(apologies for length)
For the past eight months I’ve been blogging about the intersection of blog monitoring and customer service/technical support and how an interactive marketing team can — and should – do more to influence the reputation of a brand by attempting to improve a company’s reputation through direct communications with customers and prospective customers. The secret comes down to the Golden rule of doing unto others … if you owned the product and it didn’t work, or failed to meet expectations, how would you want to be treated?
The company has created a small, informal, ad hoc team that monitors blog and forum posts scanned via Technorati searches aggregated into Bloglines or Google Reader. Someone – either myself, or Mark Hopkins — reaches out in private to quickly resolve tech support issues, delayed orders, and cries of pain. Of the contacts that our customer support team handles every month, only a handful emanate from blogs.
The company doesn’t necessarily prioritize blogged issues, but because a blogged issue is considered one of the most important tangible examples of “engagement” – a customer taking the time to write down their issue – I want make sure the organization replies in kind, personally, and with an extra effort to resolve the problem. What’s the motive? Simple: happy customers expressing their happiness is the single most valuable asset that the Lenovo brand can accrue. Customer feedback should be the most crucial feedback to our engineering and operations teams, and so we want to encourage the market to talk about our products and services honestly and openly.
I am not setting out to create a class-system where bloggers and forum posters get more attention than non-bloggers, or where more influential bloggers get more of a VIP experience than lesser known writers. But I take blogged incidents very seriously because:
1. A blogged incident is part of the public record. A phone-based incident leaves no record and is a one-to-one conversation, not a one-to-many. The phone incident is just as valuable, but doesn’t leave behind a trace detectable by the search engines which then enters the public record.
2. A blogged incident is a gesture of engagement that must be acknowledged out of respect to the blogger who took the time to write the post or comment.
I am concerned that our efforts to improve the customer experience for bloggers will create the perception that by blogging a complaint, a person will be rewarded and given priority over a customer who may not have a blog. The downside of listening and responding is that it could, in theory, reward the practice of a perturbed customer opening a blog simply to vent their dissatisfaction and break the service policies put in place to treat all customers equally.
We just lost a customer. He first appeared in the comments of our first official corporate blog and described a problem with his new system purchased from a retailer. I responded to him, put him in the hands of our support specialists and over the next three weeks watched as we tried to solve his problems. It seemed that nothing we did was going to solve the problem and suddenly the customer flamed us. A second machine was swapped for the first by the retailer and the problem persisted. Our best support people called the customer and were unable to duplicate the problem. Finally, we sent a service engineer to the customer and swapped a part and that partially solved the problem, which involved wireless access issues and could be complicated by the customer’s router, DSL service, any number of variables.
For the business, we lost money on the machine almost from the moment we started engaging with the customer. That customer had every right to expect a flawless experience and yet, despite our best efforts we were unable to turn it around. This wasn’t a typical issue — in fact it’s the first of its kind that we’ve detected — and we set out to fix it so it wouldn’t happen again.
But, in trying to salvage some lessons from this experience, our first real failure in this campaign, I think we have learned the following.
- It is a challenge to respect the formal service processes put in place to treat all customers fairly when working with an upset blogger. No one wants to be put through a “process” but breaking the process can have big consequences for the business.
- Sometimes the best initial action is a refund offered in tandem with a new system, no questions asked. But until you have the freedom to make that offer, you can’t.
- Duplicating a customer problem in the lab is a challenge when the engineers try to reconstruct the scenario on a machine nearing its end of life in the product line and when it involves third party variables like DSL, wireless routers, etc..
- Communication to the customer – when the customer is posting in detail all interactions, and saying that he will post full email exchanges – is a challenge for many people unaccustomed to working with bloggers. The inclination is to respect the customer’s confidentiality and privacy and not work the problem in the open. Yet, the reality is sometimes the customer likes the public attention and wants it discussed in the open.
- One can’t expect the customer to look at the warranty and service agreement on their product – typically a mess of terms and conditions – and respect the fact that by sending service people to his home, by escalating the issue to the highest levels of the organization, and by going above and beyond what the customer purchased the company has made a concession. My attitude would be: “Your stuff doesn’t work. Fix it.”
Well, we win some and we lose some. We made a few people very happy this week. We failed to win another over.
Here’s a few of the many wins:
Rick Klau: our first success.
And here’s the loss:
Here’s Mark’s point of view:
Every interaction with a customer, regardless of medium, face to face, phone or web is a moment of truth.
Interaction with the customer has moved beyond the phone, marketing or commerce web sites, and into forums, corporate blogs, and even into customer personal blogs and websites. Every interaction leaves an impression of the brand, a footprint if you will. Some footprints are more visible and permanent than others – those blog posts create a legacy, good or bad, visible in Google searches that live on after the event.
The prospect of this legacy raises the stakes for online support efforts. Let’s discuss some observations and challenges:
The Opportunity & Environment
In most instances, the customer wants to be understood and fairly responded to. By the time he or she blogs about their issue, they have reached a point of frustration, or have been made to feel their issue wasn’t important to the company. In many cases, simply reaching out to the customer and giving them a venue to share their frustrations goes a long way toward resolving the matter successfully. Most customers recognize these efforts as “extracurricular” and appreciate that:
1) You’ve paid them a huge complement by finding and reading their blog
2) You’re on your own time, going the extra mile for them. In contrast, and as more companies join in and this becomes mainstream it will be more the norm, some customers assume that because you are engaged in this activity that it is formally sanctioned and that you are empowered to mobilize and prioritize company resources to resolve their issue.
Online interactions are in the public eye, and leave a lasting legacy good or bad, so there is a tendancy to desire to expend all possible effort to ensure a postive outcome. However, a policy of fairness in process must be maintained to ensure customers that reach a company by phone, or face to face are afforded the same effort as their online bretheren lest a class system be formed. But beyond equity of process, a company has to be careful not to create a trap for itself, whereby it is held hostage by what an individual blogger may write, or else it’s a slippery slope of increasing demands from the online community. Handled well, customer satisfaction is restored, and a blogger may become a staunch supporter. Handled poorly, you have a lasting smudge on your brand reputation.
Understanding the blogger psyche
For crude illustrative purposes, I’ll divide and contrast two types of online personalities who may have your product and are blogging negatively about it or your company. Customers and Activitists. Customers have a clear objective – to get the product or service that they paid for – get their specific issue addressed, or get their money back. Usually interactions with customers progress quickly to a successful outcome, because there is a clearly defined objective that is generally within the boundaries of the companies original offering, or a reasonable concession can be made.
Activitists, are far more problematic in that their objective isn’t necessarily what they are directly asking for. This type of person usually has a cause – an industry or company policy they wish to change, or perhaps they have moved beyond being frustrated by the problem and want more than just to have it solved. Their true agenda, whether they admit it to themselves or others is a vengeful pursuit of the company. They seek to injur the company in mental reparation for how they believe they have been agrieved by the company.
Use Caution – Rules of engagement
Idealistically, everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but for those companies planning to wade out into the blogosphere offering the olive branch, there are some things worth considering. Where possible, read multiple entries from the bloggers site, and try to understand the blogger before engaging. Is he or she a pattern ranter? One whose blog is filled with repeated stories of how their interactions with others has gone awry? Are all their posts a critique of the world? If so, it may be that interaction with them will not lead to a positive post related to your efforts, even if you resolve their specific concern. You may find this type of person actually will hinder resolution, as a protracted saga of interaction will provide ongoing fuel for their blog.
Don’t confuse effort and expense with results. It really doesn’t matter what your internal limitations are, and it is generally counter productive to explain to a troubled customer what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do, set fair expectations with the customer and be sure to deliver on what you promise, in the timeframe you promised. Unfortuneately, sometimes that isn’t enough. The customer, fairly cares nothing for hours invested or dollars spent working on his or her problem, they only care that it’s fixed. From a company perspective, the concept of economic principles may become a factor part way through an engagement. The company may have expended all profit, or perhaps even one, two, or even ten times the purchase price of the product in trying to address the customer concern. From a pure economic standpoint, a strategy of refund may appear more cost effective.
When things go bad
If and when it becomes apparant the customer no longer is focused on the objective of a resolution to his / her particular issue and has shifted to a pattern of negative posts no matter the effort, it’s time to end the engagement. Suggest to the customer that you see that your not going to be able to make them happy, and in fairness to both your time and theirs that you seperate. Providing a refund and return of the product as appropriate may be for the best.
Keep track of your win rate
Be honest and objective, and adjust your tactics to improve your resolution rate. 1) Pursue those customers that are crying for help, and whose background (prior history and other online behavior) suggests they can be helped. 2) Empathize with the customer, ensure they feel heard, understood, and responded to. Treat their emotional needs as seriously as you treat their particular issue.