Danger! Be Careful Of Using Social Media As An Escalation Strategy

There are a lot of vendors pitching their social media listening capabilities. And, the more that I hear these pitches, the more it has made me think that a bunch of companies jumping on the social media bandwagon are going down a dangerous road of using it as a customer service escalation strategy — which is a horrible idea.

Let me illustrate with a recent story I heard. A woman discovered that the VIN number of her car was improperly recorded on her last visit to the California DMV. As she tried to get it fixed, she found out it was going to require a lot more effort than she hoped (perhaps it included a visit back to a local office). She tweeted about it. Remarkably: The California DMV was listening!! It tweeted her back, contacted her, and helped her resolve the issue in a fraction of the time and energy it would have taken. The result: a happy customer.

There are a couple of strange things about this story. First, the DMV can’t fix its long waits and broken processes, but it has people listening to Twitter. Hmm. Second, it rewarded someone who complained to the entire world about its broken process. The next time I want a quick fix to a problem I have with the DMV, remind me to tweet about it! 

Congratulations to companies that can respond to the relatively few tweets they get via this channel today. Are you prepared to scale this operation as you re-enforce people to get service from you this way? More importantly, is that really the venue in which you want to solve problems?

The irony is that most companies, if they did a better job of listening to customers and soliciting authentic feedback from them, would understand a significant chunk of what customers are saying about them through social media. And, by not listening to and taking action on those items internally, they force customers to escalate issues, making companies fight fires in public venues. After all, both of the aggrieved parties in two famous customer experience stories (United Breaks Guitars and Maytag crosses popular blogger) — both people made several attempts to get the company to do right by them. It was only after several attempts, in private, that their frustration spilled out into the public.

Most companies are too busy surveying customers on questions that are important to them and affect manager bonuses, not authentically asking for feedback about how they’re doing and what they could improve.  

A much better way is to build out a coordinated voice of the customer program that encourages and makes it ridiculously easy to give feedback. Rather than hiding feedback with grey text on a white background, put a bright red “cry for help” or “tell us how we’re doing” button on every page of your website. Rather than the multiple-choice surveys about things I don’t care about, how about making it easy for me to just say in my own words what I think you’re doing well or poorly.

Make sure you have many more empowered employees able to listen to customer feedback within your walls, respond to both the happy and the unhappy, and fix problems. Don’t dump social media — it’s an important tool. Just make it easier for customers to escalate problems and point out your dirty laundry in private, rather than air it in public.

I’ll be speaking about building the right customer experience strategy in my keynote address at Forrester’s Customer Experience Forum on June 22, 2011, in New York City. Hope to see you there!


This is part of a cycle

Listening and responding makes sense, since these folks make the most fuss. Of course, doing excellent customer service would be better. But leaving your company exposed to complaining tweeters isn't really a good idea.

The cycle I see companies go through is this:

Listen to social
Get horrified.
Listen more systematically
Dedicate staff to responding to social complaints
Integrate dedicated staff with regular customer service
Realize that service has to be improved, and not just for people who complain in social environments
Improve service

Note: very few companies have gotten to the last two stages ;-)

It's my story, so I've got to comment!

I agree 100% that social media shouldn't be a company's first (or only effective) escalation process. You make great points about using surveys, complaint buttons, etc. that are really geared at soliciting both strategic and tactical feedback. Absolutely the best way to avoid having to deal with dirty laundry in public is to have accessible and effective escalation processes for customer interactions that go awry.

But that said, I'm not convinced Twitter can't be one meaningful and useful part of that escalation process--particularly as a backstop when other processes have failed.

I didn't tweet about the DMV thinking they would see it and come to my aid. I tweeted about the DMV because I was pissed off and frustrated and venting to my followers. Whether the DMV saw it or not, that tweet was going to be out there in the public stream. And a big flashing "let us help you" icon on their website wouldn't have stopped me from writing it (though in fact, my response to the customer service survey buried on their website still hasn't received a response months later!).

Twitter is public, yes. But there's an upside to that too. Every follower who read my complaint about the DMV also saw me tweet how impressed I was at their followup. And I guarantee if you asked my followers which part of that story stuck with them, it's "whoa the DMV fixed something over Twitter" not "the DMV screwed something up."

I don't mean any of this to say the DMV (or any company) shouldn't also be soliciting feedback through well-crafted surveys or other readily-available forums for customer escalation and comment (that they actually read and respond to--DO YOU HEAR ME DMV?!?!). I'm just saying I think people like me will kvetch on Twitter whether companies are there to hear it or not. And if your customers are upset and letting people know about it, that's information you need to have and possibly do something about.

Listening and doing

Great post, Paul. I agree that companies seem to be listening and reacting in this very public channel while not always fixing what caused the complaint/moan/vent in the first place. I also agree with Elena who uses social media to express her feelings about the issue in hand - something that's very hard to do when contacting customer.

Social is here to stay and companies better get on board. They could try and scale up their social presence but that will very quickly become unsustainable. Better to embrace proper social and customer listening, really HEAR what the customers are saying and do something about what's broken. Work across the business to make changes if necessary, harness the power of customers and enable them to help themselves and each other to take the burden off the contact centres who only need to be contacted when something can't be self-served or resolved through the community.

Good luck with the forum in New York.

Good to see more people

Good to see more people realizing that social media must be integrated carefully into a holistic service approach. Otherwise you have companies managing vs. solving problems.

A couple of posts expound:
(1) Information Overload and Customer Service http://bit.ly/i4DRJE
(2) The Danger of Using Social Media for Customer Service http://bit.ly/c3U1kG

Well said. At the moment,

Well said. At the moment, community managers are fairly new and excited to do their job. I have observed a team when thousands of customers were inconvenienced and the angry tweets came in faster than anyone could read them. They were frazzled, to put it mildly. It was a preview of the day when most customer service contacts will come via social networks.

Customers already have a fair idea that many companies are beginning to respond on social networks and resolve the matter in their favour, even though the actual time taken is not always less than the phone route.