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?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.