The Financial Post named Micah Solomon a “new guru of customer service excellence.” He is a top keynote speaker and consultant on customer service issues, the customer experience, and company culture. His latest book is High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, published by AMACOM. The following interview has been edited and condensed from an AMA Edgewise podcast.
AMA: How has the balance of power between customers and businesses changed?
Micah Solomon: In most areas, customers have more choices. They also have a much louder megaphone. They feel much more empowered. This is because of Twitter, because of email, because of Yelp. Customers expect a company to make itself easy to contact and to respond to comments at a high and thoughtful level. I suggest that you companies do that, because feedback is going to be offered, whether you welcome it or not.
AMA: Do you think that companies should go so far as to reorganize themselves to provide for that immediate customer dialogue?
MS: That’s exactly right. The famous case of empowering front-line workers to respond to customer issues is Ritz-Carlton, which goes all the way back to the 1980s, when they gave every full-time employee up to $2,000 worth of discretionary power to solve any guest problem. But now in the age of Twitter, this approach is even more important, because maybe a customer will give you one chance to solve a problem. If that front-line person doesn’t have the power to solve it, the next call may not be to a manager; it may instead be 140 very frustrated characters on Twitter.
AMA: What are some of the trends you see in customer expectations?
MS: Customers these days feel much more empowered. They feel that their relationship with companies is much more in their favor. In addition, many customers are more ecologically-oriented. So if a business thinks that it’s going to make a defective product and then make a customer happy by comping them some additional product, that might not be a solution that pleases the customer because the customer is thinking about the carbon footprint. There is also a strong desire for self-service, because we are in such a 24/7 economy and because people have very busy lives. Additionally, some younger people are more comfortable working with machines than talking with humans.
AMA: Recently we’ve heard these almost mythic stories about how some of the big brands have completely and utterly failed on social media. But I’m going to flip that over and ask: do you find customers a bit more forgiving of what they perceive to be a smaller company?
MS: I think so. There have been a bunch of studies that the majority of comments on a Facebook page for a smaller company are actually positive. Having said that, there are customers out there who have no understanding of the damage that they can do to a company over social media. The important thing for businesses to realize is, don’t compound that damage by reacting in anger, because you’ll just make it worse.
AMA: Let’s talk about social media. Does every customer-centered company really need to have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Google Plus circle and a blog, on top of their company website?
MS: Ideally you should concentrate a lot of your content in one or two places, because that’s best for search engine optimization. Google Plus is a very helpful way to improve SEO.
The main idea is to make sure you are very easy to contact. At the end of your “Frequently Asked Questions” link, don’t just say, “Did this answer your question? Yes/No.” If the answer is no, have a pop up box that says, “Oh my heavens, we’re so sorry, type in your email and we’ll answer this for you in person.” When customers feel like they’re not friends with a company, that the company really doesn’t want to hear from them and won’t get back to them if they do contact the company directly, that’s when things really get out of control on social media.
AMA: What are some effective, relationship-saving ways to respond to customer complaints in the Twitterverse (or another forum for user-generated content)?
MS: This first thing is to limit the need for it. A lot of the negative comments on Yelp or TripAdvisor follow a formula: “I tried to contact the manager. Never heard back, so I am reluctantly trashing you.” It shouldn’t get to that point. That is principle one.
Principle two is, if there is something negative in social media, think of the fiasco formula. The fiasco formula is very simple. It’s a small problem, it’s complained about online, and you let it fester. So, small problem plus time equals fiasco. You have to set all your Google alerts for the name of your company (plus any misspellings of the name of your company) so that you will hear right away if something goes wrong and you can nip it in the bud.
If someone does post something negative, the best thing to do is to try to contact them directly. If they follow you on Twitter, you can send them a direct message. Then try to turn it into an offline conversation. Above all else, try hard not to argue with them. The old rule that you can never win an argument with a customer is still true, but now you can lose many times over with all their “friends” online.
AMA: How has technology changed what customer service means today?
MS: It’s changed expectations dramatically. People want things much much faster. If you think about how companies used to be able to have almost nothing in stock and they’d special order it for you, well forget that now, because I can order something at 8 p.m. and have it the next morning via Amazon.
Well-designed technology can make a company more anticipatory. And anticipatory customer service is what truly builds an engaged, loyal customer base. The brilliant uses of technology by companies like Netflix or Amazon to direct you to the product you wanted to order but didn’t know, or to the movie that you really will enjoy next, have led to people feeling that things should be much intuitive than they used to be.
Every tenth of the month I get an email from my credit card company that says, “Your credit card payment will be due in ten days.” Now, it’s not like the date my credit card is due ever changes, but they have anticipated that I will forget, and so they’re taking care of me.
There is technology from IBM that if you’re in a dressing room, and you’re wearing particular sport jacket, it will suggest ties that are complementary to the sports jacket. So it’s anticipating what you might want—not necessarily just to sell you additional things, but to make the customer experience smoother, and to make you feel like you’re in a home with caring people taking care of you.
Learn more about High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service: Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding new World of Social Commerce, by Micah Solomon (AMACOM, 2012).
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