Archive for the ‘customer service’ Category

Marketing, community, support or all of the above?

Something has been gnawing at me for a while, and after a great conversation over brunch with Ferg Devins today I’m feeling inspired to throw this out there.

“When I was your age…”



I first got into “social media” somewhere around eight years ago – first for my own interest and then – soon after – as part of my job. Like many other people at the time, I was interested in the humanizing effect that social media could have for companies. While companies were previously faceless, anonymous entities, suddenly they could have a face, and interact with the people who cared about them.

Over the last few years, social media has evolved away from this – away from personal interaction, and towards what is increasingly push marketing.

Is this a good thing? Let’s take a quick look at the differences before making that call… (warning: hyper-generalized summaries ahead)

As I mentioned earlier, many of those of us who got into the social media space early did so because we appreciated the opportunity to help companies connect with people in a meaningful way. Sometimes that meant interesting conversations; sometimes it meant helping them with a problem; either way it meant interactions with substance. This early focus on relationships, reputation and engagement led social media to naturally lean towards driving loyalty and affinity with brands over time.

Marketing Funnel


While public relations practitioners were early out of the blocks on social, the last few years have seen a shift of budgets towards marketing organizations, and money talks – their role has become increasingly prevalent in social for many companies. That’s not surprising, nor is it an inherently bad thing.

Marketing objectives generally focus on sales – demand gen, acquisition, etc. For consumer-focused companies, many of whom are the heaviest investors in social media, that means reaching people at scale and driving them towards purchase.

The easiest way to visualize this shift is to look at the traditional marketing funnel.

Early social media activities focused more on two areas of the funnel – consideration and – critically – loyalty/advocacy. Communities in particular were by their nature filled with people who already have an affinity or interest in your product, right?

Over time I’ve seen more and more organizations shift the focus from the latter to further up the funnel, primarily on consideration (still) but also awareness and conversion, as companies began to treat social networks as another sales and acquisition channel.

At the same time, the community-building interactions that drove many of us to this space have dwindled with a lot of companies.

Marketing, community or both?

I’m not sure that we should choose between the two, or that one is ‘better’ than the other. In fact, I would argue that organizations really CAN’T choose to only focus on one point in the funnel – and this is where a lot of teams fall down.

People don’t care what department runs social media. I couldn’t care less if you’re in PR, social, digital or anywhere else in the company. You know what I care about as a customer? I care about whether you can meet whatever need I have at that moment in time. In particular, if I need help, I want you to help me. I don’t give a damn about the fact that you’re in marketing – you’ve set up a presence in a two-way channel, and if you don’t use it as a two-way channel then I’m going to judge you accordingly.

I’ve argued many times over the years that customer service IS marketing in today’s environment. I even did an interview on City TV arguing as much back in 2010. If you do well, more people than ever will see it and give you credit for it. If you screw up, more people than ever will see it (just ask British Airways). This is leading more and more organizations to shift customer support into the marketing function.  

So, the problem comes when organizations decide to ONLY focus on content, and to avoid investing in/committing to community management. This happens a lot, as community management tends to get lumped in with content marketing when it comes to measuring social. The reality, though, is that “social media” encompasses multiple functions and while they need to integrate, we need to measure them against the objectives of each of those functions – sales, loyalty and advocacy alike. 

So, this shift towards marketing isn’t a bad thing – it can be a very good thing… unless it comes at the expense of everything else.

Only by recognizing the differences between the different aspects of social, and that we have no option but to embrace them, can we hope to get back to what got many of us into social media in the first place – meaningful, substantial connections with the people who care about the company, and who the company cares about in return.

What say you?

Eight Tips for Scaling Social Customer Support

David Armano noted in a recent Harvard Business Review post on social business that listening to conversations is a valuable step but only the beginning:

“The true opportunity lies in scaling and operationalizing “social”.”

Online customer support is one of the key trends confronting companies as they embrace social business and look to interact with their consumers online. The growth of social customer support is being driven by three key factors: increased uptake of social media broadly; highly visible success stories from other companies and an expectation of two-way interaction in social channels.

As social support grows in reach and popularity, companies are facing the conundrum of how to successfully scale. How do you deal with an environment where an unlimited number of people may look to you for swift, helpful service?

Here are eight pointers for scaling your customer support:

1. Shift from reactive to proactive + reactive

Listening and reacting isn’t enough. Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows that search engines are the #1 source of information about companies for informed consumers. So, win the search battle. Mine your support records for the most common support requests (through both online and traditional channels) and create searchable resources to address those queries.

These resources could be blog posts, knowledge base articles, videos, graphics, whatever (more on that later in this post) — just make sure they’re in the language of your customers, not in business jargon, and that people can link directly to them.

2. Triage

My apologies to the purists out there who think everyone should be treated equally, but if one person could cause a major issue for your company while another is lower-profile, I’m going to prioritize accordingly. Is that ideal? No. Is that completely egalitarian? No. Is it practical and realistic? You bet.

This means setting out your criteria for triage ahead of time. If you have tiered support in other channels you may already have some of this. Consider:

  • Relative influence
  • Severity of issue
  • Spread of issue
  • …etc.

3. Respond publicly when possible

The natural inclination for many companies is to take negative chatter offline ASAP. There are a couple of pitfalls to this approach:

  1. The Internet doesn’t forget — others will be able to see the complaint, but no resolution
  2. Other people with the same problem won’t benefit from the solution

There are many cases where you will have to take a conversation offline due to privacy needs around personal information, or due to legal regulations. Where those things aren’t the case, though, responding to concerns publicly accomplishes two things:

  1. Allows anyone watching to see your company being responsive to an issue (improves your reputation)
  2. The one:many nature of the Internet means that other people with that same issue can see the solution (scales your response)

4. Help customers to help customers

Companies like AT&T (rated highly for social support by Forrester) and BlackBerry (disclosure: client) have been successful at developing highly active support forums where customers interact with and help each other. While the company can step in and address unanswered questions, this solution means that many queries are addressed without any involvement from the company.

5. Build an army of advocates

Your social media activities will naturally let you identify your most active users and your biggest fans. Don’t ignore this potential; create programs to cultivate and build relationships with these people, empower them to become your ambassadors and reward them for doing so.

6. Know your customer

Different people have different preferences for how to receive service; this leads both to tailored interactions with people and to the development of different support mechanisms to suit their needs. People who are pressed for time and just want to get the answer with no frills may prefer quick step-by-step how-tos, for example, while others look for more social interaction and conversation. If you can, take the time (and/or money) to do the research to identify those needs.

Social CRM is a buzz term right now, but even if you’re not ready to go to that extent, there are plenty of tools that let you view your past interactions with people online and begin to move in that direction.

7. Structure for scale

While you may have a core group of support agents conducting support online, look to train and prepare a broader group of employees to step in during critical situations. Few companies are going to be able to take the Zappos approach to empowering employees, but by training outside your team you can be prepared for spikes in activity.

8. Plan strategically

Businesses don’t usually experience flat demand throughout the year. You’ll have seasonality; you’ll have spikes driven by announcements and launches; you’ll have marketing promotions. By knowing when those are, you can plan your resources accordingly – both in terms of staffing and in terms of proactive asset creation (see #1  above).

Scaling support remains a pressing problem for organizations. These approaches can help you to help more people, and in doing so raise satisfaction rates, reduce customer churn and improve your organization’s  reputation.

What tips would you add to the list?

Why And How To Scale Social Business Programs

As time goes on we’re seeing a rising trend toward social customer support, largely driven by three forces:

  1. Companies are observing high-profile brands successfully executing social support programs and want to realize those benefits
  2. As more and more companies engage in marketing programs through social media, customers are using those two-way channels to demand support from companies
  3. We’re seeing more and more examples of crises driven by online activity; social support offers a way to prevent issues from becoming crises

The challenge companies are facing is how to scale that support in the face of massive demand from a customer base that comes to expect quick, direct engagement.

Jeremiah Owyang recently posted the slides from his presentation on scalable social business programs. Some of his key points:

  1. Get into Hub and Spoke and develop a Center of Excellence
    • Get away from organic and centralized structures, and develop a hub that can support activities throughout the organization
  2. Leverage community for first tier marketing and support
    • Don’t try to just scale 1:1 support – provide the means for customers to support each other then provide second-tier support for those who need it
  3. Integrate both in the customer lifecycle as well as your corporate website
    • Think of how you will engage with people at all stages, from awareness through to advocacy, and think about how you can build social functionality into your corporate website (one of the key trends we’ve identified for 2011)
  4. Launch a formalized advocacy program
    • Cultivate a group of independent advocates who can transparently engage where they see fit
  5. Invest in Social Media Management Systems before you lose control
    • The recent Kenneth Cole and Chrysler mishaps shone a spotlight on the need for controls and education around social media activities. Appropriate systems are a key part of that.

Point #2 is a key one – help your customers and advocates (point #4) to handle a lot of the low-level support for you. That doesn’t mean leaving them unattended; it means providing them with the means to do so – a place to do it and the resources to do so.

Keynote: Invest in Scalable Social Business Programs

These points on scale nicely complement Steve Rubel’s recent thoughts – that, operating in a world limited by time and space, when you can’t expand time you need to focus on expanding your organization’s surface area to scale your activities.

What do you think of all of this?

Three Forces Driving Social Customer Support

We’ve discussed, many times, the importance of the ongoing trend towards the integration of various communications forms in social media – the fact that you can’t just put “social” in a bubble and expect it to perform without support from other media. Awareness of this is slowly growing as social media activities mature within organizations

In the same vein, this maturity will soon manifest in increased integration between business functions. Chief among them will be a growing realization that customer support is a key communications function online.

Marketing and public relations departments have taken the spotlight for many people (setting aside the Dells, Comcasts and Zapposes (fine, whatever, you try pluralizing Zappos) of the world).

Over the next couple of years, as we continue to see companies invest more and more into social media activities, we’re going to see three forces driving the adoption of social customer support – case studies; customer demand and crises.

Force #1: Watching other companies succeed at social support

The Dells and Comcasts have set the bar high, but we’re seeing a proliferation of companies supporting customers effectively through social media.

Rogers (a client of mine in my last job) engaged over 20,000 times with customers through a variety of social channels last year, and is able to measure the results of this engagement.  Freshbooks has built an army of advocates through its personable and responsive support team.

There are many other examples, and companies will increasingly look to replicate that success.

Force #2: Consumers demanding social support

While public relations drove an initial wave of social media adoption, and while ad agencies are getting into the game too, their activities will continue to inadvertently shine a spotlight on the need for online support.


Because they’re using two-way channels. And when you’re using two-way channels, people talk back… not just about what you want to talk about, but about what they want to talk about.

Nestle found this out the hard way, as did Etsy late last year (BTW, Etsy, removing posts “for negativity” is not a good issues management strategy).

So, the more companies engage in two-way channels (even if they want them to be one-way), the more people will demand responsiveness and interaction from those companies.

Force #3: Increased frequency of online issues

The Etsy case is just one example of an issue that blew up online and escalated into traditional media. I continue to see more and more, which leads to the third force driving social support – the desire to avoid becoming a crisis communications case study.

By listening and responding to issues online, companies can nip those issues in the bud. It’s important to remember, though, that if you want your online support to help you avoid issues then (a) you can’t pick and choose which issues you respond to (although there are a variety of ways to avoid having to respond to each and every person 1:1 – more on this tomorrow) and (b) if you don’t fix issues that people identify then listening isn’t enough.

So, there you have it – three forces that are driving the adoption of social customer support. Do you agree? Do you see other forces also at play? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Why You Should Tweet During a Crisis

Ever have one of those frustrating conversations with your colleagues during an emerging issue, where you’re trying to figure out whether acknowledging an issue online will defuse it or spread it?

You know, the one that goes something like:

A: “Have you seen all the chatter about this issue online? We should get out there and let people know what’s going on.”
B: “No – it’s only a few people – if we post about it more people will know there’s a problem.”

People have a natural reluctance to admit something is wrong. That’s all the more so online, where people can talk back and potentially ask uncomfortable questions. So, unless there’s someone with enough authority to stick-handle a response through the objections, this is often where a stalemate is reached.

Even if you do manage to convince people of the need to communicate, the time it takes to do the convincing often means that you miss the boat on getting your response out there in time for people to see it.

That’s why I was really interested to see a note from Shashi Bellamkonda of Network Solutions on the Social CRM Pioneers group, pointing to some interesting research by Microsoft and Psychster on the effect of companies acknowledging issues via Twitter on the actions and perceptions of customers.

The white paper, entitled “Using Twitter to Reassure Users During a Site Outage,” looks into the effects of a company informing people – or not – of an outage via Twitter, and the varying effectiveness of different approaches to doing so.

The conclusions provide some useful ammunition for those who advocate for a more proactive approach to managing issues via Twitter:

  1. Any kind of acknowledgement online will result in lowered negativity and improved perceptions, and may lead to fewer people calling your call centre
  2. Companies need to think about who posts the information, not just what is posted – a trusted community manager may be better than an executive or an anonymous company account
  3. Companies can improve the effectiveness of their acknowledgements by explaining the nature and cause of the issue

It’s particularly interesting that the study identified that the acknowledgements do more than just change perceptions; they also decrease the likelihood of people calling your call centre.

Change in likelihood to contact support

During a panel on online support at SxSW this year, Frank Eliason explained that he was able to calculate the tangible benefit from his team at Comcast by looking at the cost of their team, the number of people they helped and comparing that to the cost of those people calling their call centre.

Even the most math-averse person can tell that if you reduce the number of people calling you for information, and do it in a cost-effective way, it should be an easy sell.

What’s more, this is a two-pronged benefit – communicating via Twitter can lower your support costs while simultaneously improving peoples’ perception of your company. So, you’re not only lowering costs, you’re also potentially generating revenue in the long-term.


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?

Customer Service In The Age Of Social Media

Yesterday I spoke with City News‘ Kris Reyes about the challenges businesses face in customer service in the age of social media. In Toronto we’ve seen numerous recent instances of “citizen journalism” highlighting problems at the TTC – a TwitPic of a TTC worker sleeping; a video of a bus driver’s unscheduled coffee break in the middle of a route and finally a perhaps ill-advised Facebook page set up by some TTC staff.

It’s a tough time to work in a customer-facing job. It just takes one slip-up and, if you’re unlucky, you can find yourself all over the news – online and offline. This is especially the case if you work for a publicly-funded organization.

I offered three tips for people and organizations to think about:

  1. Organizations need to prepare their employees to work in this kind of environment. Existing employee guidelines may offer boundaries for employees, but they only kick-in after the fact. Employers need to provide their staff with the knowledge and understanding of how quickly these situations can arise, and how to avoid them.
  2. Employees, meanwhile, need to remember that they now work in an environment where information is shared in real-time. That means you can make one mistake and seconds later evidence of that mistake can be online. This “always on” connectivity means you need to always be on, too.
  3. The toothpaste is out of the tube when it comes to customer advocacy. Cameras, video cameras and even Twitter aren’t going way any time soon. Instead of fighting a battle they can’t win by complaining about the use of smart phones by customers, organizations need to adjust and find a way to operate in this situation.

A Simple Way To Win Your Customers’ Loyalty

The Roger Smith Hotel, New YorkI’m going to tell you a story about my weekend. Bear with me – it goes somewhere…

A tale of service

This weekend Caralin and I flew down to New York to see our favourite comedian Eddie Izzard at the Madison Square Gardens. I’d heard great things about the Roger Smith Hotel from people like Chris Brogan, Keith Burtis and Julien Smith, and after spotting their Bacon Package online, it was a natural choice for our place to stay.

When we arrived, we immediately noticed that the bacon truffles promised in the package we’d purchased (no, really!) weren’t in our room. No biggie, but as we’d looked forward to trying them I called down to the desk and mentioned it (I threw out a tweet too). The person manning the desk said they’d check into it, but that perhaps they were meant to arrive the next day. A few minutes later, we received a call from the front desk manager, who apologised and said he’d like to send us a bottle of wine for the mix-up – would we like champagne, red or white wine? I also got a response to my tweet (and subsequent “wow” tweet) from @RSHotel – their own Twitter account. Needless to say, we were very impressed, and my non-social media friend accompanying us was floored.

Fast forward a few hours (and a bottle of wine), and as we tried to sleep we discovered that our room’s heater apparently had a whole family of badgers in it – that, or the steam made it incredibly loud every few minutes or so. As a result, we slept very poorly and were exhausted in the morning.

After staggering downstairs bleary-eyed we mentioned it (sheepishly – I don’t like complaining) to the front desk staff the next morning. Without skipping a beat, the lady at the desk apologized and immediately offered us an upgrade to our room, to perhaps the nicest suite I’ve ever stayed in.

The point of the story

This isn’t a story about our weekend in New York; it’s a story about customer service winning-out over problems which could have become a focal point of our stay in New York.

Yes, the problems could have been avoided. The room might not have been possessed, and the truffles (which I now crave, as we never did receive them) could have been there as promised. Still, these things happen sometimes. However, the response of the staff at the Roger Smith Hotel to these problems was fabulous. From start to finish, they completely won me over with their friendliness and helpfulness, choosing long-term reputation and loyalty over short-term savings. No amount of marketing budget could build the impression I have of them now. Lots of companies could benefit from this approach.

As a result, despite the problems (in fact, perhaps it’s because of them) I’ll be staying at the Roger Smith Hotel whenever I travel to Manhattan.

The moral of the story: It’s not just the problems that matter; it’s how you respond to them.

What other companies have you had this kind of experience with?

(Image credit: Retro Housewife)