Social media has offered companies a way to communicate with customers that was previously not possible. If you hadn’t noticed, your customers have noticed this trend also. Customer expectations have changed significantly in the last five years. Customers now have higher expectations about how companies will market and sell products & services and also how customers are serviced and valued by the companies they do business with. This can mean providing customer service and support in places it may not already exist, across social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, and across mobile or tablet devices. Gone are the days when a company could build out a call center to handle customer service via 1-800 number and keep customers satisfied.

Why does this matter? For starters, customers that have a good customer service experience are likely to purchase again, according to a recent study from eMarketer on Best Practices for Building Loyalty in Customer Service Experiences. There is no rocket science here, if companies are able to meet customer expectations, and provide satisfactory outcomes during customer service experiences, they will remain loyal to that brand. The second reason it’s critical to deliver on customer expectations during a service experience is also nothing new, word of mouth. Both satisfied and unsatisfied customers tell other people about their experiences, positive and negative. According to the 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer study conducted by American Express, customers that feel like they have a good customer service experience with the brand tell an average of 15 other people. However, those customers that are disappointed with the customer experience with the brand will go on tell an average of 24 other people. Given the hyper-connectivity of your customers (150+ million Twitter users and over one billion Facebook users), you can quickly see how a negative experience can damage your brand. There is more in the book on social customer service, and leveraging data to improve customer service. Stay tuned…

That is all helpful background, but what’s the point? Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago. What happened a couple of weekends ago? Ah, yes, the weekend of February 2nd and 3rd, which is also known as Super Bowl weekend. Super Bowl weekend is the weekend where people across America get together, have some good eats (and drink) and enjoy the big game. It also is one of the busiest weekends for the television manufacturers. Yours truly, not excluded.

On that Saturday I went to the local Best Buy with the intent to buy a new television. After much debate I ended up purchasing a new Samsung 55″ LED display. I loved everything about the picture in the store, and had numerous friends recommend Samsung as an excellent television. I got the television home, set it up and started watching. No problem, right? Well, not until the next morning. For some reason, the television on the second day started turning itself off and on. I couldn’t figure out what happened. I spoke to Samsung Technical Support via the 1-800 number, and it still wouldn’t stop. Naturally I was frustrated that I just spent a significant amount of money on a new television and it wasn’t working. What did I do? Turn to Twitter, of course.

What happened next is where the story really gets good. Jess Kalbarczyk, one of the Samsung Online Customer Support leads reached out (via my good friend, Stephanie Wonderlin) and asked if there was anything she could do to help. Mind you, this was less than an hour after my initial tweet AND on a Sunday. I expressed my frustration with the product and told Jess that I was going out of town that Thursday, and needed the television fixed by Wednesday otherwise I would be returning it for a different model. Jess, and the Samsung Support team got to work very early on Monday morning. The service center called me and diagnosed the problem in a 5 minute phone call, and then ordered the new part. Tuesday afternoon the service center called and scheduled an appointment for Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday afternoon a technician came out and fixed the problem in less than 20 minutes. All of this took place as Jess and her team were constantly following up with me via Twitter, email and phone on the progress behind the scenes. It was an incredible experience delivered by Jess and team.

What can you learn from this if you are planning a social media customer service effort?

  • Your company is always “on” – Forgive the pun given my television’s issues, but if you are truly serious about social media customer service you have to be always on. Sure, you can set hours, and many brands do. But, you should be prepared to handle off-hours requests as they come in. Jess reached out to me via her personal channel, but she still identified herself as someone from Samsung Customer Support.
  • Contact/Resolution must come quickly – If Jess and the team would have waited until “normal business hours” to respond they would have lost a sale. That isn’t being dramatic. That is just the fact. Her initial contact to me was within an hour of my initial complaint. Samsung successfully diagnosed the problem, ordered a part and had it installed in about 48 hours. If you are going to embark on a social media customer service program you had better be ready to respond in very short order.
  • Same customer service rules apply – Just because I voiced my frustration on Twitter does not mean the Samsung team can be cavalier about my experience. It is an informal media, but I am still the customer and they are still the company who sold it to me. Ensuring that the proper respect is given (on both sides) is essential
  • Measurement is still important – One of the things I loved most (shocking, I know) is that the Samsung Customer Support team shared a brief, three question survey to measure its performance. Anecdotal feedback, like this blog post, are not enough. Teams like this should be able to demonstrate value through positive customer satisfaction scores.

I am not overstating it to say that the Samsung Support Team saved a sale. In a couple of hours of work, Jess and the team saved a $1,000 sale. It seems to me that is a pretty positive return on Samsung’s investment.

For more than a decade now, I’ve been on the agency side of dozens of client relationships. It’s a position that I know well. Client service is a big part of why WCG been able to grow so steadily over the past decade. I live for my clients in ways that are borderline obsessive, and I like to think that with @WeissWord and others, I have helped define what “client engagement” really means in health care. Over the years, I’ve been a strategic partner, a passionate advocate and a sounding board.

What I haven’t been, however, is  a “client.” Until this month.

Last week, we put our sweet but small house on the market as our family’s needs finally outgrew our space.  In the process, we met with four listing realtors and listened to four surprisingly unique pitches.

The first was Geek-Out Laptop Guy. He spoke to his computer the whole time, and pelted us with random, seemingly inconsequential data points (“200 hits on!” “452 websites pick up the listing!”)  Then came We-Are-the-Biggest-and-Broadest, “we even have affiliates in Europe”( that we surely will never need). Followed quickly by Benefit-From-My-Sage-Wisdom-and-Seniority.  The last was Mr. We-Know-Your-Market.

The truth is they were all good stories and we listened with interest.  As they spoke, I thought about all the pitches and client meetings I have been in over the last several years: WCG has, at one point or another, struck all of these positionings in our pitches.

Who did we go with? Actually the positioning and marketing pitch didn’t really matter much.  We chose the person most committed to having a true partnership with us.  Although he certainly satisfied the table stakes and knew what he was doing, he wasn’t the deepest in our market or the most seasoned. But he seemed to welcome the fact that we were well-educated and had strong points of view.  He understood that since it is our home, we might know a thing or two about it. And he seemed like he could keep up with our information-hungry personalities.

And our hunch has proved right: he’s creative, capable and uber-responsive.  He takes our feedback but pushes back or guides us when he feels we’re missing things from his expert perspective. And he responds to my emails in 30 seconds.

After all these years, I’ve learned an old lesson once again. When it comes to hiring realtors – or communications agencies  — knowing what you are doing is table stakes. Firm positioning is somewhat interesting.  But finding a partner you can really see yourself working with for a long time – that’s priceless.  As we agency folks spend more time than we care to admit defining our “positioning,” we should remember it’s really not what matters.  Clients care about working with the people who will  sell their house, product or corporate story like it is their own and forge an honest, and passionate bond that is as critical as any of the other big partnerships in life.

I’m thrilled that our agency has a Client Partner mindset  at our core. We focus on developing people who take partnership to the next level. Not only does it win the pitch – but it makes the journey so much more rewarding all around.

PS – if you know anyone looking for a “Charming Tudor Updated for Modern Life” in Bronxville, NY – have ‘em give me a call.

Jim Edwards weighed in today on how Novartis has been paying bloggers to post nice things about their new iPhone app.  Edwards was less than favorable of both the app and the campaign, saying of the app, “It’s a good thing this app is free, because it’s terrible,” and regarding the campaign, “Standards for brands may be high, but standards for blog posts are low”.  Edwards has a point – Novartis is just one of many companies to be publicly flogged for their use of “sponsored posts” through companies like IZEA or MomTrends.

What many companies (and their agencies) are discovering is that influencer relations in social media is difficult – and very different from traditional PR.  Online influencers like bloggers, forum posters, and Twitterers need to be approached in different ways, with a different tone, length, and purpose to your outreach.  You can’t “pitch” online influencers, for example.  You can only alert them to relevant news/updates and hope they find it interesting enough to share with their audience.  If you’ve done your job right, then you should have selected influencers who are naturally interested in the topic, and alerted them to relevant news.  As long as you’ve done so, voila! you’ll find they start talking about your brand.

Not only does paying for sponsored posts lead to a tisk-tisking from the blogosphere, as Edwards also points out, often times the posts are of very low quality and uncompelling.  Many bloggers are happy to write about a product in exchange for money, even when they’ve never used the product.  Their endorsement in these cases falls flat and fails to convince their readers.

I’m not saying that companies should not be ponying up cash if they want to reach people in social media.  Integration between influencer relations and the media/advertising house is essential to building relationships and reaching people over time.  However, as with those dinosaur publications like the NY Times, there needs to be a line between editorial and advertising.  The line may be shifting and the engagement changing in nature, but simply paying someone for an insincere endorsement is never going to be the answer.

Wanted to share a very interesting and eye opening day I had.

A client of ours held a “Brand Summit” where all the agencies were asked to come in to discuss how to best align marketing, communication and branding efforts into one platform.

When I first heard about the fact that, indeed, what I perceived as my rivals and I would all be in the same room together, I immediately went into full blown “ego” mode.  There was no way the rooster in me was going to sit quietly.  The initial thought was I needed to come in demonstrate how smart we are, show all our successes to date and strive for global agency dominance.  This was not to be the case.

I came to find out that one of the agencies was a part of the WCG web and currently engaged in partnership with us on several pieces of business.  We set up a call prior to the meeting to discuss the state of the state on both sides.  It was instant chemistry.  I started the call by saying that we need to do this for “our” client, not for us.  If we showed a united front with only the client’s best interest in mind it could prove a win/win for us both.  By making it about the client it almost instantly brought a certain sense of purpose to this odd encounter and both of us left the call enthusiastically optimistic about what a potential outcome would look like.

The day began with the moderator the client hired (ring leader, cage match ref, judge… whatever) reading the phrase from a large poster, “FOR THE GOOD OF (CLIENT NAME)”. It was grounding, direct, and uniting. We spent the next six hours sharing ideas, discussing strategies, evaluating tactics, agreeing, disagreeing, laughing and ultimately coming to a consensus. We all shared one thing in common, DELIVERING the very best possible experience for our customers. We agreed that both the physician and the patient deserve to have the most relevant information at their disposal in order to make, what was in this case, a life changing clinical decision. It was up to us to insure this message was reaching them all. Regardless of the channel, we must have a united way of speaking as it is the ONLY way a true conversation continuum can ever be successful. Simply put, when patients see an ad, read some editorial or learn something online, and then walk into a doctor’s office, they better damn well be hearing the same thing. In other words –no light between the messaging.  Many companies approach marketing in silos when there should essentially only be one conversation. Ultimately, it’s the channel that changes not the conversation platform. Because individuals do check to see what others are talking about, especially online, companies should work to insure conversations with their respective audiences utilize “one voice.”

“Enlightening” is the only word that comes to mind in describing the day in review. On many fronts it was eye opening to witness that even in 2010, many communicators view themselves as tacticians not creative thinkers. Many are afraid of change because that means letting go of the old. In doing so, it also means what got them here may not get them there. When the momentum in the room slowed or changed it was always for one reason –someone made it about themselves and that’s when fear crept back in. When it was redirected to the “objective” it suddenly became freeing to imagine what was possible because the current state was replaced by the desired state. We focused on solutions, not problems, resulting in the agencies agreeing to develop one brand/messaging platform, focus on programs not campaigns, develop a true push-pull strategy, focus on brand not branding, create a clear open dialog and, yes, even have some fun doing it together. Imagine that!  Our client and the moderator were blown away at the level of positive engagement we all demonstrated. They were more than complimentary, they said it was exemplary. And it was truly exemplary of the client to bring us all together in the first place!

We all have a lot to learn from each other, if we are open minded, check our egos at the door and are willing to be a little uncomfortable doing it for the first time. Clients are seeking leadership from individuals and agency partners that think creatively and provide impactful solutions that can change their business. This applies to every one of us. Remember that creative is very different than thinking creatively. It lies within each of us, ready to be tapped when we look for answers to complex or even simple problems. I went from “let’s take them down” to “let’s do what’s right,” because I was willing to be a little uncomfortable with the outcome.  Next time you’re in a meeting think to yourself, “do I want to be right or do I want to be effective.”

Make it about the customer, put your passion behind the experience and watch the change happen.

Go. Ahead.

Companies start their social media outreach for a number of reasons and from a number of starting points: PR, sales, marketing, corporate comms, HR, IT. Whatever the reason they started their social media channels, they quickly realize that the discussion branches out into just about every area that the business covers.

The key is to plan ahead for that. It may have been the case that a shoe company started a Twitter profile to talk about their corporate and social responsibility, but the conversation then turns to color offerings or return policies or shipping or coupons. The tide of social media conversation is an unstoppable force, so don’t try to fight it. You have to go with the flow but be prepared for it. Don’t be naive to think you can truly steer the conversation to your liking. As best, you can nudge it in a certain direction … for a time.

One area that companies often don’t consider when starting their YouTube channel or Twitter profile or blog is customer service. Inevitably, customers will find a way to reach a company to voice their complaints. A company may have a 1-800 number, a ‘Contact Us’ form on their site, or even a live Web chat, but when they truly want to voice their complaints, they’ll turn to social media. Just look at @comcastcares. Comcast realized that frustrated customers were taking to Twitter in droves, and they got there to listen and to respond.

As the head of marketing, or human resources, or IT, you might think that customer service “isn’t my area,” but it is, inasmuch as it is the company’s responsibility. If you’re in charge of your company’s social media channel, there is no area that isn’t now your responsibility. Your customers will just see COMPANY NAME on the Facebook page and think that it’s a way to reach your company with questions — any questions. Customers don’t make distinctions like CSR, PR, IT, internal comms, etc. They just want answers. And with (very public) customer service complaints on social media, it’s even more important to resolve them.

The advice I’ve always given when it comes to customer complaints on social media is “publicly acknowledge, privately address.” What that means is that you should respond to the complaint in the same open forum in which it started but then resolve it privately. Some other considerations:

  • Respond quickly. Time is of the essence when it comes to responding to issues in social media. For one, you don’t want other customers piling on and starting a conversation thread that “you suck.” Second, responding quickly shows that you are, in fact, on top of social media and that you’re listening.
  • Acknowledge the complainant. When responding, do not issue a blanket statement that could have been pulled from a press release. It’s a person doing the complaining, so talk to them like they’re a person. Address them by name. Be human.
  • Don’t (necessarily) apologize. I learned long ago that there’s a difference between saying “I’m sorry” and saying “I apologize.” For former implies sympathy, while the latter accepts responsibility. When someone complains about a service issue or a bad product experience, you have no idea if it’s true or that it happened in the way the customer explained. You should express concern for the situation while not accepting responsibility, unless you know that it is true. For example, someone complaining about a known product defect is not arguable. Instantly admitting fault could show up in court documents later, if it came to that.
  • Request their info. In the public social media response, tell them that someone will be in touch with them. Then, if you can get in touch with them directly (Direct Message, Facebook mail, etc.), then ask them for their contact information (phone, e-mail) so that you can privately address the situation.
  • Listen. The customer who complained obviously had a reason for doing so. It may be warranted or completely unfounded, but they still have their reasons. You have to hear them out no matter how erratic they may seem. I’m convinced that 51% of customer service is simply saying “I hear you.”
  • Resolve it. This sort of goes without saying, but the other 49% of customer service is actually resolving the issue. Whatever you do, do not respond that you’ll look into the issue and then never get back to the person. That can (and probably will) make the situation worse, since you not only didn’t fix the problem, but now, you’ve created another one by ignoring the customer.
  • Close the book. When the customer service issue has been resolved, you can go back to the comment thread and say as much. Better yet, kindly ask the customer, where appropriate, if they can comment about how their issue was resolved.

Before customer complaints start finding their way into your social media channels (and they will), you need to have a plan in place on how to address them. Who will they be sent to internally? How will they be tracked? Who will respond?

These are areas that may not be part of your job description, but when you oversee your company’s social media outlets, they all become your responsibility. Develop a plan to deal with that.

Yep…uh huh…right….click, click, click….no, I’m listening…seriously, I’m listening….click, click, click…what? Can you say that again?

Sound familiar? It’s the cadence of corporate life these days……we are half-listening, which in my view, is not listening at all.

Strategic listening is becoming a competitive advantage for companies. And for those who truly listen, they are realizing that it is not as simple as it sounds. When done well, it becomes incredibly powerful – it is the cornerstone of your online strategy.

The reason is that strategic listening involves a number of variables. It’s the nuances of listening that lead to the breakthroughs. Conversations provide clues that three-ring binders never could compete with. Leaders talk about where conversations occur, who has influence and which words are most powerful. They are developing their own knowledge base that only gets stronger with time. Followers are still talking in conference rooms looking at slides with pie charts and using group-think to debate what may be happening.

It’s time to look at the “walk” as well as the “talk” in listening.

Here are 7 important areas in strategic listening.

#1 – Location, Location, Location – remember the old adage that the three most important factors in buying a home are location, location and location? Same with conversations. Know where your customers hang.

#2 – Share of Conversation – throw away the slides showing positive, negative and neutral comments. When data makes you guess what is happening, you don’t have data, you have just “collected noise”. Leaders know exactly who is driving share of conversation for their brand….with precision….they know what is happening behind the pie charts, graphs and tables…..they don’t guess.

#3 – Customer Expressions of Faith & Concern – they are equally important. When a customer takes time to tell you what they think, either via a rating and review or a complaint or by answering a question, they are giving you a view into their way of thinking. What do your most active customers actually care about and how is it trending? Is your knowledge real-time or is it based on data that is months old? Do you know exactly?

#4 – Ideas – customers like to do three things…share ideas, share product knowledge and provide each other with solutions to problems. Customers can’t wait to provide you with their best intellectual capital. All you have to do is grant permission by asking them in an idea site or on the phone when they call technical support. Let your customers loose and watch what happens.

#5 – The New Language – leaders know the exact words their customers use when they are talking online. They don’t think in terms of keyword dictionary spreadsheets. They think about the language of the customer. Search is about customers using their language to find what they want. Too often, our search strategies actually don’t reflect the prioritization of the customer’s words of choice. Pretty amazing to me.

#6 – What’s Bothering Me – many companies hope to avoid calls with complaints, but, in reality, you can learn so much. Imperfect companies improve immensely by listening, learning and sharing what they are being told…..right away. And we all know there are no perfect companies..yet.

#7 – How Customers Learn – now that you are listening to your customers, you develop an understanding about how they like to learn. For example, maybe it really does make sense to start telling your story via video. Or a certain group of customers would prefer to only receive information via their smart phone. Do you know how they like to learn? Or how you want them to learn?

When you become a strategic listener, the world opens up along with opportunities for your brands. What was that? Huh? Click, click, click…just a second….yep, be there in a minute…huh?

Push out the noise in your corporate life… never was helpful to begin with……make the customer your learning center every day. Just make it happen….

Enjoy, Bob

If you work at a company, think about how many customers you have worldwide.  It’s probably a lot.

Then realize that the average company interacts with less than 10% of its customer base each year.  Said another way, the average company does not communicate with more than 90% of its customer base each year.  And, the 10% who are calling or inquiring are often dissatisfied, which prompts the call.

Why is this happening?  Well, it’s simple.  We like to hang on to old models until they don’t work effectively……and then hold on even longer in hopes that we might be wrong…….and then wait to see what our peers are doing before we dare make a move to transform a model.

The current technical support model relies on people calling us by phone or inquiring via email.  In other words, if you  can find us online or you have enough patience to wait online on the phone, it is possible you might get helped.  It’s also possible you might just waste your time.

I have tremendous respect for people who work in technical support.  They are on the front lines everyday with the customer and, in many respects, no one has more impact or more knowledge of the customer.  Many are heroes and I’ve found they deeply care about the customer.

However, the model they are forced to work under is often what I call a dinosaur model.  It’s time for  its extinction.

Here’s why.

When customers are looking for answers, they generally do one of four things.  They utilize search to find an answer online.  They go to a specific Q&A area online like Yahoo! Answers.  They check out their favorite forum for answers.  Or they ask their peers for advice in their own community.

They increasingly do not call a company unless they have exhausted their options.

We live in an age of self-sufficiency due to the increasing capabilities of the web.  Customers will  find their own answers without us.  They would prefer to ask their peers, who they believe to be completely unbiased.

The answer is simple.  Unleash the passion and expertise of today’s technical support team at your company.  Reverse the technical support model and spend the majority of the day providing answers online for your customers.  Participate in forums, answer questions on Yahoo! Answers, understand where your customers go for information via search and ensure you  are on that first screen.  Tell your own friends how to get info on your Facebook page.  And then, when the phone rings, answer it, but be prepared to let your caller know where they can go for  information in the future.  Become part of the longer term solution to encourage self-sufficiency.

The result will be the best customer experience ever experienced by your customers.  They will be amazed and appreciative at how they can get help without calling or  inquiring.  You save both time and money.  And, if  you do a great job online, the word of mouth will quickly travel offline.

All it takes is courage to change your model.  Courage and a dash of innovation.

All the best, Bob Pearson