Does Online Customer Service Encourage Dissent?

One of the highlights of South By Southwest for me so far was the Customer Support in a 140 Character World panel with Caroline McCarthy (CNET), Frank Eliason (Comcast), Lois Townsend (HP), Toby Richards (Microsoft) and Jeremiah Owyang (Altimeter). With a wide-ranging conversation tackling many different aspects of online customer support, I found it fascinating.

One of the most interesting lines for me came from Owyang, who said (forgive me if I’m a word or two off here):

“Responding to people on Twitter is encouraging them to yell at their friends when they need your support.”

Running scared

This is an issue I’ve run into several times with clients, especially those who want to maintain a divide between their traditional customer service channels and what they sometimes see as promotional online channels.

Companies have a (perhaps justified) fear that if people see them responding to online complaints, they’re going to take their complaints online first – publicly – before calling customer support. That leads to:

  • More negative online chatter
  • More work for online reps
  • More potential for others to jump onboard with the complaint

Online reps are customer service reps

The flip side, though, as Jeremiah also pointed out, is that customers don’t care what department an online rep is in. As far as they’re concerned, the company rep is customer-facing so they expect a response to their concerns about that company.

Instead of trying to funnel everyone through your channels, how about helping them in the place they are already inhabiting? In the process, you can go a long way to addressing their issues before they become a support ticket number.

Frank Eliason mentioned that each day his team of 12 people at Comcast go through:

  • 6,000-10,000 blog posts mentioning Comcast (although most are due to Comcast email addresses)
  • 2,000 tweets
  • 600-1,000 forum posts

All of this, with the aim of improving customer experiences.

What’s the ROI of ignoring the phone?

David Alston of Radian6 has a good way of referring to online customer engagement. He asks conference audiences who ask about the ROI of this kind of engagement, “what’s the ROI of you not picking up the phone?” After speaking to someone tonight who mentioned that her organization shuts down their online communication during big issues because their PR folks are scared of peoples’ reactions, I’d throw that question out to them too:

Have you considered how much you lose every time you ignore someone online?

Many companies know exactly how much revenue they generate from the average user. Those companies therefore know how much revenue they lose every time they drive a customer away by ignoring their pain points. Those same customers often volunteer information about those problems online proactively, yet the organization responds with unhelpful canned lines or doesn’t even respond at all.

Eliason also mentioned an obvious but salient point – sometimes you just need to agree to disagree with people. Transparency doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone – it means that you help those you can and explain honestly why you can’t help the others. That very act of explanation might not make people happy (and, yes, let’s be honest, it may upset some) but with the majority, it’s enough to know that someone is listening and acknowledging their concern.

So, there’s my take. I acknowledge that public-facing customer support is scary, for a variety of reasons. However, the potential repercussions of ignoring people, anywhere, is so large that to do so is irresponsible, both towards them and towards your company.

What do you think?

  • “More potential for others to jump onboard with the complaint”

    When facing this ‘risk’, I always like to point out that when more people agree on a complaint, it’s probably a very plausible flaw in your service/product and should be fixed – or at least acknowledged – ASAP.

  • Great post Dave. I think the salient point here is that even if companies don’t get involved, the chatter will continue. Wouldn’t you rather be part of the conversation?

    I get it – customer service online is scary. Customer service can be scary period – I’ve worked retail my entire life and as a manager someone up in your face regardless of whether it’s in person, over the phone or otherwise can send your heart beating pretty fast. But at least I was involved in the conversation and most of the time I could mitigate any issues they were having.

    Ignoring customers leads companies down a very steep slope – problems don’t just go away. They fester. They grow. As long as you are transparent (buzzword bingo) and genuine having conversations with customers should not be *that* hard. Just take baby steps. 🙂

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  • No customer service encourages dissent 😉

    Well written article. Thanks for the post!

  • Customer service is about connecting, listening, and engaging your customers on channels that work for them. Either you adjust to the needs of your customers or they will adjust by taking their business elsewhere as well as tell everyone about their experience with you.

  • ” Transparency doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone – it means that you help those you can and explain honestly why you can’t help the others.”

    This is hitting right where it counts: I had to turn someone away a few days ago, I just couldn’t help him out, even though I knew the pain he was in. Unfortunately, the only solid help I could offer was exactly was he was determined to avoid.

    Which was a pity, because he saw it as either/or instead of “both.”

  • Great post Dave. Darn, I would have liked to have seen that panel – at least you provided a great summary of the key points.

    Agreed, if you make people aware that you are willing to listen then chances are if they have something to say to or about you they will. But while some negative stuff will potentially come “out of the woodwork” isn’t it better to allow folks to get it off their chest? Isn’t better to know whether customers like what you are doing and if they don’t then offer you a chance to connect with them and learn about better ways to make them happy?

    I also like the point about customers not necessarily wanting to use the channels you want them to talk to you on. I personally think it’s probably easier to tweet a complaint for many now vs. trying to find an 800 number and then to sit on the phone for 15 minutes while they wait to serve you. I think the idea of “lining up for your customer” vs. your customer lining up for you will eventually catch on – and those brands who embrace it will not only probably have happier customers but if they line up for their competitors customers at the same time they may also see a nice lift in new business.

    I love this topic so thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. And it was great seeing you down at SXSW. I think you need to pick yourself up a hat at #allhat3 next year tho. 😉

    Cheers.
    @davidalston

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  • michelle kostya

    This was a really great session. As someone who works in a support department pushing this type of engagement I can attest there is often a lot of push back by the traditionalist who think by offering help online we will somehow increase costs by encouraging customers to complain even louder. Often traditional Customer Support is seen as a cost centre and the goal is to get away from assisted support and push unassisted support which of course is cheaper to maintain and provide.

    But in my experience we help more than one person when we help people online, we build loyalty and awareness with more than one person when we tweet a response or post a helpful hint on a forum. While it may cost more to operate than a static web page – the ability to build loyalty is amazing.

    It is really pretty powerful. Whose to say that this isn’t the way support will be done in 2050.

  • Amy Moore

    Great post! I’m actually monitoring your blog for a PR management class I am taking this semester. The comment about transparency is extremely relevant to what PR is about. It’s good to know someone is advocating for our profession….my professors always say that we are our biggest advocators and we should teach our employers what we can do for them because the definition of PR is misunderstood by so many. Thanks for staying true to what we are all about!

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