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Mind Your Traditional Customer Service Channels

Still trying to figure out whether to give higher precedence to resolving customer service issues via social channels (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) or stick with traditional methods (phone, email, etc.)?

I think there’s a hypothetical, “perfect world” answer and there’s also a more realistic, “down to business” answer. The perfect world answer is they should be dealt with at the same level of precedence. When a customer has a problem, their primary – if not only – focus is that it gets resolved. The only difference is the method they choose for communicating with the company.

Where it starts to veer in some strange, uncharted territories is now customers can share their complaints for all to see via social channels. If I complain about a lousy service on Twitter or my blog, not only will my followers and readers see it, but it can be instantly and easily shared far beyond my first-level network. And it’s that very public airing of grievances that scares most companies into focusing more on resolving problems raised on social channels than those raised on more traditional channels.

However, here’s another reality that all companies must grapple with…and why they need to give each customer complaint the same precedence regardless of the communication channel. If I make a call and get no satisfaction, I’m going to blog about that experience. If it’s my father or grandmother or friend who has had a lousy customer service experience, I’m going to Tweet about it. But if a business effectively deals with the situation in whatever way it first arises, there’s no need to complain publicly. Rather, I might just tell my network about the wonderful customer service offered to make up for a problem.

My bottom line is: train all your employees to deal with a customer problem in whatever way it shows up because you never know how it will escalate beyond that moment.

Join the conversation at Forum Q&A

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Best Consumer Intel Found In The Wild

My regular readers know how much I love talking about market research where consumer intelligence is gathered “out in the wild” rather than through artificially contrived environments and methods (e.g., focus groups). I argue strongly that it yields far more reliable information about interests, needs, and desires.

All of which is why Joshua Black’s post, 5 Sneaky Ways to Find Out What Customers Really Want… Without Asking Them, over at Men with Pens is a real keeper.

See item #2:

Go to Wal-Mart: This expression means you should get out there and eavesdrop on your customers in their natural environment. Hang around the lions while they’re kicking back in their den complaining about their biggest problems to other lions (like who left their dirty undies lying around the cave).

Customers will never really tell you their problems if you ask directly. They often don’t exactly know what their problems are.

Listen to what customers say. Are they complaining? About what? Are they sighing over something they wish they had? What is it? What problems keep them from getting the results they want?

Don’t say a word. Take copious amounts of notes and quietly leave the scene like an entrepreneurial ninja. I like to hang out at coffee shops and use my Blackberry for this kind of covert operation, because it just looks like I’m texting someone and being oblivious to people at other tables.

And as a smart commenter responded, another method for gathering similar intel is to run Twitter searches for keywords and themes related to your product or business.

What other ways of uncovering consumer intelligence out in the wild have you found most beneficial to your business?

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How Not to Be a Social Media Jackal

Yesterday, Matt Singley (@mattsingley) asked a simple, but rather provocative question via Twitter:

What ensued was an interesting mini-conversation about how to successfully and effectively engage with a competitor’s customers through social media.

The set-up
Let’s say you work for Company Y in Matt’s scenario and have a social media/online monitoring program that watches not only for mentions of your company’s name but your competitors’ names, as well (and if you don’t already have such a program in place, I happen to know a very good agency that can help you).  In the course of your monitoring, you discover that Company X has screwed up and now has some royally discontented customers. What do you do?

Your first instinct may be to jump on this golden opportunity quickly so you can grab some new customers…and I’m going to suggest you squelch this instinct. By being overzealous in your online efforts, you can actually do more harm to your company’s online reputation than good. Don’t be the jackal eagerly waiting to pick off the discontented carcasses of your competitors’ customers.

What should you do, instead?
First, listen, do a little legwork, understand. Find out what happened. In our online world, it’s not that hard to uncover what’s going on when a competitor screws up. Do not – REPEAT, DO NOT – wade into any tweetstream or blogpost until you figure out what’s going on. Failing to grasp an initial understanding of how the customer feels will only make you appear insincere and predatory.

Second, be a human being. Sorry if that seems overly simplistic and obvious, but its astounding how often we forget that long-term sales relationships starts with treating customers like humans with respect. After gaining an understanding of the situation, practice some empathy. Ask yourself, “If I was this individual, would I want someone to start aggressively hawking their wares under my nose right now? Or would I prefer someone to treat me better than I’ve just been treated by Company X?” A little empathy goes a long ways.

What might this look like? Here is a fresh scenario from Twitter:
A customer becomes irritated with a rival’s product or service. Here’s an example from @Dotpage who is calling out @logitech’s slow driver updates:

Let’s say you work for Altec Lansing and uncover a tweet like this. Now maybe no one – including your own company – has drivers ready for Snow Leopard, but here’s a prime opportunity for you to approach a competitor’s disgruntled customer. A course of action might be to research the social media chatter coming from Twitter (http://search.twitter.com/search?q=+to%3Alogitech) where you’ll find this issue is significant source of irritation among Logitech’s customers. Then, your first @ reply should be to note the problems faced by the individual – in this case, a lack of updated drivers. Perhaps send a tweet such as “Sorry to hear about the problems you’re having with speaker drivers…it sucks to not be able to hear sounds from your Mac.” Resist the urge to openly sell your product on first tweet. Remember, your aim is to build a long-term relationship not make a quick sale.

Not everyone you send @ replies are going to respond and that’s okay. For those individuals who do reply, here’s the opportunity to guide your competitor’s customer toward your own products and services. Ask what they want from a product, what drives them crazy, what a company can do to improve their experience. You now have a personal, one-to-one conversation with a buyer that can turn them into a raving fan. People become passionate about purchasing from other people, particularly those who genuinely want the best for them. This interaction can be a catalyst for introducing a customer to your own products and services without the need for even making an open sales call.

After you’ve made contact with the individual on Twitter, then follow them. Don’t make following the first course of action – this is the type of behavior that bots employ and again can be seen as an overly aggressive predatory tactic that will turn off the potential prospect.

Third, make sure every single person in your company is working from the same playbook. This is where breaking down silos and cross-functional planning cannot be under-emphasized. If just one person from your company leaps in like a jackal, then there’s a better-than-average chance your company’s image will be tarnished along with that of Company X.

Any thoughts or counterarguments here? What’s worked for you as a disgruntled customer? What’s worked or hasn’t worked for your company in having conversations like these?

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Social Media: A Modern Form Of Bear Baiting?

As much as it may offend our current animal-loving sensibilities, the spectacle of bear baiting was once a very popular form of entertainment (and in certain areas of the world, it remains an attraction). Basically, it involved tying a bear to a post in the middle of an arena and attacking the beast with large, trained dogs. It was also common to provoke the bear further by poking it with long, sharp prods. Cruel? Without a doubt.

But I argue that the very same mentality that conjured this sport into creation remains with us today. We still love to sit around and watch corporate C-Levels get skewered for their mistakes or whole brands get mauled when they screw up. And now with social media, it becomes a full participation sport. (And lest you think I’m pointing a finger outward, there are indeed three pointing squarely back at me…I’m unfortunately guilty of this behavior, too.)

So what does this actually say about us? Have we really civilized ourselves and evolved out of our barbaric and bloodthirsty selves? Perhaps not. Perhaps we still love a good show where we can easily provide instant judgment of missteps, quick criticism of poor decisions. Hopefully, we’re not doomed to this quest for base entertainment…hopefully, we have the potential to be better. Here are a couple of ideas for how we can exit the arena and leave the poor bears in peace:

Let’s interactively communicate with the C-Levels, the corporate brand managers, the folks who do exist behind the actions we’re itching to criticize. For Pete’s sake, its as if there’s no room for error anymore. One foul-up and you’re an incompetent hack who deserves to be standing on a street corner begging for some spare change. What has happened to giving space to learn from mistakes? Fewer and fewer executives and brands are going to try to be innovative if they think their efforts are going lambasted by anyone with a Twitter account or blog. So instead, I suggest we be a bit more constructive, offer a bit more feedback, try to act as part of the solution.  Yeah, it may mean we have to try to be a little less cynical. Hell, you might just be able to chalk it up to your one-good-deed-for-the-day. That’ll feel good.

Perhaps the hardest of act of all is not giving in to the pressure of instant judgment. Yes, this means going against the grain and choosing a different perspective in a hypermobilized social media world. But look at it this way: in an increasingly homogenized world where everyone is seeking a way to be unique, your decision to withhold criticism until all the facts are known could be a critical personal differentiator. So, next time Amazon deletes a book from a Kindle, let’s help them learn from this action because they’re maneuvering in uncharted waters. Or next time the CMO from a retailer forgets he’s still responsible for customer satisfaction, let’s offer not only some constructive feedback, but acknowledge that she or he is actually a fallible human being capable of forgiveness.

I’m game for making the attempt if you are. What do you say?

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Three Reasons Why Micro Wins Business

From Marketing Vox comes Half of Communicators Think Twitter’s a Fad. Actually, I would wager that you could substitute just about any business-related profession in place of “Communicators.” It happens every time a evolutionary shift takes place and individuals are confronted with the need to change. The data behind this latest article comes from Ragan Communications and PollStream. And for more commentary on the study, definitely read blogposts from MarketingCharts and Ragan (the comments are insightful, as well).

For me, here’s what the study drives home.

1. A shift from the masses to the micro.
Here’s a quote from Bob Hirschfeld, senior public information officer for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:

“[Twitter’s a fad] because everybody’s doing it. Ashton Kutcher and CNN have a steady supply of fans who want to know what they do. People like us, people with a job to do, every so often we do something of interest to the general public [but] we don’t have that steady supply of stuff that the public is interested in.”

I think this viewpoint spotlights how professionals are struggling to overcome the old focus on how to speak to the masses. If you can’t speak to as many people as possible, then the effort is futile. You see this every time someone uses generalized words like “public”; in this case, Hirschfeld is concerned there’s just not a “steady supply of stuff that the public is interested in.” I’ll submit that aiming for the masses is no longer an efficient or productive action. The individuals and organizations who will succeed in the new world of business will be the ones who know their power niches and can communicate with them in a personally relevant way.

2. Broadcasting might not be dying, but it’s no longer the sole answer.
With that said, I don’t believe that broadcasting is dying. There’s still a place for it as a communications vehicle. Websites such as CNN, BBC News, ESPN, etc. still serve up broadcasted information. But the critical difference is that broadcasting is no longer the only mechanism for communicating with your audience. Most of the better sites understand this and allow visitors to personalize their delivery (see BBC News for a good example).

Other sites build around smaller, more interest-focused communities, which takes the micro to deeper level (see what Sony has done with their Backstage 101 or what DadLabs.com is doing with fathers). Someone tied to the old ways of viewing business might see this as a negative fracturing of their audience base. They’re liking thinking, “Crap, now I have to have multiple talking points for all these different audiences.” And again, that thinking exposes the mass approach that is no longer viable.

But rather than freaking out and seeing this as yet another sign of the apocalypse, consider what incredible advantages the micro-level offers to business. Rather than taking the shotgun approach that tries to hit as many people as possible (with the inherent dilution of overall message), communicators can approach each community and audience niche as a tailor-made occasion to develop messages that are relevant to the individual.

3. The future will require changes to your business thinking and operations.
We’re in the midst of a huge shift away from one way communication (at both mass and micro levels) and toward multi-vocal dialogue. And yes…this will require some changes to the way organizations think and operate, as well as to the way they communicate internally and with customers. As Josh McColough, a communicator at Sherman Health, notes: “The trick is to keep information coming and conversation active.”

Effective business is going to be about building relationships and personally-relevant dialogue rather than continuing the old trick of blindly bludgeoning a public with broadcasted communications. The only question is: Which side of this divide do you want to find yourself on?

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How To Bludgeon Your Brand In 140 Characters

Habitat, a UK-based home furnishings company, received a lesson this week on how NOT to market its brand. Turns out whoever is minding their Twitter account decided to take advantage of all the buzz surrounding Iran and use related hashtags such as #MOUSAVI to peddle their wares.

Shameless? Yep. Brainless? Yep, again. And it’s not just isolated to piggybacking on #Iran – apparently, Habitat has been riding other trending tags such as #apple and #phone. I’m still a bit mystified by who actually thought this was a good idea. The company has deleted the offending tweets and issued an apology, but the damage is done.

A quote from the BBC News article:

“The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to. This was absolutely not authorised by Habitat. We were shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence that has been caused.”

The BBC writer is quick to pick up on what is easily inferred from this statement: that a third-party agency is responsible for Habitat’s online marketing strategy and – perhaps more interesting – their Twitter writing. Letting someone outside your organization write your tweets and post to social media shows is a quick way to get into some seriously hot water. If your organization is thinking of using Twitter and other social media tools to engage with customers, for heaven’s sake, don’t let someone else do it for you. This is a DIY initiative.

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The Twitter Retention Problem: Oprah, Aloha and Your Community

I tried my hardest to not write a post with the words Oprah and Twitter in it, but I just couldn’t steer away from the soft glowing light of popular discussion (though I guess I am a bit late).

So Oprah and a continuing bevy of celebrities are hitching their brand wagons to Twitter and spurring their faithful followers to give the microblogging service a try. Just one problem: these new members are walking in and just as quickly walking out. From Nielsenwire Blog, Twitter Quitters Post Roadblock to Long-Term Growth:

When Facebook and MySpace were emerging networks like Twitter is now, their retention rates were twice as high. When they went through their explosive growth phases, that retention only went up, and both sit at nearly 70 percent today. Twitter has enjoyed a nice ride over the last few months, but it will not be able to sustain its meteoric rise without establishing a higher level of user loyalty. Frankly, if Oprah can’t accomplish that, I’m not sure who can.

What does this say about Twitter? I’m not going to cast doom-and-gloom on the service but there are two lessons anyone who is building or managing communities ought to consider:

Welcoming. Twitter’s been overhyped lately and the fact that folks are coming and going really shouldn’t be a shock. All the media-fed mania did was increase the curiosity of folks who wanted to see what the hubbub was about. And when they got there, they were likely disappointed by what they found because there really is no community with Twitter. It’s a social network that inspires community. Because its a social network first, there is no formal welcome, no Twitter 101, no management plan for helping newbies feel comfortable with the lingo. (Come to think of it, maybe Twitter really does need a Chief Community Officer.)

When a newcomer visits your online community for the first time, do they feel welcome and safe to explore the community space? Or do they feel like they’ve just exited the plane into a strange land where their first inclination is to want to get right back on and go home? Think how nice it is to have a friendly gal or guy waiting on you when you deplane, hand you a lei, and say “Aloha.” If that happens, you might want to hang around and explore all your destination offers. Have a welcome strategy and prepare to execute it in a way that will scale just in case Oprah decides to make your community her next cause célèbre.

Integrating. But don’t stop at “Hello!” or “Aloha!” if you’re still dreamily hanging out at the Hawaii example. Most communities that fail do so because they don’t take the next step which is engagement. Why do some people try out Twitter then lose interest after a few weeks? There could be many reasons and would be a good use case for ethnographic work. I’ll propose one possibility: lack of ongoing value. We’re inundated by so many other distractions (like kids, spouse…okay only joking there). But the competition for eyes, minds and hearts is fierce. Is your community maintaining consistent value for your members? Do they feel engaged by their interactions in your community? Whether your community is tied to a cause-based nonprofit or a business, these are just a few of the questions you need to ask.

This topic of engagement is one of my favorites and one that fuels my own anthropological research. It was also a specialty in my association membership work so I can relate to how challenging it is not only attract new members but keeping them. Yet, retention is crucial so think strategically and make a plan. If you’ve found great ideas for keeping engagement levels high among your new members, share them with others in the community here.

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The Relationship To Free In Online Communities

We all have expectations of service when we pay for something, right? Go to even a moderately priced restaurant like Outback Steakhouse and you expect to be served well. If you purchase a computer online from Dell, you want to be taken care of if something doesn’t work. And if you pay dues to your professional association, you expect a level of service to match the cost. So, how does free membership in a community alter our expectations? Should we expect the same level of service for something that we pay no money to support?

I offer two cases: Twitter and Facebook. When things blow up on either of these services, do we as users have any right to demand quick, speedy or personal support? We don’t give one dime for the ability to communicate and expand our networks. The cynical among us might even suggest that we users are really just leaching off of both Twitter and Facebook for our own gain. So if we don’t pay anything for these services, what right do we have to express outrage when we’re met with failwhales, questionable changes to terms of service or disabled features?

This is the conundrum facing most online community managers: delivering service in an age where its expected even on free sites. Perhaps the solution here is that we have to change our ideas of what defines a relationship. We can no longer strictly use the financial transaction as a point for determining service level. Since users bring value to the community through their interactions, it seems that we community management professionals need to adjust our own thinking. That failwhale impacts a user’s overall experience which, in turn, impacts the service’s brand. It’s a rippling effect that defines a daily reality for online communities.

Thoughts?

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Would You Consider A Customer Care Strategy With Twitter?

One of my new Twitter follows Chris Rash posted a tweet this morning as a question: Twitter for customer service? Now if you’re not familiar with Twitter you might have read that as “twits in customer service” and thought that’s nothing new. This pervasive public attitude (which isn’t going away) is precisely why companies need to think differently about how they care for their customers. Want to know how to gain a critical advantage on your competitors? Look no further than your probably beleaguered but infinitely valuable customer service team.

Now, whether you like Twitter and other social media tools or not, you have to acknowledge their massive appeal and increasing usage by folks. It’s time to face the facts that social media is no longer the exclusive tool of the techno-savvy. Along with blogging, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook are now used by a wider audience at all age levels (do a search for grandmothers on Facebook…you might be surprised at what you find). So get off the fence and put on your brainstorming cap – remember to make some for the rest of your team – because it’s time start getting creative in how you maximize these tools to help build stronger business relationships.

If you’re still on the fence and not sure about the value of social media to your services business, here are some thoughts to ponder…

Go where your customers are…don’t expect them to always come to you.
The traditional forms of customer service will never really go away so don’t ditch the phone number and email address. Being accessible and responsive is always going to be the hip and right thing to do. But the rules for gaining and retaining customers are definitely changing. It’s now easier than ever to tell the world about the crappy service you just received or the shoddily-made product that falls apart when you look at it funny. It’s equally easy to tell the world about the wonderful care you just received from a restaurant or how damn reliable and fun to drive your new Honda truck is (yep, that’s my little endorsement for the Ridgeline).

Embrace the personal relationship…just don’t over-construct it.
Too many times, managers like to outwit themselves with all kinds of complicated plans and strategies for how to tap into the next great technology tool. In the process, they tend to focus way more on the tool than the purpose of using that tool…in this case it ought to be to build a better, deeper, more personal relationship with the customer. Going back to the article that Chris tweeted, the decision for Comcast to care and build relationships using Twitter wasn’t a formal decree from the CEO, but an intuitive hunch and nudge from a company executive. (And if there’s a company that needs some positive customer service stories, it’s Comcast.)

And for heaven’s sake…be authentic!
If you decide to use social media, don’t think for a moment you can get away with being phony, disingenuous, or insensitive. The foundation of social media is built on trust and if you betray that trust you might as well hang it up and go back to your old ways of customer service. Remember that you’re doing this as a way to not only build the kind of relationships that retain business, but the kind of relationships that take people from casual customer to raving fans. And it’s raving fans that will hop onto Twitter and tell their networks how fantastic you are.

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