Why Customer Service in Social is not Fair

Trust Two weeks ago I had an issue with a large bank.

It's frustrating to be upgraded to a service you didn't request, don't want, value or need based upon a marketing campaign, and then have to take time and use energy to have it corrected.

While I could have used the banks' Twitter presence as a way to get the issue resolved fast, I decided to test the organization by going through normal customer service channels.

I'm still waiting for a communication that confirms our conversation. Needless to say, I won't be a customer for much longer.

Customer service is good brand management, just like contracts are marketing, just like how your people behave on the delivery floor are marketing, etc.

If your brilliant growth idea is to force customers to opt out, you will succeed, permanently.

Organizations with broken systems are also learning another important lesson — whether they have outposts in social networks or not, customers will take their issues online.

How long are you willing to go down the reactive route?

Fair vs. special in social

Because issues get amplified quickly online, many businesses are finding themselves in a vise — impact of presences in social networks depends on overall customer experience. Social outposts are a double-edged sword, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Depending on the organization's karma, not being there may not be an option anymore. However, being more responsive than through normal channels, "DM me your account and we'll take care of things", sets a bad precedent.

It sends the message that when all else fails, complaining publicly will get to a resolution, and it usually does. And because from experience all else has by and large failed for many with so many organization published customer service channels, people who can now skip those entirely.

Life is not fair, we all agree on that. However, the root cause of special vs. fair treatment online comes from deep organizational disconnects. Unless your business plans to use what it learns online as an opportunity to fix internal processes, social outposts will continue to be expensive lightning rods.

Expensive on two fronts:

  1. special customer treatment due to least effort and cost for customers to get their issue resolved, which is not sustainable for the business
  2. bad influence on the rest of the people watching what is happening, which is the worst kind of advertising you don't buy

 What can you do to bridge the disconnect?

Make every customer special

By fixing your internal systems and processes so that treatment is fair for all. People respect fairness when they experience it. It's a good business practice to look at the unintended consequences of short term decisions on the long term viability of your organization.

A solid reputation as a fair business gives you a good baseline to do more interesting things online. It buys you interest where there would be skepticism, or worse, a cynical outlook. It also positions your organization to benefit the most from social interactions.

Fairness builds credibility, the main ingredient in trust. The consistency of fair gives you a license to impress proactively. On the inside, fair frees you from the constant hair on fire situations, so you can invest that energy back into growing the business.

However, fair doesn't mean ignoring issues or covering up for them. Retaliating for negative reviews is not the way to go in the same way that rewarding only the digital squeaky wheels will set a precedent — your lawyers agree on this one, too (go ahead, ask them).

The whole Web is a big customer conversation. Earn attention by using your outposts to grow commerce, to transform the tansactional nature of buying into repeat business. It's a preferable option to fighting to keep those transactions you've had with buyers from turning sour.

What is your behavior teaching customers? What can you do to make a difference today?

[hat tip to Judy Gombita for engaging in this conversation]


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0 responses to “Why Customer Service in Social is not Fair”

  1. How timely of a post because I actually began to think more this morning during a run about how attempting to be social, respond to complainers on Twitter, and so on is expensive and not scalable if your brand is not inherently social.
    For example, lots of TV and radio stations seem to do well in social media because, on the air, they frequently incorporated user content even before all of what we now call social media existed. So, they’ve just taken this technology that facilitates both broadcast and engagement and merged it sensibly with what they were already doing. As a consumer, it feels consistent to me to watch the evening news, hear them say, “Viewer XYZ sent us this picture,” and then go on Twitter and see almost the same thing.
    On the flip side, businesses that are not innately social (eg. maybe stock traders or medical clinics) that attempt to be social in social media are not being true to their brands. They’re just experimenting with something new.
    How close does it make you feel to a brand if you’re accustomed to walking in, paying for a product, and then walking out without any real social interaction and then you find out that people on Twitter are getting some sort of special attention just because of the channel they are in? You feel like there’s some sort of special treatment going on…like you have to create a music video about your guitar being broken when you did something stupid by checking it on a plane flight or like you have to go on Twitter and take some extra step just to get attention.
    Whether it’s customer service or just simple marketing, brands can scale their social media activities and keep their costs in check by being true to what they are and what they stand for rather than trying to be something they might not be simply because someone told them, “You have to respond to every tweet as if it was a 911 call.”

  2. Makes so much sense to me ! Companies can get back to basics, be fair with solid customer service to everyone. When they grow in size is when it is hard for them to please every customer and then track their employees. In turn, I think it is nicer to do business with smaller companies. For example, all of my banking is now being done with a small, local bank where “everybody knows my name” with the same online services as a larger bank.

  3. I had a horrible experience recently getting Comcast to come install cable in my new house. They’d obviously mixed up work orders and stood me up, wasting hours of my time and energy. What should have happened here was, as soon as they realized the mistake, they should have apologized and found a way to make it right. What actually happened is I had to jump through hoops to get a real person on the phone, multiple times, and eventually got frustrated enough that I reached out on Twitter. And, of course, a near immediate response.
    The customer service problem ties into a larger issue, though. Comcast spends a lot on advertising their services, yet you have to wait for weeks for installation, and their reps on the phone hardly know how to speak intelligibly. Don’t talk the talk, whether it’s on a TV ad or on Twitter, if your company can’t provide the services to walk the walk.

  4. I went through the same thing after General Motors refused to pay for a $6K repair for a known factory defect (long story). After getting nowhere with the dealer I called the only 800 # I could find, clearly an outsourced call center where all they could do was read from a script. I got fed up, tweeted something about how I was done with GM products… and was direct messaged with a different, Secret Squirrel number to call and talk to a district rep.
    The end result was still the same (“sorry, even if we know it’s a problem, once it rolls out the door it’s your problem”) but it seemed odd to me that I could get a more thorough customer service response by throwing a social media hissy fit than I could by following all their published channels. That actually bothered me from the first tweet I received.

  5. Re: “However, being more responsive than through normal channels, “DM me your account and we’ll take care of things”, sets a bad precedent.”
    This does set a bad precedent. It sets a poor expectation in my opinion. The expectation being, your matter is more important than everyone else’s (everyone should be treated equally).
    We’ve dealt with this by setting proper expectations. Providing updates and advising clients that there’s a process in place for executing issues and providing resolutions. Still, I think we can improve.

  6. I am always amazed at how difficult most companies make resolving customer problems. They’re your best friend at purchase, and your nemesis when things go wrong. Yet this is the time when you, the company, have an opportunity to build a really meaningful relationship. This is a chance to shine by dealing with a problem head on.
    Investing money in customer service should be top of every company’s initiatives. What better way to attract and retain customers rather than plow that money into advertising for new customers?
    And since so few get it right, what better way is there to differentiate your business?
    I usually expect poor customer service. The bar is so low that I’m delighted when an issue actually gets resolved in a reasonable amount of time. It doesn’t take much.
    It’s sad that it takes going public with a problem for a company to swing into action. Yet that’s what social does.
    And your experience with banking seems to be the norm. Rarely have I heard anything positive about the service from big banks. They might promote their service, but reality doesn’t match their talk.
    Well said.

  7. Ideally, with a good traditional customer service, the social media channel would serve a sort of “ear” to listen to customer complains and redirect them to the appropriate traditional channel.
    Of course, when the traditional channels fail to deliver, the social media ear becomes more than a pair of hands taking care of the issue in first place.
    Social media representatives should probably be more listening people than customer care employees, but this would require a kick-ass customer care team and a similarly efficient social media one.
    I feel like businesses are very worried about the need to train two different teams to deal with matters from a different point of view, and often choose to go for the short-term-simpler way.

  8. Valeria, thank you so much for exploring this topic more thoroughly (and beautifully) in this post. I’ve very much appreciated our off and online conversations on this topic and have adopted your “fair not special treatment” mantra into my own conversation (giving you full credit, whenever space allows). Now I suspect I’ll be co-opting your glorious “rewarding only the digital squeaky wheels.” 😉
    Regarding your unfortunate bank experience, I thought you might be interested in the expression (I believe it’s Canadian) coined following this practice by a major telecomm: negative billing option. It’s even made it into Wikipedia!
    In general, this is such a fascinating topic–what are the best uses for social media. (I’m actually of the opinion that it’s not best-suited to customer service, except as a sort of halo effect.)
    Eric, although I agree in essence with the majority of your comment, I feel compelled to comment on this part:
    “…like you have to create a music video about your guitar being broken when you did something stupid by checking it on a plane flight…”
    If you are referring to Canadian musician David Carroll, wouldn’t it actually be considered “special” treatment if he was allowed to carry the guitar on to the airplane (a necessary tool for his living and trade), instead of (“stupidly”) checking it in as would be necessary for other large or bulky items? (As a passenger on a plane, I know I get mega annoyed when one person’s so-called “carry-on” luggage takes up the best part of the overhead bin.)
    (Book authors have been known to write beautiful OpEds when something distresses them; is it so different for a talented musician to write and tape a song that was clever and humorous but not spiteful?)
    And Dave Carroll is also using his profile (and talent) for charitable good. Check out his PSA:
    I remember being at the airport in Moscow, following the World Figure Skating Championships, and hearing an American figure skater argue strenuously with the officials about how she *needed* to carry her skates on the airplane (in addition to her carry-on luggage). Why? Because she was afraid of the skates getting lost or damaged, prior to her next competition. (I think she was refused.)

  9. @Eric — experimenting with new tools is quite alright, we all do it and that’s how we learn. Even when those brands are true to who they are, and interactions in social come naturally, they do take time and resources away from something else… in your example, Dave did try the company’s official channels first. Or am I missing something?
    @Chris — I did the same thing by rebalancing the mix in my own banking. I’m not interested in talking with people who are not interested in me. That simple.
    @Tracy — indeed customer service pays for the sins of marketing.
    @Dave — there’s a whole conversation about hiring people with an inner drive to serve and organizational cultures that support them. Disconnect occur based upon incentives and politics. These lessons in social are good only when they are taken to heart.
    @Ricardo — good communication practices help. Here’s what we’re doing to take care of this and here’s what you should expect go a long way in orienting a customer as to the process.
    @Patrick — it’s crazy, isn’t it? Consistency is the next big issue. The other day I stood alone in front of a teller who spent about ten minutes busily working the screen before he even looked at me.

  10. @Gabriele — it is in the business best interest to connect the dots between channels once it sees it has a problem. The need to train a separate teams comes from having outsourced the first one in many cases…
    @Judy — oh my, a Wikipedia entry documenting a poor business practice… making people feel “harassed, deceived, intimidated, and threatened” discourages long term relationships… and how many new customers does a company need to make up for those who leave? Regarding the luggage check in conversation, I’ve had bags ripped and cracked, and items missing on more than one trip. Gee, I wonder why people don’t trust airlines with their valuable items when they are forced to send them through? There should be the name of the bag handler on your security tag; let’s make the whole thing transparent, let’s hold people accountable when they don’t do so themselves.

  11. @Valeria – so much of bank discussion is ruled by attorneys — the legal situation seems to dictate the response. Yet, the risk of poor interaction seems to get short shrift. This is an opportunity for communicators in dealing with legal: establish a risk profile for responses — communicate what the potential risks are for each action, and quantify them based on your experience. Engaging with customers is far less risky than it seems on the surface (every lawyer will offer the alternative of doing/saying nothing) — especially when we have cases of where lack of engagement (United Breaks Guitars, financial crisis, etc.) leads to brand damage at least and financial impact in other cases.
    Thanks to @jgombita for alerting me to this post!

  12. Great post, and it’s a topic that organizations are going to have to take a long, hard look at. I wrote a series of posts last week about a bad experience I had with Domino’s Pizza, and how I was ignored on their Twitter account until I actually blogged about it. Not fair to most customers either, is it? But when their process led to them opening up a customer service ticket (their typical process, so far so good) that ticket was ignored and I didn’t receive a resolution through that channel. It wasn’t until I blogged again that the corporate office did anything. So I think they were on to a good idea…route Twitter inquiries into the standard process…but then, as you say, that process can’t be broken. People will otherwise feel ignored and will get louder.
    Will be interesting to see which brands do this well.

  13. [Special attention online] sends the message that when all else fails, complaining publicly will get to a resolution, and it usually does.
    Yes, yes and yes!
    As much as companies want to look at social as a marketing channel, it’s very origin is as a disruptive force. Go back to Cluetrain…go back to BBS and the early days of blogs…it wasn’t about marketing. It was about “You’re not hearing me!” It was about people helping people because companies WOULDN’T help.
    As a guy who writes his own paycheck, I risk leaving money on the table when I explain this to brands. They want me to show them how to use social to drive sales. But as a human being, I want companies to first fix the customer service problems that spawned social’s rise in the first place.

  14. What a great post. I actually just posted the reverse story–about how a company (Talbots) was so great in their customer service that even though it took a while to resolve my issue, I never once got the itch to fuss about it on social channels (for anyone interested: http://www.mediabullseye.com/mb/2011/01/why-i-don%E2%80%99t-btch-about-stuff-on-twitter.html )
    I’ve long railed against the negative reinforcement responding differently in social channels than regular channels provides. It can take a while to turn a large ship around (big companies) but in the long run it is a far more cost-effective proposition to fix customer service at the point of entry for *most* customers than it is to provide a different tier of service to those who complain in social channels.
    Companies are essentially directing customers with problems to go to their most expensive response teams first–this makes no sense to me at all.

  15. Excellent post. It all comes back to integrating social media policy/marketing in to your overall company policy – not having it as a seperate division.
    It’s imperative your online customer service matches your telecoms, face-to-face and all other customer service channels you operate. Brand consistancy should be the top priority in all public actions your company takes – social media should not be treated differently to this.
    That being said, the heightened level of personalisation and standard of customer service within Social Media should be used to drive the other channels forward – the resolution is not to drag Social Media interaction back to meet previous impersonal standards.

  16. It’s not that “DM me your info” is a bad tactic, it’s the fact that most companies don’t have good customer service in general. Regardless of the outlet, poor service is poor service. Has nothing to do with traditional vs. social.
    Likewise, I have to disagree that “DM me you info” sets a bad example. More people are spending more time online. That’s a fact. More people are finally realizing they have a venue to complain. That doesn’t mean companies need to bend over backwards. It just means that we need to give customers more convenience and meet them at their preferred means of communication.
    There have been a number of times where a customer has publicly complained about my organization. I acknowledge their frustration and attempt to resolve. Some I can, others I can’t. And those who are habitual complainers are easy to spot.

  17. @Sean — agreed. However, when I call your 800-number to tell you I don’t want your new cards, the old ones where just fine, and you spend the whole time trying to upsell me and put all kinds of obstacles in my way, your risk is I’m gonna tell all my friends what a horrible service I didn’t get. And, by the way, I called to fix something I did not want that your bank forced me to fix. Want fair? Start treating customers with respect for their time.
    @Jennifer — the difficulty with franchises is that you are barking up the wrong tree. Yes, it is their brand nationally. However, the person who needs to fix it is the owner of the one store where you had the issue. Was the ruckus worth your time and energy? If the business is run poorly, it may end up out of business. The other side of the coin is the noise dozens of voices create in their own social channels, the mechanics of crying wolf, etc. I look at having a voice as a privilege.
    @Scott — repeated sales, which is the backbone of commerce, comes from turning many one time transactions into repeat business. The opportunity of social for commerce is indeed to create customers, some of whom will create other customers. It all starts with the business being wiling to serve those customers fairly.
    @Jen — thank you for sharing the link to your story. When companies are fair, they end up impressing us, no matter the channel. And yes, we end up talking about it with others who are looking for a referral.
    @Chris — a company that behaves well only in public, as an individual, certainly sends a specific kind of message.
    @Kasey — I used it as an example of not getting anywhere on regular channels and getting a prompt response in social. And I had a caveat in the post as well… the phone is actually pretty convenient, if you think about it, and could take no time at all if they didn’t route it halfway across the world, put you on hold, or tried to upsell you. My point is often people take to public channels when they have been unable to resolve their issue through normal channels.

  18. I think the truth here is that any public outcry requires serious backpedaling from companies or organizations. Social media has been useful because even though people can automate social media responses, the customer response has an opportunity to go viral, which can cost big $$$. (Ie. The airline luggage service guitar song, The BP Oil Spill, etc.) Social Media is just so much better because it creates groups of publicly unhappy people. Call centres isolate problems, which can be downplayed.

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