Customer Service and Social Media – Myths and Myth Step

Social Media Has Not Improved Customer Service Quality

Customer Service and Social Media – Myths and Myth Steps

The patient was injured in a very severe auto accident, and lay, sedated, on the gurney in the operating room. Dr. Schmidt gazed down at the ashen faced man, and noted a number of bloody head wounds that were leaking blood. In the background the heart monitor beeped endlessly, and the nurses and assisting staff waited expectantly for Dr. Schmidt’s guidance, or in fact, orders, since Dr. Schmidt was renowned for his ability to deal with severe injuries.

“Nurse”, he barked. “Start cleaning those wounds, and let’s prepare to stop that awful bleeding. We simply can’t let that continue. No, we can’t have that.” Two nurses jumped closer to the patient and started cleaning and ensuring the wounds were dressed with antibiotics. “Good”, the doctor said, “Let’s start to…”

The assisting doctor interrupted Schmidt, with great urgency. “Blood pressure crashing, It’s looking bad, we need more blood and a fluid IV drip”. Stat.

“…close those cuts”, Schmidt continued. “Can’t you see he’s bleeding? Hand me the new super duper magic thread we just got in and let’s do it. We can stop the bleeding, continue to transfuse and we should have him stabilized fast.”

They all leapt into more frenzied action at the doctor’s commands, and quickly closed the 12 bleeding scalp cuts. Just as the last one was finished, the heart monitor stopped beeping, and after a second or two of shocked inaction, people starting moving in all directions to implement the crash routines used to save patients in cardiac arrest.

It was, however, all for naught. Sadly, the patient didn’t make it.

Stepping back from the gurney, Schmidt looked at the body, shrugged and muttered to himself “I just don’t get it, it all looked so so straight-forward. He stared up to the ceiling as if he acknowledged that even he could not interfere with God’s plans, and walked out of the operating theater.

One of the remaining nurses turned to her co-worker and said: “Do you think it had anything to do with the 4 foot long bumper sticking out of his abdomen?”

Welcome to the “new super duper magic thread we just got” in the world of customer service. Of course, you’ve met the head of the social media/customer service department, Vice-President, Jackson Schmidt. He comes highly recommended. He single handedly built the social media unit at Comcast that has received award after award for its excellence in providing customer service through the use of social media techniques.

Mind you, it’s a puzzle, because for the last number of years, Comcast has been ranked in the top (or bottom) ten companies in terms of their customer service. That means, worst. Not best. So, in effect, while Schmidt may have stitched up the small bleeding using social media, the patient, while certainly not dead, has not improved its customer service health in any meaningful and measurable business results. Everyone hates them. They still make money. Puzzling.

No, not that puzzling. For large companies, attempts to use social media to address their poor customer service amounts to trying to put a band aid on a shotgun wound. It’s happening for a number of reasons, and the reasons have nothing to do with the tools used to deliver customer service, which is why social media doesn’t change anything at all at the business results level. Consider:

Many customers view customer service, particularly after-sales service as straight overhead. They have the customer’s money, so any time and effort needed is simply cost. The result is that for most large companies, probably 98% of large companies, the money/resources allocated to customer service is never enough to sustain a level of customer service that would meet even the least demanding of its customers. They under fund phone support, email support, floor staff, and yes, they under fund and under staff social media support. The problem isn’t the medium of support. It’s the priority given to customer service and the resources needed to deliver it.

Let’s make no mistake though. Top quality customer service is expensive, and many business cannot improve the perceptions of their customer service without going bankrupt. There are legitimate business reasons (like survival) that mitigate against ANY improvements.

Not only does the last paragraph apply to large corporations, but it applies to smaller businesses too. There is some unknown but variable point for any business where the cost of improving customer service past that point will threaten the viability of the business. That cost is not always in terms of staff costs. For example, even a one person business can be sent to oblivion if the person spends so much time pleasing the customers that other essential business functions are ignored.

Hype and hope is rampant where social media and customer service meet. It’s been that way for a year or two, and the realities have not yet sunk in – the reality being that social media will help with the patient’s “scratches” but the patient will remain very very ill. Social media may seem like a cool, efficient way to address the expenses of customer service, but it simply isn’t. That is simply hype and hope. Here’s why.

Let’s say you and your family own a car, but as fuel prices escalate, it occurs to you that maybe you should get a standard shift vehicle that is also more fuel efficient. So you and your spouse go down to the dealer’s and although your spouse is a bit hesitant about learning to drive a stick shift, he’s willing to give it a try, since it’s the manly thing to do. You agree that you’ll keep the vehicle with the automatic transmission until hubby is ready to switch. Six months later he is not ready. The task of learning to drive the new car ended up relegated to the pile of “todo’s” along with fixing the garage door, and cleaning out the basement.

Now, you are worse off. Your “money saving” techniques (buying the new car) makes sense economically if the new car will completely and utterly replace the old car. Of course you knew that as you read the little story, and probably shouted out loud that “you trade IN the old car, you ninny”.

It turns out that when it comes to social media as a means of saving money, the positive results are diminished because it’s almost impossible to replace the old forms of customer service contact, with social media ways of contact. So, the end result is that in addition to supporting customers on the phone, through email, and in person, you now support customers on Facebook, or Twitter, or your own blog or forum. More media sucking at the resources available for customer service.

Is it possible to save money at all using social media for customer service? Probably. There are claims that companies have done so. Can you save lots of money while making your customers happier? No. Not a high probability thing.

The kicker though is this. You can use social media to make INITIAL contact with customers who require help or information, but to actually SOLVE those customers’ problems you will almost certainly need to take the conversation off of social media, and back to the traditional channels for customer service delivery – email and phone. That’s because social media contact tools are clumsy to use, and get in the way of detailed interaction often needed to problems solve. Even more important is that there are privacy issues, so you don’t want these discussions taking place in public places.

Is there a way to use social media for customer service to improve the quality of customer service? Indeed. Invest more money and people into it. Of course, you could do that by investing money and people into answering phones promptly and effectively and just skip the whole social media thing.

Have you caught on to the other catch-22 yet? Here’s the principle”

The more channels you use to interact with customers, and assuming that you keep your investment in customer service constant, the WORSE your customer service will get.

In other words, add channels and spend the same amount of money and your resources get spread thinner, while you introduce extra steps between you and the customers you serve.

What About The Customers? Don’t They Want Customer Service Via Social Media?

Actually, no. You’re probably asking why then, do surveys of customers tend to show that somewhere around 40% of customers surveyed want to be served via the various social media options.

They’re is no conflict here. The survey companies simply don’t ask the correct and relevant questions to provide us with a complete picture, and what customers are really saying in these responses is a bit hard to get at if you aren’t looking for it.

There’s probably not a single customer on the planet who has not had bad customer service experiences in person, on the phone, and via email. As customers we take for granted that a phone call means automated responses, long waits – sometimes hours long, menus made for machines, not people, dropped calls, inefficient transfers from person to person, and, in the end, not receiving satisfaction when one finally hits “the end of the trail”. Emails are hardly any better, and in person visits often uncover indifference and lack of knowledge.

Social media comes along, with its blogs, forums, and Twitter, Facebook accounts. It’s all fairly new to most casual computer users, and it these channels don’t have all the negative expectations and perceptions that traditional customer service channels have. Most people have not YET realized that these channels are no better than the old ones, and just lead into the old channels anyway.

When you ask them whether they’d like to receive their customer service via social media they respond with a “hype and hope” answer. They hope it will be better that way, and they haven’t yet discovered it won’t be. In the absence of a lot of direct experience they go by the hype about social media.

What do the survey results really mean? Here’s the paraphrase from the customers’ point of view.

I want my problem to be solved, or at least addressed quickly and conveniently. I do not care whether it’s solved on a phone or a computer, via Twitter or Facebook, or the company blog, provided it’s a quick, convenient process that doesn’t waste my time.

That’s about it, and since we are all customers this should resonate with you. It’s not fun to have a service or product issue in the first place, and social media does not make the resolution process any more fun.

But Companies Will Be Able to Offer BETTER Customer Service Via Social Media?

Theoretically and practically, there’s no reason why customer service is, or can be better if it’s delivered via social media channels, provided everything else stays constant. If companies do not allocate MORE resources to customer service while changing their attitudes (and perhaps prices) to reflect the costs of excellent service, there is nothing intrinsic about blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that will result in better customer service. There is a slight exception to this with video based sites or systems which allow both video and audio to be used for either live discussion or for canned instructions about products and services.

In fact, some social media platforms get in the way of good communication, and customer service still ends up on the phone or email anyway. Where there is complexity customer service gets worse. The more layers between customer and ultimate solution provider, the worse customer service gets.

There is simply no reason to assume social media delivery will result in happier customers, or better served customers, again, all things being equal.

Social Media Saves Companies Money in the Delivery of Customer Service

There have been some anecdotal reports and case studies outlining how this company or that company has saved $xx,000 of money by using social media. There are a few problems with these reports.

Any company can save money spent on customer support by simply firing some of its customer service representatives.,That’s a fairly common strategy in tough times. Spending less on customer service means nothing UNLESS the levels of customer service remain the same or get better. You don’t need social media to reduce customer service costs if you don’t care if customer service worsens. Think outsourcing, which often saves money. Have the saving happened without costs in other areas?

While it is enticing to look at money (or resources such as time) spent on customer service and how those numbers can be reduced, is that the proper metric? You’d think so but it’s not. The true measure of any actions taken by business should be the bottom line – how did the action affect business results. That means revenue, sales, and profit measures.

Any case study where the affects of actions on bottom line metrics is not front and center is ultimately, not very useful. To make matters worse, things are complicated in terms of determining HOW bottom line measures were affected, and determining causal relationships between a single action and the bottom line. That’s because businesses work as systems and meaningful metrics are influenced by dozens, perhaps hundreds or thousands of actions, so measuring the effect of ONE action is almost impossible.

So, what’s the bottom line on the bottom line?

The case studies and reports are almost always incomplete, lacking enough detail to determine whether the “savings” resulted in superior business results and better customer service while saving money.

The one exception to this has to do with crowd sourcing, which we’ll cover in the next chapter, where the potential for cost saving is theoretically available.

And the bottom line to the bottom line to the bottom line? You will save money if you decide to reduce the resources allocated to customer service whether you try social media or not. However, social media per se, is not going to result in lower costs unless you reduce total resources. Since it’s not more efficient, and simply ends up pushing customers back to traditional methods, the only way to save money is to cut the costs of the other channels.

That means offering worse customer service.

Wrap Up On Customer Service Myths

  1. Customers don’t really care what channels are used to help them address their problems and concerns, except that they want fast, convenient, friendly and efficient. They are busy.
  2. Survey results purporting to measure customer preferences do not ask the right questions or generate a complete picture.
  3. Social media does NOT cost less because it does not remove the need to keep the other channels available, particularly because most social media contacts need to be moved to phone or email.
  4. Any company can cut costs by simply deciding to cut costs, or reduce resources allocated to customer service. Social media, if anything, ends up as a smokescreen for making customer service worse.

Giving You The Business Advice

Before jumping in to use social media as a support channel, try to have measurements on your pre-existing support system. How many calls? How much time? Satisfaction levels? Large companies, in particular need to have these, and probably monitor these numbers. Try to use metrics that are as close to “business results” (profits, revenue) as possible, but also keep in mind that establishing any causal links between business results and ANY action is very difficult if not impossible.

Use the numbers from the pre-existing systems as a baseline so you can establish how the use of social media is working. Again, use relevant metrics – business results. For smaller companies where it doesn’t make sense collect elaborate statistics, TALK to customers. Most small businesses can get a good feel for what their customers want simply by asking, or talking. That’s not to say you shouldn’t track actual numbers, but sometimes, for small companies, tracking complex numbers costs more than the benefits.

If your goal in using social media is to reduce the costs/overhead of customer service, here’s what you do.

  • First, do NOT cut any of your existing customer service staff, and DO NOT cut the budget for customer service. Set up your social media based approach to customer service while at the same time keeping your traditional methods constant.
  • Run both traditional and social media systems at the same time
  • What happens? Measure. Do phone calls lessen? Are your customer service reps who normally deal with customers sitting around doing nothing because nobody needs them? Great. Move them out if your DATA shows they are unnecessary.
  • If however, you find that you are now spending more to provide customer service without gaining in terms of business results, be ruthless in shutting down your social media initiatives. How? See the chapter towards end of book on that.

Remember that the reasons why customer service is terrible in the world at large has almost nothing to do with the media – phone, email, in person, video, audio, Twitter, but has everything to do with cost of serving clients. You probably know that as a business person, and you probably don’t want to hear that as a customer.

As a business, if you want to provide better customer service, you need to commit the level of resources required to do so. You need to address the culture of your company. You need to assess whether your business will benefit from better customer service (many will not).

In rare cases social media tools will help in the delivery of service. But not much. It’s not about the tools. It’s not about the tweets, it’s about the e-motion. And efficiency. And speed. And it costs.

Social media will push along the path to attending to the patient’s superficial cuts while resulting in missing the real causes and effects of poor customer service.


1In this chapter when we talk about customer service we refer to the process of providing information, and help with products and problems, and NOT the process of marketing. One trend in the marketplace, partly due to social media is that the lines between what is marketing and what is customer service are becoming less and less clear.


Author: Robert Bacal

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