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Social Media Empowering Customers? Balderdash

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Social Media Empowering Customers? Balderdash by Robert Bacal

Amidst the hype and hope about the power of social media and customer service, a good number of statements have been made that way overstate the power and effects of social media. One of the most obvious set of statements comes from a post by Peter Auditore, entitled: The Year of the Social Customer has Arrived & My Top Ten 2011 Social Media Predictions. Feel free to click on the link. It will open up a new window so you won't lose your place here.

The article is neither startling, and neither does it contain much that hasn't been said thousands of times before in blog posts and websites. If you read it, and you are a social media user, particularly a heavy user, you may find yourself agreeing with all of the points Peter offers up. But it's flawed. Granted Peter has posted PREDICTIONS, and of course, all predictions are speculative anyway. No real problems here. However, if Peter had stated his predictions as facts -- as what "is", then it becomes misleading.

Peter's Point One: The power of one has arrived.

Peter's point has to do with probably the most common position on social media and customer relationships -- that the balance of power has shifted to customers. He goes on to talk briefly about how one can post reviews on various sites, and that this somehow (the somehow is unexplained) brings power to the customer.

Not true. First, power exists only through coordinated, organized actions that affect consumer behavior in the real world. But there's more.

Peter appears to equate the ability to express an opinion with the ability to have that opinion influence real world behavior of consumers. There's no evidence to support that. In fact we don't know how opinions expressed in social media platforms, particularly from strangers, actually affect behavior. My guess is very little though it will depend on how the opinion is written, the degree of factual information, how well it's expressed, and how readers make sense of the opinion.

For example, if you go to hotel review sites, you will almost always see reviews that conflict. One person says the service is bad. Another says it was great. Another talks about mold in the room. Another talks about the amazing cleanliness. All about the exact same hotel, and sometimes during the same time period. Without knowing how readers make sense of conflicting information, we can't possibly know whether any ONE opinion will affect a reader.

Obviously if you read ten reviews about a hotel, and they all say just about the same horrible things about the place, you probably aren't booking there. But except for high end establishments that charge in excess of five hundred dollars a night, that almost never happens.

Add in that any ONE review means nothing at all due to factors such as bias, potential hidden agendas and readers simply not knowing who the person reviewing the establishment is, the review can have only little effect at all.

Word of mouth IS important, but any old word of mouth isn't. I don't know about you, but I listen to the people I know and trust -- family, friends, and people I know well enough to know their tastes are about the same as mine. Strangers? No way, and particularly when the reviews conflict.

The ability to express an opinion does not guarantee that people will a) read it, b) believe it and c) act differently as a result of reading it. The power of one doesn't exist.

Lack of understanding and oversimplification of the "power of social media" is rampant. It's the common wisdom, and it extends to other topics such as the "coming transparency" and "increased business accountability".

So Why Is This Happening?

The explanation has to do with a number of psychological variables that create a host of logical errors in thinking -- errors we to which we are all prone.

The worst of which is that if we want something to be the case, we can be blinded by the fact that it isn't. The desire for better customer service, which most of us want can be so strong that we get into the hype and hope syndrome, and believe it DOES exist, or it will very shortly.

We can see that, not only in Peter's point on the power of one, but in a few of his other predictions. But there's a dead giveaway included in his article. He writes in a style that might lead one to believe he's a pundit or expert of some sort, conveying an objective set of opinions. That's not a knock on Peter. I certainly do that at times.

But is he writing as a pundit. An expert. Or is he writing a s regular run of the mill guy who loves social media, and loves the idea of customer service. Is he writing from an objective position, or one that is based on hope?

The giveaway is the following quote:

Those of you who read my blogs last year know that I became a social customer, blogged about it and demonstrated how it can impact brand, reputation, product and service. I must admit I had a lot of fun becoming a social customer.

While Peter has serious qualifications to set himself apart from the average customer, in terms of knowledge and experience, he's not writing from that "place". He's writing as one of billions of customers, each of whom may have opinions, and without any particular data expressed to justify them.

When you consider there are thousands of people doing this, essentially saying the exact same things, and obviously in agreement, it creates illusions and misconceptions about how things work.

That's bad for businesses who rely on what they read so they can make decisions about what to do with social media.

In closing take a look at the other items, particularly the ones on journalism. I leave you to think about the implications of journalism being degraded to the point where there are no standards, ethics, reviews, editors and so on so that anyone's article is as good as anyone elses in terms of quality, accuracy, and fact checking.

Final thought: Is Peter's article, in fact, a good example of how bad information conveyed via social media is poor journalism? Misleading? Dumbing down?

it's a wee bit scary.

About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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