs in its actual branches (I am not a customer, but have friends who rave about it), the real takeaway is an indication of how critical customer support satisfaction – call it “time to happy” – has become. Customer service is a defining touchpoint, and in fact one of the few remaining touchpoints not likely to be totally subsumed by technology. Customer service is still largely a human-to-human interaction, and getting it right really matters.

More than all of this, however, it was the remaining Wells Fargo employee comment that hit home for me. Paraphrased, it said “If you get connected to a rude Wells Fargo representative, hang up. Some people – as with any organization – are lazy and try to get by doing the minimum. Please do not apply that same label to all of us. I, for one, take pride in what I do, and go out of my way to get customer’s problems solved.” There in a single post is the best – and worst – of customer service. The best? An individual who takes the notion of “satisfaction” as a personal quest. The worst? That this person would be surrounded by people whose accepted level of performance is evidently lower; people protected by systems that measure “business” instead of “happiness.”

My heart goes out to this employee and all of similar character. I sincerely hope that he or she sees this column and stands up in his or her service unit and yells, “Yes, I wrote this, and yes, I feel this way, and absolutely, my goal is 100 percent customer satisfaction every time because that is what Wells Fargo stands for.” Then, it’s my hope that this same employee leads a drive for change with full management support – for change of processes, for change of tools, and for change of internal metrics (recall that this was the actual subject of this SXSW panel) so that this employee and others who feel similarly are able to energize every other CSR with this same spirit.

As business people, wherever we are in whatever firm or organization we work, let’s agree that customer service has become a defining touchpoint in building brand advocates. To this point, in my first book “Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day” I wrote about Beth Thomas Kim and her efforts at Nestlé where she took the phone support team and reinvented it as a high-touch engagement center back in 2003.To my friends at Continental and to Boingo’s service team and its PR manager Baochi Nguyen and the customer service people at who are wonderful to talk with…know that you are making a difference by building your brand through high-quality interactions that end up getting talked about – favorably – on the social Web. You and your organizations get it.

As you push forward in your social technology programs this year, consider three key actions:

  1. Formally recognize the impact of post-sale customer experiences on your sales-cycle and reputation measures. Customer service sits at the top of this list. Take a look at Bruce Temkin’s newest effort to bring satisfaction measurement to customer service at The Temkin Group.
  2. Get to know Esteban Kolsky, Paul Greenberg, and the team at The Social Customer. Smart stuff from smart people that you can use to build revenue.
  3. Implement your own cross-functional teams, as was done at Philips Consumer Electronics in The Netherlands. (Disclosure: Philips is a client.) Headed by Marketing Director Marco Roncaglio, the team at Philips includes sales, design, HR, and customer care, all working together to create excellent customer experiences.

Finally, get to know the people in your customer service organization. Take them to lunch. Invite them out for cocktails. Understand what drives them, and what it feels like to be held to measures of transactional productivity rather than measures that are more aligned with your own goals of customer satisfaction and the realization of a social Web you can grow with instead of lose sleep over. Instead of trying to get people with problems off the phone as soon as possible…let’s all aim for a shorter “time to happy,” and in so doing, hit our numbers.

Let’s make 2011 the year of customer service.

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