How Social Media is Changing Customer Service

After my little experiment in social media and customer service back in May 2010, I thought I’d follow up with this fantastic infographic on the topic (below) showing how brands which don’t embrace the new communication mediums are going to be losing customers and damaging their market presence in the future.

There are some great start-ups in this space, helping companies do a better job of managing their presence – not least Conversocial, run by my good buddy @joshuamarch

Every Customer Complaint Has A Silver Lining

Sometimes mistakes can have unexpected benefits.

My first internet company turned out to be a web development company (although it was never intended that way initially, we pivoted from being a localised business portal after I failed miserably to sell enough advertising for the site).

It was comparatively early days on the web, in 1998.

A few years later after selling the business, I looked back at our client roster and realised that the top 5 most loyal clients who had been with us longest, had all experienced a major problem during the first project we executed; but because we handled the problem well they had become more loyal than clients who had never had a problem.

Good service is so hard to come by these days, that when people receive truly good, honest service, it stands out disproportionately.

There's no escape from it.

Sebastian Coe in his book The Winning Mind notes that “Human error tends to be the norm”. It seems inevitably then that you or your team will make errors and most likely on a regular basis.

View these as an opportunity. Fixing a problem well for a customer will always result in more loyalty than they originally had.

Of course not all errors can be spun easily to a positive. With a slip-up which loses a position of strength in business negotiations, or with a pilot making an error causing a fatal aeroplane crash, it would be difficult to see any sort of lining – let alone a silver one.

Thankfully in the world of day to day customer care, most errors are not life threatening. They are usually more irritating and time consuming for your customer, than anything else.

Big companies almost always deliver such appalling service that responding promptly to a problem and then over delivering with a fix (preferably including a gesture of compensation or good will) is a huge pulsing exception in the darkness of unanswered complaints, blame and denial of culpability which brands and big business routinely dish out to us, their customers.

Don’t let your company fall to this fate.

Fixing a customer problem should be approached as an attempt to garner irrational brand loyalty. In other words, use it as a step toward becoming a lovemark in the eyes of your customer.

Johan Nordstrum. Customer service visionary.

You don’t even have to believe me. Read Delivering Happiness by Tony Heish, a book of his approach to customer service at Zappos, or read my article about Johan Nordstorm – who’s chain of stores in the US proved exceptional customer service and profitability are not mutually exclusive; or my older blog post on a similar topic – why do corporates make simple mistakes?


Virgin Atlantic: how one of my Lovemarks hurt me today.

Knowing I would be tight for time this morning after returning from a film premier in Harrogate, I tried to check in online last night for Virgin Atlantic VS003 to New York, but Virgin Atlantic’s website was broken.

As predicted this morning I was cutting it fine for time and tried to check-in online again; a similar problem, I couldn’t check-in. An online error.

Undeterred I ran on to the Heathrow Express, through Terminal 3 up to a Virgin Atlantic check-in terminal, to arrive right on the one-hour before departure deadline.

All the terminals were out of order.

The Human Touch

Five minutes later I was speaking to a service agent who was trying to be helpful.

Realising I was hand-luggage only she said it would probably be OK and she spent five minutes trying to get through on the phone to someone. Finally getting through, before she could even explain I was hand-luggage only, she was told the flight was closed and I wasn’t allowed through.

This was strange as it was before 9:55am. This is significant because Upper Class check-in closes 40 minutes before departure although today (courteous of a client) I am travelling cattle class; the economy check-in closes 60 minutes before departure.

It was only 9:45am (50 minutes before wheels up) so the flight could not have been closed because if it were Upper Class passengers would not be able to check-in.

The helpful desk agent apologised, looking a little perplexed.

I always try hard not to take it out on staff at the coal-face. Often these days they don’t have the authority or decision making power to help you (that by the way is another business problem I discuss here.)

So, off I go to the ticket desk to get pushed on to the later flight at 2pm (which incidentally is a nightmare for me because with only five hours in New York before flying on to Dallas, my stop over and meetings are ruined).

Show Me The Money

Andrea a pleasant South American chap says the good news is that they can put me on the next flight VS045, but at a cost of £120. I protest politely but Andrea can’t do anything.

He asks his manager. Computer says no.

I ask at least if I could have my favourite seat in economy. No. I’ll need to pay for that too.

May be at least then, Virgin Atlantic will grant me as a Silver Flying Club member ( soon to be Gold) lounge access so I can have the New York meetings I will miss somewhere quiet on Skype? No.

Err, OK. Can I pay for lounge access? No.

I keep calm despite my frustration and seek out the Virgin Atlantic floor manager, who I’m told does have the power to grant lounge access.

After politely waiting for her to finish dealing with a staff issue (a quick gossip about another staff member) I start to explain, but she cuts me off mid-explanation:

“We don’t give lounge access unless you’re Upper Class?” …her intonation is as though I’m asking the location of the holy grail. She’s all out of empathy today then and it’s only 9:45am. I pity the afternoon customers.


By 10.05am (the flight takes off at 10.35am) I have:

  • Queued to pay the extra charges to bump flights
  • Complained to the delightfully unhelpful floor manager
  • Gone through security
  • Am sat in Chez Gerard (another brand I have a history with) and have just ordered breakfast.

The fact I’ve done all this and the gate is yet to even close irritates me further, but thankfully Chez Gerard deliver on my brand expectations this morning: A warm polite welcome, good coffee, warm perfectly crispy croissants and soothing music.

Has this every happened before?

Those who know me will know I try and pack a lot into my life. That means sometimes I’m late. On the whole it is of course my own fault if I’m late, in so far as we are all responsible for our own decisions and planning.

Similarly it is definitely a passenger’s own responsibility to check-in by the deadline set; but it is also a brands responsibility to deliver on the service which customers rely on and arguably especially your regular customers.

  • I knew I would be short on time, so I tried to check in online. Twice. The web site was broken.
  • Then I tried at terminal 3, within the 60 minute limit, but the kiosks were broken.
  • The check-in clerk recognised the situation and asked to send me through, but was prevented by someone else.
  • The flight couldn’t have been closed, I only had hand luggage and were I Upper Class I’d have sailed through.
  • The ticket agent recognised the problem, but had to charge me anyway (he even left notes on my account to that affect)
  • The Virgin Atlantic manager was abrupt and had a naive approach to customer relations (perhaps how she got to be a manager..!)

Good customer service is about recognising a customer’s problem and empathising. That should be true whatever level of customer the person is.  Today’s $1000 customer may be tomorrow’s $1b customer.

More importantly, monetary value is not the only consideration. Some customers affect more influence regarding your brand than others, as my post here about the new economy of influence explains.

I do not expect any brand to do the impossible.

I recognise a flight has to close at some point, no matter who wants to get on board, but when rules are adhered to via blind process (or in order to make a quick buck, like Ryan Air) rather than for logic or good reason, that pisses me off.

And I’m going to tell people. Lot’s of people.

Brands become lovemarks for me because they exercise effort, common sense and actively behave as though they genuinely care about me – even though I realise it is in order to make a profit from me.

Pret (the British chain of sandwich shops) are a superb example of this. From their always polite staff, to sending a customer £70 for payment of his “time using the Pret brand”, to letting me off £3.45 for my lunch when I realised I’d left my wallet in the office (I repaid the £3.45 the next day) they always make me feel cared about. I also feel that the employees are empowered to make their own decisions and understand what the Pret brand stands for.

In the past I’ve found Virgin Atlantic to be more pragmatic than I have today. On top of this, I must have flown 15+ times with Virgin Atlantic in the last 3 years from London to San Francisco. I have a Founders Card which gives a discount (although I’ve yet to claim it) and I’ve met Richard a couple of times.

As a brand the important thing to realise is these things make my experience today all the worse not better.

Why? Because if you are dating someone for a month and they do something unpleasant, it hardly touches the sides. You can laugh about it in the pub with friends.

If you are dating someone for 10 years and you love them, then they do a similarly unpleasant thing, you can’t laugh about it. It hurts. It goes against your expectation and trust.

Loyal customers with your brand, which may be a Lovemark to them, are no different.

It’s ALL about me.

These brand ambassadors will sing your praises, but they’ll also be the first to call you out.

  • They’ll get very pissed off, very quickly.
  • They feel they should be treated differently.
  • They feel they should be treated with extra care.

“Should” is the key word here.

Actually ALL customers should be treated with extra care; but what matters here is how these people feel, not the reality.

Your job with your brand is to manage your customer’s perception of a situation without pouring petrol on the fire.

Preferably, you want to be the guy wielding the fire extinguisher and without spraying it in your customers face.

The psychology of loyal customers

I buy in to the “poor little Virgin Atlantic” versus nasty British Airways myth because I choose to, not because I necessarily believe it.

It feeds my potential pleasure of a brand I generally enjoy.

It adds to my personal identity to associate myself with e.g. Virgin Atlantic, instead of British Airways. Therefore:

When you as a brand behave poorly I feel you’re attacking not just me as a customer but me as your brand.

Your bad performance means subconsciously I feel like I’ve performed badly, because a little bit of your brand has become me.

What is this lovemark stuff again?

The simplest definition of when a brand becomes a lovemark to a customer is when they make irrational decisions to choose that brand over another.

I’ve often in true Lovemark tradition gone against logic when booking my flights. Virgin Altantic are usually more expensive and I had an unlucky run in the mid 2000’s where seemingly every flight I went on had no entertainment system working. Until my last flight, I recently had a run of crappy seat locations, whatever class I was in.

Despite this I stayed with Virgin Atlantic; but now I feel like our relationship is on the rocks; but hey, as they say, better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

The moral of the story is that a Lovemark is a double edged sword, both for the company and customer.

Handle with care Mr Branson, and now I’m off to get my VS045 flight.

Why Corporates Struggle To Provide Good Customer Service (and what they should do about it)

We are all human and humans make mistakes. Most people understand this.

Therefore, as I described last week when discussing making a loyal customer out of an annoyed one, it is not the problem itself that loses you the customer, it is how you deal with it.

Corporate Control Kills Customer Service

I have an entirely inconsistent experience with most large companies I deal with regularly. O2 and HSBC are two I deal with particularly often.

Things inevitably go wrong, as they would with any telco or bank.  The problem is that I enter a lottery every time I pick up the phone to deal with them.

  • Will I get someone intelligent or stupid at the end of the phone?
  • Will someone know the software systems / products and services correctly, or will I actually know them better than the monkey I’m talking to?
  • Will they even care, or it 5 minutes to clock out and they just want to go home and watch Eastenders (that’s a depressing UK Soap Opera, for my American readers 😉 ?

You can only empathise and correct a problem effectively if you have two things:

  1. A human customer service agent who cares
  2. A human customer service agent who has been giving the autonomy to make decisions and take action

The first of these is an area most corporates should be good at; there is really no excuse. Incentive schemes, good office culture, performance related pay. It’s all obvious.

The second, of autonomy and giving individuals authority, seems to be on an ever more rapid decline, especially in larger business.

Whether it is local bank managers having lending powers stripped away, or shop assistants unable to make a refund decision without the manager (who has gone out for a fag break; US readers, that’s a cigarette), people are more often than not being turned into drones.

I find it an anathema that companies really believe ever tighter controls and restrictions will ultimately protect profit margins, let alone increase profits, or ultimately share price.

Back In The USSR

The analogy is that of the Communist state – of dumb workers following the instructions blindy. It is akin to Russian airline pilots who have been so programmed not to cross authority or argue, that they’d rather risk killing a plane full of people than do what they know is the right thing.

Removing the ability for people to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions, also automatically results in lower performance, caring less about their job and not THINKING about what they are doing.

Treat an adult like a child, they will behave like one.

Sure, some people will behave like a child anyway. Sure, some people will make too many mistakes and are not capable of making even basic responsible decisions – but then do you want to be employing these people anyway? Anywhere??

Don't turn your team or workforce into a bunch of lemmings by being a control freak. Give them responsibility and make them answerable for it. (Image from Saturday Cartoons. Click to visit)

How To Use Staff Autonomy To Win

The next generation of winners going into the 21st Century will be those corporates, blue chips and giants of industry who buck this trend and do the opposite of everyone else.

Re-engage your employees, give them responsibility, challenge them to make decisions and then subsequently justify them if needed. Make this the founding differentiator of your company and corporate philosophy.

There are even successful templates for this ethos, taken much further than customer service; just read Maverick by Ricardo Semler.

You will turn your monkeys into ambassadors of your brand, proud to be skilled and pleasing your customers. This will increase your share price, this will increase your profits, this will ensure you don’t end up like Stalin, the Polit Bureau and every other system in history which has tried to restrain and suffocate free thinking.

Instead, your staff can take responsibility for their own actions; and best of all, it far more quickly reveals those who under perform, are incapable in their role or simply don’t care enough.

It’s obvious when you think about it.

Let’s start the revolution today!

Just Pissed Off A Customer or Client? Great! Use It!

I’ve said in past blogs that I have always been fascinated that after nearly 5 years of running my first real company (a web development company I sold in 2001) the customers who had been most loyal were those we’d screwed up with at the beginning.

Why did they stay?

Well, in short for me there are two reasons:

1)      GOOD customer service is SO rare that when you find it it’s like a life saving lagoon in a waterless desert

2)      The differential between good service, and bad service followed by amazing service, is so great that one can’t help feel obliged to stay – for all the human reasons we know about

Robert B Caldini in his simply fantastic book Influence explains why in far greater depth that appropriate here, but in essence if you’ve just annoyed a customer, this is a once only opportunity to turn this customer into your most loyal customer EVER.

We all make mistakes, even systems make mistakes. Most humans realise this, as we’re all human and fallible. The difference is how you deal with the result.

“Over-deliver” after a customer has a problem and you have a customer for life.

There are lots of obvious ways to do this. First, fix whatever the problem was/is and get it right. Second,

  • Give something for free
  • Offer a full refund
  • Offer a future discount
  • A personal call to apologise
  • A bottle of wine in the post

However, make sure it is:

a) personal and sincere

b) at least in proportion, but preferable out of proportion (in the customers favour!) to what went wrong.

If only more corporates followed this mantra to the heart of their operations, churn would fall and profits increase. Most don’t, but they should.

The boys at Get Satisfaction came out with a great info graphic demonstrating this: i.e. that 68% of customers leave not because there has been an error or problem but because of the treatment they subsequently receive.

Most customer churn is avoidable.

Most customer churn is avoidable.

I’ll explain next week why I believe corporates struggle and the simple steps than can action to avoid this epidemic of failure.

A SocialMedia Experiment

I spent two years going to ThirtySeven Degrees gyms. In 2008/2009 I was at the London Bridge 37 degrees gym.

I was a happy if occasional attendee; in truth, I didnt go nearly enough and probably went only 5 or 10 times (work was a little busy at the time..but i digress).

Last May or so, I moved away from London (Tower) Bridge. Giving the gym 30 days notice, both in person and by email. I was assured all was OK.

When they called me (3 times) informing me of special events, I explained I was no longer a member. I even had sales calls asking me to rejoin, but I explained I no longer lived there.

No mention was given of a problem; indeed, why would there be?

May 2010, 9 months+ later I get a call from a debt collection agency demanding 2 months arrears subscription. Now, call me old fashioned, but I’m really f***ed off.  Assured that it was not a mistake and that “we will pursue you in court as it is up to you to prove to us that you told us you gave notice”, I have gone from a recommender and happy customer of 37 degrees, whom I gave nearly £2,000 (mostly clear profit as I rarely went to the gym), to someone who will forever recommend they are avoided.

Lets see how long it takes to respond and what they do, if anything, about it.

..perhaps they should have read my post last year on awesome customer service.

UDPATE – 3 weeks later, no reply anywhere

All I get is threatening phone calls from ARC Ltd (5 so far) a threatening letter from Trevor Munn the solicitor and a deadline to have a CCJ issued.

I must say I’m not the only one who feels cheated,

Aside from my personal woes, this is a tragic #fail on brand management nor enagement. A quick look at their Facebook Fan page, shows not only 9 people, but entirely no response or engagement. Seriously, any brands reading this, you’re better off NOT setting up a page to start with than setting it up and ignoring the supposed “fans” on your group!

I’m going to try one more email direct to the gym, possibly to the Director Marketing, and then I guess I’ll see them in court!  Had a bad experience? Feel free to add to this blog post with your comments below!

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The Problem with e-businesses

The problem with online businesses, is that its a gift to the blank face of corporate might. It enables and encourages, automated dumb impersonal service – the plodding and continued, repetitive email response as the computer systems reply and go through their business processes.

Ebay is no exception. I’ve been explaining why I will not pay the £14.50 sales commission, for something I didnt sell, for nearly 7 months. They have even engaged a debt collection company – sent multiple letters; I’ve now refused in principle as my initial enquiry got no response. Typically of large companies, the only thing they ARE efficient at is sending me court threats, reminders and getting their subcontracted debt collectors to chase me for £14.50 . In 7 months I’ve had only TWO human responses; the situation continues. Having written back twice to the debt collectors, ebay have now again reverted to the initial cycle of automated emails asking me to pay.


Its not only maddening, its pathetic. Online business can be SO MUCH better than this. The cost reductions that this technology enables, the automation for all the transactions that go smoothly and without fault, should mean that personal and attentive, personalized service CAN be provided when needed. Instead, they are even worse than corporates of traditional stock. Born out of an email culture, these new dinosaur’s really do behave like they don’t give a sh*t. I find it so frustrating that companies who come from a beginning as dynamic, exciting, written-in-a-garage type startups, end up worse than the traditional corporate dinosaurs they look to dominate or replace.

I pledge now, that when Rummble has 100 million users, we’ll have a human face; because to become loved by your users, truly loved as a lovemark and not just seen as a brand, you cannot fall into the corporate trap of bottom-line first and stuff the customer service. It might work today, but domineering empires don’t last forever, as we know all too well.

My opinion and emotions towards the eBay brand have hit rock bottom; and without some small miracle, that wont change now, for a very long time indeed.