How to Make Customer Service Matter Again Part 1

Part 12 in a series introducing my new book, The End of Business as Usual…this series serves as the book’s prequel.

Over the years, customer service has been something of a paradox within the organization. The name itself inspires dedication to helping people. And while that is the intention of customer service professionals worldwide, customer service as a line item in business accounting has often placed it in the hands of outsourced organizations, under-qualified personnel, or in the hands of customers directly through self-service or automated technology. The mission of course is to improve profitability. It is what it is.

Perhaps it is the moniker of customer service that stifles innovation in philosophy, process and engagement. Perhaps it’s the conditioned nature of the overall role of customer service to be reactive, a gate keeper to negative experiences, or relegated to the outskirts of a business revolution. I suppose that’s the point however. We’re facing a revolution in consumer behavior which in turn triggers a revolution in business. From philosophy to mission and vision to processes and systems to goals and objectives, customer service is an opportunity to instill loyalty and also positively influence the decisions of others.

Here we are facing the end of business as usual and before us are two incredible opportunities for improving customer experiences and ultimately relationships, the democratization of media and connections and the executive decree to move businesses closer to customers. But before we jump in, we must rethink our approach and supporting infrastructure to not only meet the needs of customers, but also transform the organization to shape and steer them in advance of any impetus that would necessitate a response.

In 2011 American Express published its annual Global Customer Service Barometer to measure the current state of customer sentiment toward businesses.

At first glance, the study quickly noted that consumers believe that businesses are meeting expectations but not exceeding them. In a time when business as usual eventually inhibits growth, meeting expectations becomes a commodity. Creating exceptional experiences from here on out is priceless and will eventually become the minimum ante in business. Click on the images for an expanded view.

While certain companies are cutting costs on customer service or not exploring new opportunities for innovation, customers are demonstrating that now’s the time for transformation. People are willing to spend more for products from companies that have a history of good customer service or that deliver outstanding experiences.

People are frustrated with automated systems. They’re also not fond of the new trend in voice response systems that are now becoming industry standard. Would you be surprised if I told you that they just want to talk to another human being? As the numbers spotlight below, whether it’s on the phone, in real life, through instant messaging or social networks, one-on-one interaction will have a one-to-one-to-many result.

As social media becomes more pervasive in the lives of the everyday consumer, not just connected consumers, a new infrastructure will be required to support proactive engagement. For those sitting on the sidelines or casually experimenting with engagement, traditional methodologies and processes in social media will quickly be tested and almost instantly stretched.

Brands are No Longer Created, They’re Co-Created

The image above is a word cloud generated by the Tweets of customers who shared their experiences regarding @United (United Airlines). I removed the colorful language as this isn’t a discussion about United, but instead how customer experiences are shared and how they influence impressions and decisions. Additionally, this is an example of the necessary examination of how businesses are shaping and reacting to customer experiences in the midst of a digital revolution.

My point in sharing this with you today is that the two biggest words that standout clearly and represent the importance of our focus over the next several years are…CUSTOMER SERVICE. If you look closely enough, you’ll see two other words surrounding “customer service”, which I believe symbolize the importance of of a renewed or new customer focus, which center on…response and change.

Revisiting the American Express study for a moment, it’s clear that experiences impact brand perception and ultimately loyalty. Reacting to experiences is no longer good enough.

Not only does a negative experience reduce the overall satisfaction or perception of a brand, consumers are also willing to switch brands to get better customer service. The importance of customer acquisition is called into question when the value of  customer retention is not treasured or improved.

Connected customers will first take to social networks to ask for input as they consider decisions. Rather than rely on Google’s machine algorithm, the feedback that individuals receive in their networks of preference is qualified, trusted and human–basically these exchanges create a searchable and effective human algorithm. Needless to say, it is the experiences of those to whom I trust that define my impressions and following actions. While a website or marketing material may say otherwise, the collective experiences that populate social networks and ultimately my stream, weigh significantly heavier during phases of consideration than company-generated adjectives or imagery.

Engagement and Empathy Creates Positive Experiences

Customer service is often viewed through a lens of “us vs. them.” Businesses have built an incredibly expensive infrastructure to support customers when they need help while keeping them at arm’s length. However, connected customers have given up on these aging systems and are pushing for a more personalized form of engagement. Expressing discontent on social networks necessitates a response from the affected brand and without a response, those experiences further dilute the customer relationship and also taint impressions of those to whom hopeful customers are connected. Also, expressions open the door to competition.

In a study published by Maritz Research and evolve24 in September 2011, just under 1,300 consumers were asked about their experiences with Twitter and customer service. As the respondents’ ages increased, so did their expectations that companies would read and respond to their experiences.

Imagine for a moment, that as a connected consumer, you try using Twitter to get a response that could solve a problem or retain you as a customer only to feel disappointment in the absence of a response. That’s exactly what happened to the respondents of the survey. Just over 70% said that they did not hear from the company as a result of their Tweet. This sets up a bigger problem if the company is in fact on Twitter. It tells the consumer that their experience is unimportant and that the business is only present in social networks to market or sell products and not provide help. Saying nothing to a customer with a problem says everything about how you value them.

Providing resolution is only one part of the value proposition. Engagement as I’ve defined, is the interaction between a brand and a consumer. But it is in how it’s measured that counts.

No, engagement isn’t measured by Likes, comments, impressions, Tweets or Retweets. Engagement is measured by the takeaway value, sentiment and resulting actions following the exchange. People said that they felt better once they were contacted by a company representative on Twitter. That says everything…

In the end, transformation isn’t easy, but if it were, then providing exceptional customer experiences would become a commodity. This is a time when customers can work for you not just against you. And as customers are demonstrating every day in social and mobile networks, without a thoughtful approach or engagement, every Tweet, update, post, video and interaction is working against you right now. Customer relationships are to be shaped, not simply reacted to or  managed. This is why your role within the organization matters now more than ever.

Become the change you wish to see…

Order The End of Business as Usual today…

Part 1 – Digital Darwinism, Who’s Next
Part 2
– Social Media’s Impending Flood of Customer Unlikes and Unfollows
Part 3
– Social Media Customer Service is a Failure!
Part 4
– I think we need some time apart, it’s not me, it’s you
Part 5
– We are the 5th P: People
Part 6
– The State of Social Media 2011: Social is the new normal
Part 7
– I like you, but not in that way
Part 8
– Are You Building a Social Brand or a Social Business?
Part 9
– CMO’s are at the Crossroads of Customer Transactions and Engagement
Part 10
– From Social Commerce to Syndicated Commerce
Part 11
– You can’t go back to create a new beginning, but you can begin to change the ending

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  • http://www.masterpapers.com custom essay

    Interesting statistic!)

  • http://easysocialmediamanagement.com Lauren McMullen

    Your statement “People are willing to spend more for products from companies that have a history of good customer service or that deliver outstanding experiences” is so true. I purchased my first MacBook entirely because of the crappy customer service I had received at the hands of my PC. I paid a lot more and was happy to do it to get North American based support. The support for my PC computer was based in India and the language barrier was just to difficult to deal with.
    I have never regretted that decision either because Apple continues to provide me with incredible service both online and in person at their stores.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the impact the customer experience, positive or negative, has on brand and willingness to spend.  We recently commissioned Echo Research surveyed 1000 smartphone users on their experiences with their communications service providers.  Two thirds of those who received a consistently positive experience stated they would spend more money, not switch providers and recommend their provider to others.  Conversely, over half of the respondents stated they would consider switching a provider after 2-3 bad service experiences.
     
    Regarding your comment on interaction channel, what learned was that it really depends on what the user was trying to accomplish. Live agents were preferred for more complex interactions whereas self service methods were preferred for most billing, service and promotion issues. 
     
    Finally, we discovered the growing interest in mobile apps for customer care, not surprising as smartphones adoption has reached 40% in many countries.  Key here is that any such mobile apps must be intuitive and make life easier for the user by opening access to information previously unavailable to them.

  • Pedro Perez-Ortiz

    Dear Brian :  I’ve just read your article “Laws of Consumer Affinity in the Digital Age” published in the Free Distributed Newspaper METRO in New York City where I have lived since 1970. I am interested in your Nine Laws of Consumer Affinity AKA Laws of Affinity and Attractions. I want to know if the terminology in your article such as connected consumer, etc. is in your book ENGAGEMENT or should I look for a consumer behavior dictionary. I have not seen your books , but I have it in my schedule. Thank-you. Pedro Perez-Ortiz 

  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/ davinabrewer

    Since Lauren already gave to Apple example, I’ll ad Disney as a brand people pay a premium for, in exchange for what they feel is a better product w/ superior support. The few times I’ve called out brands in tweets, the ones not ignored resulted in ‘sorry, can’t help, but we hear you’ replies. Which does make me feel better, but only if they actually listen and use it. And since I can count on one hand the times I’ve gotten help via voice, automated support I don’t think they are.

    And while I agree that engagement is way more than likes and replies, sentiment and action matter.. it’s results that most consumers want. Engagement and relationships take time, something not everyone will give; results, solution, help – that’s what a lot of consumers want as quickly, cheaply, painlessly as possible. No matter what, I think more people will turn to social networks to complain about or to brands for customer support, so yes change is a coming. FWIW.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Davina, absolutely…love it…”change is a coming!”

  • http://twitter.com/DennisAtKombea Dennis Adsit

    Brian,

    So true.  You have to be 1-1 with your customers and that 1-1 interaction has to be timely, empathetic and accurate.  You highlight here how organizations are not monitoring their social media channels as well as they could.  Empathy is talked about on every customer service blog around the world and companies are improving, but empathy is something there will probably never be enough of.

    Few however talk about accuracy.  It is a simple question, but is the call correct?  Was the problem diagnosed in the right way?  Were the proper consumer disclosures read?  Did we do the right things so the customer is clear and comfortable and has no need to call back?    

    Few even bother to measure something that you think would be absolutely essential.  Ask a call center leader for the Required Call Component performance by call type and by agent for the most important call drivers.  Ask them the RCC performance for their center is continuously improving.  I’ll eat my hat if they have any charts like this and if they aren’t measuring it, it is a pretty safe bet RCC performance is not continuously improving or any where near 100%.

    That they don’t measure this is bad enough.  That they don’t have any way of ensuring the call is done correctly and instead are forced to rely on coaching and hoping is a big contributor to the poor service experience customers have and, as you point out here, the brand damage that results.

    Contact center outputs are completely dependent on the performance of the oh-so-fallible human agents.  Unaided human performance can never produce error-free quality.  They know this in manufacturing.  That is why they support the workers with automation.  But call centers have a limiting, either/or mentality.  Either the call is automated (IVR…accurate, but not flexible or empathetic) or the call is handled by an agent (flexible and empathetic, but not always accurate).

    This dilemma is no Gordian Knot.  The stone-simple solution is to support the agent with automation so that the critical elements of the call…disclosures, best practices, critical diagnostic questions, secure credit card processing…are done correctly, every time.  It not only is better for customers and shareholders, the agents welcome the support as it reduces their stress by not having to worry about remembering so much.

    While we are getting better at monitoring and responding to all the new customer contact channels and while we are hiring for and building the empathy skills of our agents, let’s steal a page from manufacturing and leverage simple automation to make sure the calls are being handled the way we want them to be and the way our customers need them to be.

    Dennis Adsit

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Dennis, this comment is worthy of a post…I just shared your words across every network!

  • yang

    I quite agree with your idea
    that “people are willing to spend more for products from companies that have a
    history of good customer service or that deliver outstanding experiences”.
    That is exactly what I do. Customer service is one big factor I concern when I buy
    something, especially for electronics. And I think companies should pay more
    attention to customers’ complaints on their products on social media, such as
    Facebook and Twitter. Not only monitoring these complaints, but also replying them.
    By the way, I really hate voice response systems. I think it really
    wastes customers’ time and makes them uncomfortable. It need change. 

  • http://twitter.com/utahnewsclips Todd Murphy

    Co-creating your brand is a great way to put it. Brand name promotion is best served by your happy customers. This is fundamental and falls under the #samerules of the past. The #newtools of social media simply amplify the impact of this objective, 3rd party endorsement. Having a user or consumer rave about your service, publicly, is the holy grail for marketing. The research shows users trust the opinions of their peers over the media…by a large margin. Melding the two modes together, user testimonials AND the media makes for a great combination. Thanks for the great information on this topic. http://samerulesnewtools.com

  • http://www.evolve24.com Eric Levy

    I hope this doesn’t surprise any company that depends on customer service to deliver on their brand promise.  After the AT&T/ Apple iPhone coverage bars debacle, it became pretty clear that AT&T was able to manage their negative press by reaching out quickly and effectively to people who Tweeted or blogged complaints about coverage.  Importantly, the research suggests that those with the greatest expectations for companies to respond within the CGM channels are otherwise “brand assassins” who have the influence and savvy to trash a company in public with aplomb.

    Hopefully more companies will employ tools like evolve24′s The Mirror to not just see and respond to CGM about their firms, but will actively manage their reputations by seeing how consumer conversations influence their brand.  If ever there was a watershed moment in social media, it happened just a little while ago, when most companies woke up and realized they don’t control their brands — customers do.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Eric…well said. And, thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts. Keep me in the loop!

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  • http://twitter.com/RepEliseHall Elise Hall

    Brian, thanks for the reminder to make customer service a focus of business.  I feel as if so often we forget that customer service is a key part of our businesses making a profit. 

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Thank you Elise…

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    Great stuff over here, I just glad to used your site, This provided me with some really great inspiration.

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  • Brynne

    Obviously some of these commercials were serious weak
    sauce, but think of it this way: they were bad enough for people to start
    talking about. I foresee this BlackFriday/CyberMonday event prompting TV
    commercials from advertisers on the scale of Super Bowl Sunday. The operative
    part of this advertising event is that commercials get posted to YouTube where
    curious viewers watch online for free, repeatedly and endlessly.

  • Brynne

    So if social media is the new platform for customer service
    management, signing up for a job in social media is not exactly what I was
    looking for when I said I specialize in PR.

    I get that social media is convenient communication, but
    let’s just hope my organization employs people to deal with specific inquiries
    and don’t depend on our social media to respond to their individual concerns.
    Social media is PR, and customer service and PR are separate departments, as of
    yet.

  • http://twitter.com/Prospectrs Travis Piepho

    One-to-One Service. I believe that personal customer service is required in creating a strong, happy customer base.

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  • http://www.eBizROI.com Rick Noel, eBiz ROI, Inc.

    Awesome article and supporting data Chris. Large brands can’t hide from customers on Twitter and if they try, the silence just amplifies any unmonitored negativity. Since G+ is gaining traction and based on your comment “the feedback that individuals receive in their networks of preference is qualified, trusted and human–basically these exchanges create a searchable and effective human algorithm” and how that relates to the latest Google Search, Plus Your World update, it will be interesting to see if/when G+ totally trumps twitter as the customer service social platform of choice. Thanks for sharing!

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  • http://www.wholesaletrampolineparts.com/ Bryan

    customer service is an opportunity to instill loyalty and also positively influence the decisions of others.

ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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