Social Support: Companies Are Teaching Customers To Yell At Their Friends

Update: I polled my microblogging network on which brands have supported them on Twitter, see which brands have ‘taught’ their customers to yell at their friends.

Recently, I started teaching puppy Rumba tricks beyond the basic sit and stay, I even made a video. How do I do it? I show him the move, then praise and reward him once it’s done. Repeat, over and over. Although customers aren’t dogs, (save for Purina and Dogster), we’re slowly training our customers that if they want better customer support, that they should say it loudly and in public –thereby influencing their friends.


[As companies accelerate their social support efforts, responding to customers in public reinforces the behavior of complaining to everyone they know]


An Increase In Companies Providing Social Support
The most notable example is ComcastCares who is more responsive to customers using Twitter than on the phone. Secondly, the recent customer service flareup reported by popular blogger Dooce forced the Whirlpool to respond to her when she wasn’t satisfied with support from the call center. BestBuy launched Twelpforce, a way for its thousands of employees to answer questions from anyone that has a problem. Want more examples? See these recent examples for B2C and B2B.

Three Opportunities For Companies To Evolve Customer Support
This isn’t just about rise of social tools, in fact, customers have had bad experiences before. The difference? Their voices were just limited to those they could tell in physical proximity. Rather than think of this as a threat, companies should see this as three distinct opportunities:

  1. Fix the root issues, beyond the customer vocalizations. Looking deeper, this isn’t about social technologies, it’s really an indicator that the support systems within these companies are deficient. In many cases, customers try the standard support effort, hit a wall, then seek other avenues for self-venting, help, or just sheer observations of their frustrations.
  2. Transform your support processes and go where customers are.Companies should continue to support customers on the mediums that they’re using (like social sites and soon mobile), as they are unlikely to change their existing behavior of being social and telling friends about their life and work experiences. Expect companies to grapple with outsourced crowdsupport in GetSatisfaction, UserVoice, Facebook Groups, Yahoo Answers, and community bulletin boards.
  3. Evolve your support systems to connect with the modern marketplace. Expect a rash of social CRM features, companies and solutions to appear that connect existing call systems, knowledge boards, and customer databases with the public web –closing the gap that was once the firewall.

In the end, there will be hundreds of companies that won’t care what customers think, or have their margins squeezed to tightly they can’t afford to innovate and may suffer the fate of any organism that doesn’t evolve in a changing environment. This is an easy fix: their competitors will listen in, and poach their unsatisfied customers.

Update: Jennifer Leggio extends the conversation, and sees the same trend

  • http://blog.netbiz.com Cory Huff

    Good times. We’re in the midst of integrating social media CSR issues with phone based issues. It’s a fun problem to deal with because people get to be creative.

    I like what the owner of Zappos said when asked about the ROI of using social media for CSR. It’s the same as answering your phone.

  • http://www.jodypirrello.com Jody Pirrello

    Agreed! I have been saying #1 for a while now. The ComcastCares case study always irks me. Yes, it is successful. But its success is really just a band aid and isn’t addressing the root cause. As a stop gap measure it’s great – and social is poised to do that. But as a long-term “fix” it’s poor.

    My older and less tech-savvy relatives will not take to twitter or getsatisfaction. When they’re unhappy they’ll call up Verizon and get FIOS instead.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Cory, that’s interesting bit about Zappos –the difference is phone support is far more costly than social support. Curious if anyone thinks that brands should have an active support community in order to support customers so they don’t have to “yell” at their friends.

    Jody, social support (or support in general) stops bleeding, but where’s the wound?

  • http://www.facebook.com/noah.kuttler Noah Kuttler

    Excellent post and this should be required reading for all companies who do support.

    #1 on your list is what pains me. As you recall, it was on your last post about this topic where I commented on the lack of support I was recieving from a certain company. Suddenly, I had 3 people falling over themselves to help me. Before that, it was crickets.

    Not that the help wasn’t appreciated, but I kept telling them – if only the first person I spoke to had the drive and the level of passion to solve my problem as they did, we wouldn’t be here.

    Ideally, we as customers shouldn’t have to yell to get attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/davidewart Dave Ewart

    Great post — When the phone rings in the call-center, others don’t see it. When people use the twitter-phone, everyone ‘hears’ it… Therefore companies have a vested interest to solve in a hurry.

    Let’s also remember that the customer reaction is usually a symptom of a larger issue, most likely a ‘transaction’ failure: whether it is online, in store, or in the call-center. The support center can struggle to keep pace beyond the challenge of what medium to respond in, they need visibility into the issue for resolution, from your customer’s perspective.

    While building your ‘triage plan’, highly recommended by Jeremiah, consider fixing the source/error that initially exposed the issue. It might sound like common sense, but when your sink is overflowing, don’t grab the mop first — turn the faucet off.

  • http://twitter.com/sdholakia Sanjay Dholakia

    JO, great question and post! Treating Twitter and other social outlets as just another support channel to hear/respond to customers really doesn’t improve the lot for companies. It just succeeds in making the conversation more public and creating EXTRA support burden for the company, since they now have to pay additional people to monitor that channel. Instead, our customers like Cisco/Linksys, AT&T, Verizon, Best Buy, HP, and others have found it far more profitable to create customer support communities to draw customers in to discuss issues with each other and the company in their own branded environment. Two key things happen that is very different than justtrying to ‘listen’ to another channel:

    1) The company actually reduces costs significantly by avoiding calls as customers actually support each other! A company like Linksys sees over 120,000 cases deflected a month…at $5-$10 a pop, that an annual savings of $7-$14M! http://bit.ly/qzjxs
    2) Customer satisfaction actually goes UP. Becasue custoemrs are finding answers faster and from sources they trust (other peers), they are more loyal to the company. Sage software saw their NPS score go up 20 points! http://bit.ly/jtvwJ

    Here is another link to a New York Times article about Verizon (thought I’d put this in here since Jody mentioned them) and how their support community has become a strategic asset. http://bit.ly/wujg2

    These customer communities help customers avoid having to “yell” — and they drive real hard dollar ROI for the compnaies to boot!

    Sanjay Dholakia
    Chief Marketing Officer
    Lithium Technologies

  • http://www.marketleveragetv.com MLDina

    I completely agree! I’ve had some EXCELLENT customer service with Southwest via social networks and over the phone. That constant, dedicated level of service keeps me one of their #1 fans. I’ve also had HORRIBLE customer service from other companies, such as Crispers, who not only ignore my feedback, but go so far as to DELETE it from their profile. They’ve lost at least 8 customers for life (myself and the group with me when we waited 1 hr for our food and got 2 measly coupons mailed to us). Customer service makes all the difference in the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/szofia Szofia Jacobsson

    It’s really interesting that you point out “this isn’t about social technologies, it’s really an indicator that the support systems within these companies are deficient.”
    I work with social media strategies at Swedens biggest telecom company. And as in any big organization, it’s very hard to get everybody on the same track. But we started a Twitter account for customer service, which quickly became popular. But now we’re starting to get comments on blogs saying “are supposed to be thankful for [the company] being on Twitter instead of answering the phone?”.
    Which is exactly the problem that you are addressing, when a new trend hits the market, many sees it as an opportunity to disguise the “root issue”.
    I will definitely take this blog post with me in my future discussions within the company!

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Szofia, that couldn’t make me happier, share away!

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  • http://www.loopthing.com/?a=BnGncukOwJ4 Donagh Mc Sweeney

    Just off the phone to two seperate companies and my experiences couldn’t have been further apart.

    The first(a large Irish telecoms company) was extremly frustrating to deal with. There’s threads upon threads on independent forums from customers sharing their annoyances and anger. I don’t hold much hope of the company engaging with the social web. However their lack of engagement with customes online only adds to a reputation that is already tainted. If they were to take to the internet and address customer issues online they would not only help the customer but could also improve their reputation by offering a valuable soloution to customer issues.

    The second was actually Microsoft and I must say the man I spoke to was extremly helpful and attentive. I’m not sure about their social presence but they should be given a pat on the back for good phone support :)

  • http://www.beginningwithi.com/comments/ Deirdré Straughan

    “Curious if anyone thinks that brands should have an active support community in order to support customers so they don’t have to “yell” at their friends.”

    This was exactly what I did for Adaptec over 10 years ago. This was a little before online forums became widespread, so we did it via email, and had a very lively discussion list where most of the suppport was provided by customers helping each other, though we also had technology experts like myself reading and moderating (and reporting back to the company on trends, issues, wants, etc.).

    Discussion List: Early Experiences in Online Customer Communications http://bit.ly/TKUgX

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  • http://www.twitterthoughts.com Roger Harris

    Jeremiah, good points as always.

    Your first point is key. If customers are complaining, the first place to start is the product/service or whatever is causing the noise. I think about United Breaks Guitars. If United had better baggage handling procedures, the problem wouldn’t have happened in the first place. From there, they then can address their customer complaint procedures.

    One of social media’s key benefits for companies, often overlooked, is the potential for R&D. When millions of people are out there using your product every day can do vastly more to improve a product than even the best-funded R&D department. Creating an effective way of tapping into this source of business intelligence can cut R&D expenditures and reduce product development time and costs dramatically.

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  • http://marketingtech.typepad.com Brian Makas

    Great points, communicating with social media is not without risk.

    I recently had a positive experience with Wynn Encore Las Vegas:

    http://marketingtech.typepad.com/marketing-tech/2009/09/unlocking-the-unique-customer-service-potential-of-twitter.html

    … but most companies deal with Twitter in the same way they would any other channel and often draw attention to their biggest weaknesses along the way.

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  • Damon Billian

    Given that I have a fair amount of experience with many of the tools mentioned at various companies, some consideration does need to be given to the fact that the actual number of problems posted online are amplified to extremes by social tools (in other words, it may not be entirely reflective of true support deficiencies at all).

    “Curious if anyone thinks that brands should have an active support community in order to support customers so they don’t have to “yell” at their friends.”

    Yes, but it would probably depend on the type of product or service being offered. One person alone can actually equate to being several (or more) reps, and it is still one of the reasons why you still see a lot of forums still active as a support channel.

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  • Amber Nicole Cannan

    It has been my observation that those at call centers or the standards for communicating dissatisfaction with a product or company do not have the authority to do anything about an issue. In addition, they are not all trained in the same way or with the same information, so you get 6 different answers for the same question when you call 4 times. I believe that those monitoring social media may have more authority and training- they may be higher up in the companies infrastructure and hence able to actually help a dissatisfied customer instead of deflect. So yes, companies are “training” us to yell at our friends, because you actually get help that way.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/davidewart Dave Ewart

    Great post — When the phone rings in the call-center, others don't see it. When people use the twitter-phone, everyone 'hears' it… Therefore companies have a vested interest to solve in a hurry.

    Let's also remember that the customer reaction is usually a symptom of a larger issue, most likely a 'transaction' failure: whether it is online, in store, or in the call-center. The support center can struggle to keep pace beyond the challenge of what medium to respond in, they need visibility into the issue for resolution, from your customer's perspective.

    While building your 'triage plan', highly recommended by Jeremiah, consider fixing the source/error that initially exposed the issue. It might sound like common sense, but when your sink is overflowing, don't grab the mop first — turn the faucet off.

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