Customer Service and the Rise of Social Media

Customer service has for years gotten a lot of lip service but very little respect…..”it’s your company’s face to the world”, “it takes years to win a customer but only a minute to lose one”, and other similar sayings abound, but then why is customer service so often the poor stepchild, left behind when marketing, sales, and the executive team go off to play? It’s not unusual that the customer service group is the department most underpaid, least trained, and most technically ill-equipped in the whole company,yet they are the people who deal most with your customers.When a company is looking to save money, what department has the best chance of relocating to India? In many industries these days it’s a lot of departments, but customer service is consistently in the top 3. Why?

For one thing, customer service tends to be isolated. It’s thought of as the department in charge of answering the phones and entering orders, not as the problem solvers and people making your customers happy again if something has gone awry. Publishing is an old industry, and traditions die hard, but the new media companies, which are often thriving, see it differently. Try solving a problem with Amazon—there’s never a problem.  Then try solving an AR problem with one of the old time publishing companies, and you’ll see it’s like trying to resolve a medical bill with an insurance company or the cable company—it’s a terrible experience. However, there is one big difference—the insurance companies and cable companies have you over a barrel, at least until recently—you are stuck with them. Not so with publishers. The competition is fierce, and loyalty is fleeting. You’d better be good at customer service.

The other mistaken assumption is that customer service is just the order entry department that also answers the phone.  It’s not anymore. Customer service is a blend of technology, marketing, sales, and service, and at its best it reflects the philosophy of the company that the customer is always, or nearly always right. And, if the customer is wrong, someone pretty high up the chain of command better be the one to decide to take the risk of saying “no” to that customer. You can’t go on rules set up in earlier times anymore, or stand on principle.  Social media has buried that idea about a mile under the ground, although some companies haven’t figured that out yet and are still shoveling.

My wife ran an online news magazine for nearly three years. It was a very fulfilling experience for her, but was a tremendous amount of work. The success of the venture ultimately killed it. Community Vine started out small, but by the time we decided to stop publication we were getting nearly 90 submitted stories an issue, all of which required at least some degree of editing. The hourly pay for producing Community Vine ended up being less that working for Apple in China……it was nicely profitable, but my wife was working 80+ hours a week.

Through this experience however, we both saw the rise of social media, Facebook in particular. It’s the best source of news around. It’s truly local reporting. When an accident happens on a nearby road, the first place you’ll see it is on Facebook. When someone dies, Facebook. When school is canceled due to inclement weather, you’ll often see it first on FB.

That’s bad news for companies with bad customer service…..when someone has a bad experience with your company, all their Facebook friends will see it too, almost in real time. If it gets shared, which isn't unusual, it can go viral, and you’ve got a public relations nightmare. Even in the best case, you’ll be lucky if hundreds of people don’t hear about your customer service problem, and in the worst case you could reach a million people. That’s why your customer service group better be top notch and wired into the rest of the company. It doesn’t even matter if you are correct unless you act very fast, and even then it might not matter. News on the social networks spreads like wildfire.

So, as the Godfather might have said, you need a customer service group that is intelligent, managed well, and has access to what’s going on in the company so that they can “keep your happy customers close, and your unhappy ones closer”. That’s the way the world works today.