in CustServ

Why Current Ideas of Social Media Customer Service Suck

Reach, responsiveness, engagement, resolution, impact, journey – these are all buzzwords in the brave new world of customer service meets social media.
Undoubtedly, it has all the excitement of a first date – all that uncertainty of how to behave and what to say.  Despite being a new platform, the same rules  apply – being authentic, demonstrating genuine interest and representing something beyond profit.

My ABCs of Customer Service

Great customer service for any business on any platform consists of 3 things in different measure – responsiveness, engagement and resolution.  Let me break it down:

Responsiveness: How quickly is the business responding to enquiries? How long does a customer have to wait for some attention at the till, on the phone , via email and even a reply from a tweet!

Engagement: When they do respond, how well are they at listening, asking relevant questions, being helpful and demonstrating empathy? Do they make the customer feel like they genuinely care about their enquiry?

Resolution: How well do they successfully address the enquiry?  For example, refunds, exchanges, apologies. What are they prepared to do to keep their customers happy.

It is a growing practice to think of customer service as applicable not simply after sales, but at every part of the the customers’ interaction with the business. This is great and I want to see more of it. However it is a long way from being customer-driven which is far more about culture than it is about senior management pronouncements and marketing flim flam.

Imagine you ordered some tickets for a concert and they didn’t arrive. A day before the concert, you are panicking. You call the ticket vendor but, because they are slow to respond, it takes ages for your call to be answered.

Someone finally picks up the phone and you carefully explain you haven’t received your tickets, which incidentally were a birthday present for your partner, whose birthday is on the same day as her favorite band’s concert date – so an extremely special occasion!

After carefully listening – they have pretty good engagement – they explain that their policy is not to offer refunds or exchanges of tickets this close to the event. Never mind about the importance of the occasion.  They apologise but there is nothing they can do. You end the call feeling deeply frustrated, angry and dissatisfied  because their resolution is poor.

On what basis do you think you might ever buy another ticket from this vendor again? The fact that they listened?  Or the fact that, despite good engagement, they didn’t help you out in this most important of situations. Most importantly you thought they ought to be able to help.

I have and continue to interview end customers of businesses like these, in unofficial surveys triggered by data I find on bizbuzzapp.  The stories are interesting and the emotions generated by resolution are big and typically extreme. Successful resolution – where the customer is happy with what the business is going to do to address their enquiry – generates feelings of delight, satisfaction and increased loyalty. Unsuccessful resolution often generates feelings of anger, hopelessness, dissatisfaction, aggression and betrayal.

Clearly, resolution is a huge thing. It is full of promise and opportunity for the businesses that can consistently be great at it. It is also the hardest to achieve. Not because of some divine unchangeable rule – although there are truly unavoidable things like death or natural disasters – but mostly because of a problem of value assessment.

When I was 17, I went from Nigeria to St Kitts with my sister and my dad. Whilst we were there, my Dad took ill and  died.

We had never been to St Kitts before and, even though it is where Dad was born, we were in an unfamiliar place. We had to rely entirely on the kindness of friends to get through. With no idea how we would pay for his funeral, it was an extremely stressful time. Then we discovered that my Dad had a bank account in the UK with NatWest.

My mum contacted them and spoke with the manager (in the days you could still speak to the manager) and although he didn’t know my dad personally – he saw he was a long standing account holder and had either had funds in his account that could be used to bury him or had some kind of life insurance policy.  The manager asked for the contact details of the Funeral director in St Kitts and between them, they sorted everything out.

To this day I have a NatWest account and hold them in high regard. When I first set out as a consultant I opened my business account with them and put over £250K in revenue through their bank. That is the power of resolution.

This bank manager could have made things very difficult. He could have cited some policy that would have made a sad situation desperate. But he didn’t, he valued my Dad’s established custom over all those things and he had the authority to resolve it successfully.  In reality I don’t think it cost them very much because they were covered by insurance or by what was in Dad’s account – but it was hugely valuable to us.

It should come as no surprise that satisfaction increases the further you go down my ABCs.

In the early 1990s, I walked into a Richer Sounds store to enquire about upgrading my entertainment equipment for my new apartment.
As soon as I walked in, a really friendly sales person named Simon walked up and asked how he might assist me. I explained I had just moved into a new apartment and that I wanted to upgrade my equipment.

Simon listened intently, asking relevant questions about my current entertainment kit, how much I wanted to spend and what I wanted to experience from my entertainment unit. We talked through the options and I finally went with his recommendation which was both surprising and delightful.  Simon recommended that I not buy any more equipment, instead to invest in some better cabling. I had a few hundred to spend and I left that store with perhaps £50 worth of gold plated chunky audio cable.

He was absolutely right – it made a huge difference to my enjoyment.

On the face of it, Simon cost Richer Sounds a few hundred pounds by losing them a bigger sale. But in reality, he gained Richer Sounds a lifelong customer by demonstrating excellence at each of my ABCs. I was satisfied at how quickly Simon responded to my presence in his store, happier still that he engaged with me intently, asking relevant questions and collaborating with me through the options. Finally I was totally satisfied by his help in getting me the experience I wanted from my entertainment equipment and unexpectedly saving me money.

When I did finally upgrade my equipment a few years later, I spent a couple of thousand pounds at the same Richer Sounds store!

The Elephant In the Room

Many companies, perhaps through ineffective leadership, policies and/or a culture of disempowerment consistently undervalue the ongoing satisfaction of their customers. They do so whilst playing lip service to the ‘highest levels of customer service’.  What is this thing that always seems to be considered more important than satisfying customers?

Cost. There, I said it. Time and again, businesses choose to not do things that would satisfy their customers because they think it costs more than they are prepared to accept. I say ‘think’ because actually what they are basing this decision on is a short term perceived cost. When the few companies that even consciously do any kind of cost/benefit assessment of what it might take to satisfy the customer, they almost always undervalue the benefit.

Resolution challenges the business with the fundamental question of “what are you prepared to do to keep a customer happy?”. This question bumps straight up against the elephant in the room – that which no one likes to talk about because it feels ‘dirty’ to say you didn’t do the ‘decent’ thing because it would have cost more than you are permitted to spend.

Most companies I know and know of,  at least those with run-of-the-mill typical MBA educated executives, believe they should track cost. Keeping it low is paramount. Unfortunately, this focus on keeping costs low is often at the expense of other things -namely value!.

A vast industry has grownup around cost-driven customer service. There are experts in offshore call centers, IVR software focuses on ‘intelligent’ routing and queuing. Passionate employees are replaced by cheaper outsourced agencies – who might know the product catalog by heart and may be great at the script, but can hardly talk passionately about the business, the products or the vision. I am sad at how cost driven customer service is so prevalent as to seem like the only way customers can be supported.

Customer Service is Fundamentally Simple

Bizarrely all this is rather simple. Humans desire attention, many crave it. We want to connect with other people – even for information that is readily available in non-human form, humans generally choose to receive the information from another human.  We desire attention for many different reasons – to feel less alone, to have our anxieties reassured, to feel heard, to connect with another human being.  Whatever the reasons (and they can be quite complex), we mostly value human to human interaction over other forms.

The trouble is, in the world of business, attention costs money.  To have people on standby to talk to other people (customers and potential customers) is costly.  Businesses have tried to mitigate this with all kinds of strategies. Great examples are contact centers. First they started onshore, but as pressure mounted to reduce costs, the jobs were moved offshore to where labor was cheaper. This was done at the expense of the customer experience – language and cultural misunderstanding.

Another example is IVR  – that annoying ‘interactive voice routing’ that exploded in the late 80s and 90s. Routing customers through a maze of options with the intention of ‘getting them to the right department’, in practice all it mostly succeeded in doing was to frustrate customers even further.  Again, an attempt at appearing to be responsive and feign engagement. With IVR, every customer call was answered in three or four rings and you were kept busy trying to navigate the maze until you either gave up in frustration or had spent a sufficient amount of time to have made it to the top of the queue.

Each one of these strategies focuses on one or two aspects of my ABCs – ignoring that you really need all three (of course , in different measures) to be consistently successful.

I don’t mean to trivialise the challenge of keeping customers happy. In some industries – like the Funeral Services or health sector – it is tremendously hard workand emotionally wearing. But the customers’ needs are fundamentally the same, albeit more amplified. Also, I recognise that there are some customers who expect and often demand what appears to be an unreasonable amount of attention, but without the skills to really understand the needs that are driving such customer ‘demand’ and a more effective way of valuing both satisfied customers and the opportunity cost of dissatisfaction, I don’t know how a business can truly understand what ‘unreasonable’ means.

The Bottom Line

Current ideas of Social Media Customer Service suck because they are leading businesses to measure ineffective things and simultaneously directing investment and focus away from the more effective things. Too much focus is placed on responsiveness (incidentally because it is, in terms of cost and effort, the cheapest and easiest to fix) and relatively very little is done to improve engagement and resolution.

What does it all mean? Well for one thing, it strongly establishes ‘Customer Service’ as one of the last great frontiers of competitiveness. What value you place on having happy and satisfied customers and how your entire operation – people, products and processes – demonstrate that value, is increasingly becoming the biggest business differentiator.

Once there is parity of production, costs, pricing, logistics and content – the last thing we have left to differentiate businesses is how they make us feel when we do business with them.

Now it’s your turn

What aspects of this post resonate with you? What did you find challenging or disagreeable?
I would really love your feedback and experiences and look forward to your comments on how I might improve on this.
Thanks for reading!

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  1. Hi, I fully agree that we have to think about ABC cc constantly.The most important thing here I am sure to keep customers informed about their question/claim (if it’s not answered immediately) and to show them our care and readiness to care and help. customer service has to be an insurance in business, not the emergency help, thank you:)

    • Elena, thank you for a great comment.

      I absolutely agree with your point. Engagement is all about this – maintaining communication, letting people know what the progress is and it continues beyond resolution. If another issue arises in the future, engagement is also about remembering the relationship with that customer and bringing what is know about that relationship into account. For example, if in the past the business did not resolve the situation, then bring it up – “Hey it looks like we couldn’t help you the last time, I’m really going to try to delight you this time”.

      What other experiences have you found in this space?