SXSW 2012: Customer Service Goes Social

For the past 17 years, Austin, TX has been the home of the SXSW Interactive Festival. When we launched it in 1995, it was about web pages and document publishing. By 1997 it was about the changes that would wreak havoc with the music industry, not at all insignificant given the festival’s close association with its older sibling, the SXSW Music Festival. Soon after came the influence of cyber lifestyle discussions and the general trend toward an increasingly digital existence. In the early to mid -2000s, the interactive festival continued to grow as the “dot comers” came, and went, and then came back.

In 2005 a transformation occurred. Call it SXSWi 2.0 if you want, but it coincided with RSS and Google-based mashups. And the festival swung social. While that trend was happening everywhere, SXSW and Austin – the festival’s host city – were different from other locales. Austin possesses the raw ingredients that fueled the adoption of social technology citywide. As a result, the rise of social as the “interactive” technology du jour reshaped the festival itself. The transformation fused the technology, the show, and the city of Austin into a single entity for about a week each year since. Walking around Austin with SXSW 2012 in full swing, the wired city of the future is visible everywhere.

The impact on business is profound. Austin’s downtown is filled with consumers accurately described as “the sweet spot of mainstream brands” – 25 to 55 year olds, discretionary income, educated and looking to just do more. Nearly to a person, each had in her hand a smartphone that was guiding its owner, in real time, through the festival. Ratings, reviews, recommendations…all transformed by real-time updates, check-ins, and geo-tagged happenings into the digital mesh that powers SXSW. The festival, and the city around, is fully self-organizing.

Now imagine that instead of Austin and SXSW, that this was any city, on any day, or every city, every day. Imagine that your customers were this connected to their smartphones. Actually, many are already – San Francisco, Seattle, and New York have looked more or less like this for years. Take one more step forward, and ask yourself: If this many people used their smartphone and their favorite social network to contact you, to let you know what they needed or what they loved about you, what would do? Want a real-life example? The Metro-North Railroad serves Connecticut and New York, and as you can imagine these are vocal riders. Passengers are commenting about perceived mechanical problems with new trains on the rail line, as you’d expect. In response, passengers have been advised that the railroad management may not be aware of these posts! The explanation from a group that serves as an advocate for passengers goes along this line: “You’ve gotta (formally) REPORT THIS STUFF!! Just posting on Facebook doesn’t let the railroad know there’s a problem.” It should.

At SXSW 2012, answers to questions like these are forming. Conversations around the scale of adoption and the difference between the needs of marketing and the needs of customer care circulated on several panels. WCG’s Bob Pearson connected PR and the need for enterprise-wide awareness of the long-term roadmaps that guide top brands. Issues at American Airlines, Lowe’s, and Zappos, for instanced, recently played out through the hundreds of thousands of comments pushed to the social web, influencing in real time the eventual outcomes. Lowe’s largely uncredible response to the fallout over its decisions around “All-American Muslim” and American Airlines’ statements around its choosing to file for bankruptcy were contrasted with Zappos’ solid, transparent, and proactive response to its data breach. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has millions of followers on Twitter – and was able to use this channel to quickly and effectively communicate. The digital mesh just soaks it up.

The social technology wave is now rushing toward the enterprise, with no signs of letting up. The scale is terrifying. Something like 90 percent of Facebook posts to business pages go unanswered. Ditto for Twitter, where the majority of customers’ questions are ignored. Now flash over to Austin: the sun is out and 20,000 ideal customers are walking around town using smartphones to decide what to do next based on what the people around them did last. If you can’t participate at scale, your brand is invisible.

My friend and colleague Andy Sernovitz has a new book out, “Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking.” My favorite quote from the book: “Don’t Advertise. Just Deliver.” That basic reality – what you do, more so than what you say you will do – translates into a socialized customer experience that will power the winning brands of the future. Skeptical? Lay the purchase funnel over the social web. What your customers say about their experience with you drives what prospects find in the consideration phase. Positive conversation means the social web is an amplifier. Negative means it’s a damper. Amplifiers are way better.

OK, so most brands, and probably rightly, would say “we make pretty good stuff, and we treat our customers pretty well. Our satisfaction surveys back this up.” That’s fine, but take a look at Net Promoter Score methodology: “Pretty good” doesn’t count. The Net Promoter methodology explicitly drops “pretty good” and considers only “exceptional” in relative comparison with “bad or worse.” For my money, steering a brand in a social age means asking and understanding the answer to exactly one question: “How likely are you to recommend me?” And rather than “Hmmm, I might,” the answer better be, “I definitely would.”

That question – how likely are you to recommend me – brings us full circle. If a customer is ignored on Twitter or Facebook, how likely will she be to recommend you? So if you can’t respond at scale, lots of customers are going to get ignored. That’s not good. If Austin is any indication of what the city of the future looks like, it’s time to gear up. The wave is coming, and it’s aiming at customer service. Take a tip from a Boy Scout: be prepared.

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