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The "New Age of Customer Service" - Getting It Right About Twitter, and Customer Complaints

In an article entitled Wired and dangerous: The new paradigm of customer service, reporter Lisa Earle McLeod uses the famous David Carrol guitar incident to express her concerns about what she calls, the "New Age of Customer" service occurring as a result of social media.

For those who don't know David Carroll's guitar was severely damaged by United Airlines, and he put together a humorous video on YouTube that "went viral". Huge numbers of people viewed the video and then told there friends to view the video and so on.

According to the author, a blog written on The Economist "documented" the cost to the airline. In terms of share price, 10% of their share value, about $180 million was lost. Of course, that figure is unsubstantiated, but be that as it may, the video did United Airlines no good at all. THAT is not in dispute. The significance of this event SHOULD be disputed.

Is There A "New Age of Customer Service?

The short, simple answer is no. While others have trumpeted that social media has "changed" consumer behavior, in fact, it's the same customers, by and large doing the same things. Many people WANT it to be a new age, but that's more wishful thinking than reality, and while it may eventually come to pass, the only way it will come to pass is if human beings abandon how they currently react and what they do. A new age will occur when human beings change in significant ways, and that will not happen because of Twitter. Unless Twitter causes genetic mutations!

McLeod cites author Chip Bell as follows:

According to Bell's research, 62 percent of customers who hear about a bad experience on social media stop doing business with, or avoid doing business with, the offending company.

True? Not likely. Without seeing the sampling, research design and so on there's no way to tell in a definitive way, but there's no questions that the overwhelming majority of "research" on social media and customers is completely useless, because it's done by simply asking people via surveys, rather than examining their behavior. As I've said elsewhere, in the social sciences we KNOW that when you compare what people say they will do, and what they actually do, there is often large differences between the too.

Apart from the lack of substantiation (isn't this the way these days, with people citing something on a sixth or seventh hand level without actually reading the source material?), it's seems fairly clear that what Bell describes simply does not happen with any regularity. If you need evidence, consider your own actions. How many times have you seen criticisms about a company and forgotten completely about what you read in social media? What? You don't know?

That's because you forgot. It was not of great interest to you. So, you forget. If I ask you whether you stop doing business with firms, given negative reviews in social media, you are more likely to say yes, because you will remember the "outlier" instance that, for whatever reason, was associated with strong emotions on your part.

It's really simple. People remember the RARE things more than they remember the "common things". And that's why (among other reasons) they give answers to survey questions about customer service that have NO bearing on actual behavior. It's basic cognitive psychology.

The Issue of Outliers

Interestingly enough, in McLeod's article she makes several errors associated with outliers -- instances that are memorable BECAUSE they are rare, and extrapolating that the RARE occurrence happens much more than it does.

The Carroll guitar incident is a perfect example. First, keep in mind that if you go on YouTube, you will probably find THOUSANDS of videos made by a lot of upset customers. Less than a very few, probably less than the number of fingers you have, have been viewed by very many people. The Carroll video is THE exception, not quite a singularity, but close. Going viral is like that. That one video, or tweet, or... well, anything, goes viral and causes serious grief, does not mean that there's a trend. In fact, it could be several YEARS before we see another case like the Carroll case.

McLeod, and apparently Chip Bell, have made a fundamental mistake on this issue.

In fact, the research on how often Twitter users, for example, make negative comments about brands shows fairly conclusively (they look at behavior, not surveys), that positive comments significantly outnumber negative brand comments. Simply, customers are not "heading to Twitter" to bad mouth brands. In fact it's the opposite.

We remember what is rare, and we forget the common. We remember that which has emotional significance for us, and we tend to forget the content that strikes no emotional chord.

Hence, outliers look like the norm. When you add in issues of "wishful thinking" on the part of those who would like to see "empowered customers", it ends up misleading.

A little basic information can fill in the picture, particularly about Twitter, but you can confirm this from your own experience.

The majority of tweets go either unread, unnoticed, and receive no observable responses. I've explained why this is the case elsewhere -- the short of it being that because tweets are part of an ever moving "stream", people who are not watching when the tweet is sent will tend not ever to see it. Of course there are exceptions to this, but there's an easy test to apply (I've seen only one person try this, and confirmed what I'm saying here).

Give something away that has value. Tweet about it ONCE, at least at first. What response do you get to take you up on the offer? You'd think if you have 10,000 Twitter followers, you'd get a whole passel of people getting the freebie, but you won't. If you get 100 that would be excellent. But it probably will be less. If you doubt it, try it.

What ARE Customers Doing When They Get Mad?

They are doing pretty much what they did 25 years age when I began helping employees deal with angry customers. Despite the claims, not much is different, and in fact, McLeod alludes to this in her article.

  1. Customer find problems with services, products.
  2. They attempt to voice their concerns in the conventional ways, face-to-face, telephone, and email (letter writing seems to have gone poof!).
  3. By and large they are ignored, have to wait on phones for hours and otherwise go from concerned to angry to enraged, and NOW, even if they eventually get their issues solved, want to vent.
  4. THEN they go to Twitter. Very few people actually read the tweets (most twitterites have less than 100 followers anyway), and of that, only a tiny percentage will even proffer an "attaboy, go get 'em. The average impact of venting on Twitter is ZERO, because it's constrained by how both Twitter, and human beings work.
  5. Finally, some fools who want customers to be in control then look at the exceptions, and the outliers, pronounce them the norm, throw some 5th hand research in that they haven't read, and couldn't understand anyway, and there you go.

Twitter is a last resort, as is YouTube, when customers are so angered by treatment during the process of trying to solve problems that they are going to yell bloody murder (actually that's not the norm either).

Ms Mcleod, Be Happy, Don't Worry

There is certainly no new age, at least yet. Customers are not acting the way the naive claim because they are still the same human beings they were before social media. It's not that social media has zero effect. It's that people haven't changed. And neither has their behavior regarding customers service once you realize you are (as all of us), mislead by the outlier effect, and memory effects, coupled with bogus or badly designed research.

...But Companies Take Note

The course of action is clear. Businesses need not rely on social media for customer support, although it's always good to monitor your brand anywhere on the 'Net. In fact, even if customers vent in social media, it's not a problem, because a) few will read and respond and b) the viral phenomenon is so rare that it's almost certain most businesses will never suffer as a result.

In fact, consider this amusing conundrum. If even just a tiny percent of social media sent customer complaints "went viral" everyone on the planet would have to be sitting and doing nothing else but reading and transmitting the message!

The solution is to go to the basics of customer service, simplify and improve the experience for customers, particularly those with problems. You simply don't have to hire dozens of people to "socially media-fy". You may need to hire enough people so your customers don't have to wait hours on the phone. (Is it really necessary to tell business this?)

You may need to educate and train your customer facing staff that interact with customers, so they can be helpful, quick and know how to deal with angry customers.

You need to improve your customer service through "traditional channels". Fast, convenient and effective service on the phone and via e-mail will eliminate the need, and the behavior to trumpet bad news about your brand.

That's the meat and potatoes of today's "age" of customer service. If you want to add some peas to it, you can jump into Twitter.

Twitter is not a threat. Empowered customers are not the threat because they are NOT empowered. That's an illusion.

Screwing up in early contact will bring the threat.


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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