Social Media MAY improve your Customer Service…

“If you run customer service on Twitter you need to be good at it and do it everytime”. Tim Sanders

In this time of high competition where consumers have multiple options for how and where to spend their hard-earned £’s, good customer service is surely paramount. A bad experience is going to turn a customer away and with the proliferation of social media, that bad experience may not only equate to losing one customer but potentially multiple customers or potential customers as consumers take advantage of the ease of social media to vent their frustration.

So I want to do just that and share a very poor customer service experience I had recently and a little experiment I then undertook to see how seriously the business in question – Virgin Media – was monitoring social media channels to manage these sorts of issues.

So first let me briefly recount the scenario. I won’t go into too much detail about the specific issue, in fact given they say that a picture is worth a thousand words, a visual representation will hopefully work better:

Virgin Media Customer Service Lifecycle

The Lifecycle of my Virgin Media Customer Service Call

Artist: Adam Brown

Suffice to say that the experience left a pretty bitter taste. Not only the incomprehensible way the call centre representative just told me to ‘go and look elsewhere’ if I wasn’t happy with the service, but added to that was the whole way the company managed the engineer call-out. This management involved them calling me repeatedly using an IVR service, asking me to confirm my appointment, only for the service to malfunction not accept the confirmation input and continue to fill up my voicemail with a looped recording! To top it all, the engineer arrived, only to tell me that the problems I had been experiencing were ones that had been reported many times on my model of set-top box. My final thought to the whole experience: If only the on-site service department talked to the call centre personnel, we could have all avoided a whole raft of headaches!

So feeling pretty disgruntled by the whole experience I decided to complain. The way I choose to do that: Twitter. And the reasons I resorted to tweeting were two-fold:

1) There’s been much talk of companies taking advantage of the rise and immediacy of social media channels to provide customer service. The benefits are obvious: More cost-effective channels for one, the ability to impact more than one customer or prospect based on how you deal with one situation is another and most importantly surely, the opportunity to be proactive and turn unhappy customers into net promoters. However, are companies getting it right? Data, from a recent YouGov survey here in the UK suggests not. According to the survey, 83% of people expect businesses to work harder to keep them during a recession. However only 5% of respondents felt they had received better customer service in the last three years. So as a result more people are complaining about service. And how are they choosing to do that? Well, according to the data, 20% of people are now using social media as a channel to complain about customer service, a figure that rises significantly to 36% for 18-24 year olds.

From a personal point of view, I am constantly amazed at how in general customer service and call centres seem to be way down the list of important touch points with a consumer. Brands are constantly trying to understand the ‘Why‘ when it comes to customer interaction, and no doubt many spend countless hours and resources trying to do it, when there is a great opportunity and wealth of data available to them if only they choose to tap into it. As the great man, Avinash Kaushik explains, ‘the greatest nugget of insight is the Voice of the Customer’. A customer complaint after all is feedback and a chance for a business to do something differently and potentially improve their service offering. I know that whenever I talk to a call centre representative, even when I know it’s probably a waste of my time, I feel obliged to tell them why I thought the service was lacking or why my expectations might not have been met. More often than not, I get the distinct impression it is exactly as I feared: a complete waste of my time.

However not all companies seem to be getting it wrong. In fact some seem to be thriving on the social media culture. Naked Wines are a great example. A UK-based mail order wine company launched in Dec 2008, they received a post on their Facebook page from one customer complaining about not receiving their order. Their response to what turned out to be quite an irate customer ultimately meant that not only did they sort and manage one customer issue but benefited from a huge groundswell of positive PR as other users saw how quickly and effectively the company handled the complaint. Indeed many users posted comments on the company’s Facebook page, praising their standards of service.

On the other side of the coin however, there’s also a long list of companies who have had their names tarnished as a result of poor judgement when it came to their use of social media. Industry analyst and blogger, Jeremiah Owyang, maintains an interesting blog article of ‘Brands that Got Punk’d by Social Media‘. And these aren’t small, unknown brands. In fact companies such as GoDaddy, KFC, Chrysler, Gap and even Pepsi feature.

So, I’m all for it. For me social media is a leveler. It keeps brands honest and hands some of the power back to the consumer. It means large companies can’t just get away with treating customers how they want, because the cost of poor service, once measured in single consumers can now have an immediate impact far and wide.

2) The second, and perhaps more apparent reason for my tweet, was that not long after my ‘issue’ I was listening to a podcast with Alex Brown, Virgin Media’s head of customer experience, where he was extolling the efforts the brand were putting into maintaining their social media presence and how successful they had been in doing so. So I thought I’d put them to the test.

So using the proper Twitter mention syntax I tweeted:

Virgin Media Tweet

4 weeks on I had heard nothing. Now 8 weeks on, still nothing. It’s not surprising something like 65% of people expect to receive a response from a company when interacting with them via Social Media. There are a myriad of monitoring tools out there that a brand can use to monitor users mentioning the company’s name and which can gauge whether or not the sentiments are positive or negative. So why, when my tweet was so clearly from someone who was distinctly unhappy about the service they had received, did I hear nothing? The engineer was in fact the first person who actually connected with me and made me feel as though I had a valid issue and was indeed a valued customer. I can’t help feeling that if Virgin Media’s Customer Service team had followed up in some way in addition to the Engineer’s good work, I wouldn’t still feel like such a detractor. As it is I’m now actively looking for a new provider. Not only that but I’ve also taken the time to sit down and write this blog post about my experience. And no doubt this incident with Virgin Media will colour my perception of other Virgin companies in the Virgin Group. I think Augie Ray, an ex-Forrester analyst, sums it up very well: “pre-2005 – before social media began to explode – the risks of failing to meet consumer expectations were relatively small but now the cost of poor service, once measured in single consumers, can now have an immediate impact far and wide”.

Jeremiah Owyang has even created categorisations for these waves or storms as he calls them. These ‘brand backlash storms‘ have been separated into categories ranging from a category 1 where customer comments are limited to social media and the impact to the brand is minimal, right the way through to category 5s where the story has spread into mainstream press and worst case scenarios can see long-term financial impacts to the brand including in areas such as a reduction in revenue, increased costs and potentially, stock price.

Well there you have it. To leave you with a few choice words from the afore-mentioned ex-Forrester analyst:

“Social media is changing the way brands must manage and monitor their brands. It is changing the way we must think about customer service. Badly done, it can really hurt your brand.”