Why Social Media Customer Service Is A Failure

Certainly not a statement you would expect to hear from the person formerly known as @ComcastCares, but I think it is an important perspective to consider if we are to build stronger relationships with customers. As I look around I see many interesting aspects of social media from large and small businesses. and I am very excited to see companies trying new things to reach their customers. But we are now moving in a new direction and I think too few see it yet.

Today I am SVP of Social Media for Citibank (of course thoughts here are my own). I have had the privilege to see the impact social media can have on big businesses and I look forward to watching this come to reality. A few key observations I have had are:

– It all starts with trust

– Stories are the most powerful way to create & reinforce change

– Human connections are against the grain for many businesses, but imperative for social media success

– Many people are trying to make money off business leaders who do not understand social media (and they are being successful at it)

– We are so stuck on measurements, yet we are measuring the wrong things

I sometimes refer to the last twenty years in business as the Jack Welch era. While he is a business leader whom I have tremendous respect for, I also believe times are changing. Companies have been striving to focus on greater levels of metrics. For those who study Six Sigma, you have seen it first hand. When I first learned the Six Sigma process I was very excited. It was not about opinion, but instead where the metrics guided you. I completely understand why executives loved it. What many did not realize is those running the projects typically chose metrics that told the story they wanted to tell.

I am seeing the same trouble with social media today. People are focusing on the completely wrong metrics and not properly educating executives on the real story of social media. Today, companies are focusing on metrics such as ‘likes,’ fans, followers, etc. These metrics tell you nothing of substance. Few companies tie this information directly to their Customers through measurements such as the net promoter score of the social Customer, what products they are buying, etc. Most companies proclaim to be ‘listening’ in the space but very few have changed or implement processes or products based on this listening. Huge ROI can be gained just by measuring changes that stem from listening. It’s sad to say, but the only changes I have seen are those due to large or threatening groundswells. And in my view, change was only made to silence the noise.

It is easy to pick on businesses where problems play out in social media. After all, it’s there for everyone to witness. The fact is that every business, large or small, can find out useful information via social media. It’s not just about listening, it’s about gaining insights and intelligence. It should not take a groundswell of any proportion to get people within your organization to start to think about the Consumer. The world as we know it has already shifted. This is indeed the end of business as usual, but few are willing to admit it.

It’s not just the lack of intelligence or powers of observation that fail businesses. Traditional marketing is not as effective as it once was perceived to be. When I do watch TV, I tend to fast-forward passed commercials. I ignore virtually everything that enters my mailbox. When I am online, I, like you, pay more attention to what I am looking for or reading than digital ads. When I do go to buy a product, also like you, read reviews on websites like Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) or I ask my social graph for their thoughts. The pendulum has shifted!

This brings me to the failure of social service. The other day someone tweeted me asking about current costs of phone calls versus the cost per Tweet for customer service. Ugh! This is new media and yet we’re already focusing on old metrics. The truth is that the service world has been broken for years because of the emphasis of handle time or calls per hour. Companies do not want to talk to you, and it shows. The fact is most do not want to Tweet with you either. Since they are worried about brand sentiment, they may appease you to shut you up. Sorry, shutting your customer up is not customer service and trying to expedite resolution isn’t a metric for the new world of consumer influence.

Many businesses run new media efforts through PR or marketing. I have even seen a few that run social media through their outside marketing agencies (talk about being close to the customer). Anyway, I have tried a few of these out over the years. My view is that these disconnected businesses are attempting to placate consumers, to minimize or eliminate the complaint. In order for social media service to scale, change MUST happen. Companies must care. New metrics must surface that place the customer back in customer service.

I do not get a sense however, that much has changed in the way businesses run, no matter how engaged in social media they are today. This is not because the scaling is not possible, because for the most part you can queue up a tweet just as easily as you queue up a call. The trouble is the efforts are not leading to wholesale change in the way companies interact with their customers. If you are simply placating loud customers, all you are really doing is encouraging others to focus on the channels where they believe resolution awaits.

What people failed to see regarding the Dell or Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) success stories in the early social media days, is the amount of work that went on behind Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The true transformation of these businesses what not in taking to social network, but instead building the back end to start fixing the problems that created negative experiences in the first place. In my list above, I mention the power of stories, and both Dell and Comcast utilized these online conversations or stories to help drive improvements. I am sure both companies will admit that this is an ongoing process and that wholesale change does take time.

Social media is creating change in how businesses conduct themselves and placing still underestimated power in the hands of consumers and employees. If you truly want to influence brand perception, companies must:

– Empower employees (they are the life blood and the greatest ambassadors for your brand)

– Improve the customer experience, not just through service, but the entire experience with your company (please note I did not limit that to products or departments because most businesses are one brand)

– Be more nimble and not so stuck on processes that prevent change

– STOP being afraid of your customer! If anyone is afraid to speak to a Customer, you are doing the wrong things

– STOP minimizing the value of your customer! They are more influential to you in the post-commerce phase than you can imagine.

As Brian says in the next book, the brand of your business is the culmination of shared experiences. And as a result, we are entering a time when business will change dramatically. It already has in the eyes of the consumer, but few executives have connected the dots. The bottom line is that businesses need to have wholesale improvements over the way they interact with customers. This changes is currently being driven by the customer, but it also must be driven by empowered employees who want to see success in their business and processes that support transformation and adaptation.
How do you drive change at your business?

Is your business afraid of the Customer?

Do people within your company want nothing to do with the Customer Service department, or even worse, look down on it?

I personally love the customer; they are my passion and success. I represent them in everything I do. I use their stories to drive change. It is something you may want to do to.


Frank Eliason is SVP of Social Media for Citibank in New York. He previously did social media customer service for Comcast, @ComcastCares. He also is a board member of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals. He blogs at frankeliason.com and you can follow him on Twitter @frankeliason.

Although Frank Eliason usually blogs at frankeliason.com, this post, which is part of a series, originally ran on briansolis.com. It’s part of a series called The End of Business as Usual, which will be available in book form in the coming weeks. More detail on the book and project here.

This article originally appeared in frankeliason.com.