Economic Rebound = Customer Service Falloff

It’s funny how “things are better” amounts to things actually being worse when it comes to customer service.

It makes sense, though, and with a good, long look you can already see it happening in businesses of all sizes and industries.

There are some companies that are always just historically bad when it comes to customer service – AT&T, Excite, the electric company, (United Illuminating here in CT…awful), the cable company. Add in your own favorites (or un-favorites, if you will). Yet combine a rebounding economy with a make-my-losses-back mentality and a shortage of resources and people, and you have historically bad customer service across the board.

It starts at the local level, with service companies from landscapers to oil companies to snow removers. These were services that a lot of out-of-work and cost-conscious consumers eliminated or scaled back on during the tough times of the past few years. Now that things are doing better economically, some consumers are opening the wallets back up, and those companies are more than happy to take the work again. And on the surface, certainly taking on alot of customers helps these companies bounce back from revenue and sales declines of the past few years. Yet for many of them, going for quantity over quality means delivering subpar service to a wider group of customers — including those who may have stuck by them during the tough times. Ultimately that’s not good business.

These are also businesses who haven’t invested in technology or equipment or infrastructure during the down times, so now they’re taking on added customer volume without the resources in place to provide good service. The first symptom is long wait times on the phone and for service delivery. Online contact doesn’t make it easier either, as someone already stretched too thin manages the online channel. Then, when service is delivered it’s frequently subpar since stretched resources are trying to service more customers in the same amount of time. That extra care they gave you as a loyal customer during the hard times is gone. And new customers immediately have low expectations from less-than-optimal service delivery.

The same goes for big brands. Many of them outsourced customer service overseas, for example, and are now getting hammered by higher volume hitting under-trained staff. And many of them still use social media as a mouthpiece, rather than a means for engagement.

None of this leads to long-term success – customers are unhappy from Day One, so it makes your business a commodity. There’s no loyalty based on price, experience, brand…nothing.

My recommendation? As a business that depends on customers, you have to invest in things that make your business unique. And while tough economic times make it difficult to invest in capital costs – like technology – it shouldn’t prevent you from charging ahead with low-cost investments in training, creativity, and other things that make businesses succeed. And ultimately, it means delivering consistent, high-quality service and experience. If that means taking on less customers now so you can build stronger relationships in the long term, that’s a cost of doing business. You have to realize that if take on too much and deliver bad service, you’re going to spend more on sales and marketing costs in the long run trying to replace customers who leave.

Stay tuned for my next post, which outlines three things you can do to avoid these pitfalls.

I hope this post trickles down to the snow removal service that takes care of (or doesn’t) my building. If you do quick, hasty, low-quality work because you’re trying to make it to as many customers as you can, you’re only pulling a snow job on yourself.

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Earn Clout with Social Influencers

Do you current acquisition campaigns include social influencers? They should.

Social media is lauded for its high engagement value, yet many marketers are struggling with how to measure it, never mind how to use it to move the needle on sales. Hell, many marketers and companies have yet to commit the time or the resources to leverage SoMe effectively for engagement — despite the benefits.

That’s why I love the great examples out there like this article on how the Sacramento Kings used Klout to tap into the power of social influencers. There are tons of articles out there that discuss all the reasons you have to use social — this blog alone offers up a bunch. Yet this article touches on the true viral power of brands tapping into social influencers who are capable of shaping behavior across their whole social networks.

Nothing like other people doing your job for you.

Think this approach has merits? Take a good, long look at it’s application on the micro-local level, where community-based doctors, restaurants and other local business could reach out to prominent local influencers — perhaps members of social programs, sports leagues or PTA boards. Give them a good experience or an offer, and the word spreads fast and drives local business as soon as those influencers tell their social networks about it via Facebook, Twitter or other means.

Think of it’s application to healthcare, where innovative academic centers and community practices could reach out to prominent patient advocates and community leaders. Work with those influencers to create events in the facilities and practices or host Twitter chats, and the social impact spreads to core consumers of healthcare services in those networks. Recent studies show a “graying” of social networks due to the huge number of older Americans flocking to them, and one of their most popular online activities is searching for and sharing healthcare information. One of my blog posts for Oncology Times discuss this phenomenon. So the opportunity is definitely there to make an impact among healthcare consumers with the right outreach to social influencers.

How do you identify and reach social influencers? Well, you can work with experts like Klout, or you can set up an effective social listening station of your own and begin to closely monitor and filter the conversation in your markets or areas of interest. Many tools out there set up those powerful filters that can be as granular as you need, and you can build your own dashboard to analyze and rank influencers. Radian6 and Alterian are two of the better products available, and the cost is not significant.

Need another example? During an online demo of Radian6, I tweeted about it. Less than 10 minutes later, I had a tweet back from Alterian acknowledging my interest in social listening software, with an offer to access information about their product. Now here I sit, virally spreading that experience and education. It’s a whole different and more meaningful way to influence customer behavior.

We’ll discuss more about social listening in an upcoming post, yet in the meantime I recommend you charge ahead and become more familiar with it starting right now.

Brands Use Content as a Marketing Tool

But you already know that brands use content as a marketing tool, because I’ve been talking about it since April 2009.

Kudos to David Carr and the New York Times for finally arriving to the party.

Carr just wrote this excellent article in the Times about luxury brands publishing content and downright getting into the media business. And it’s true, brands are creating content and using it to drive engagement across a variety of vertical markets, both B2C and B2B. They’re shifting dollars of out publishing ad spend to do it, and they’re delivering content in the form of print magazines, digital mags, blogs, content-rich websites, and more. Plus, they get better tangible metrics than publishers offer, because they drive traffic to their own content, URLs and places where they can track and analyze deeper.

Yet Carr’s article comes almost a full two years after I wrote a series of blog posts that described how marketers have a role in the future of content (the other two posts in the series are here and here…the second one even takes a journalist to task for not seeing the shift).

I think the mainstream media are finally starting to notice since, as Carr’s article highlights, some high-level journalists and content experts are making the leap to direct content on the brand side.

Andrea Linett, the former creative director of Lucky, has gone on to become eBay’s fashion creative director, while Melissa Biggs Bradley, the founding editor of Town and Country Travel for Hearst, is now the chief executive at the travel site Indagare. And many journalists who were pushed aside as publishing withered are now finding that brands in search of an audience are still interested in what they do.”

Well now that the Times says it, it must be true, right? So take a good, long look at what kind of content your customers consume, and charge ahead in terms of providing it to them in a way that creates engagement with your brands and products. I’m not saying you have to hire editors and build a media empire under your roof — but hired experts are clearly an effective way to do it. You also have other ways to create and provide content, like social media, whitepapers and even Twitter.

Once you make the leap to content provide and educator, you gain trust and credibility, and you gain an incredible amount of context that you can use to market your products/brands.

Is This the Browser of the Future?

Sometimes it’s the little things.

In this case, the little thing may turn out to be a big thing. It’s been fun to take a good, long look at and play around with Rockmelt, the new browser that integrates a variety of social elements to make browsing a true social experience. At first playfully called the “Facebook browser,” it’s built on Chromium, has Facebook integration, and certainly has an interesting feature set.

Now, instead of having a variety of windows, tabs and programs open, you can have full access to major social media sites as part of your one browser window. At various points around the window there are toolbars and icons that provide rollover and/or one-click access to your information streams from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other places. You can also perform the standard set of functions like share, retweet, like, etc. There’s also a search bar for access to dynamic type-to-search results and a navbar listing your most important friends on the left, with mini-window access to detailed info, wall commenting, etc.

It is definitely a highly social experience, yet I expect a slow adoption rate. There are still a ton of folks who just want to search for things, do research and read online — without the omnipresent stream of information from the socialsphere. I think that eventually the overall ease of monitoring your socialsphere at the same time you’re doing whatever you do online will be something that’s inevitably hard to refuse for most. It’s certainly gotten mixed reviews, but I think Rockmelt has something here, even if it takes time to grow in adoption.

For marketers, it means not necessarily having access to fans and followers in the confines of your fan page or a Twitter client. Your fans or followers may now see your updates and offers in a small window in a nanosecond.

All the more reason to make your social strategy built upon solid content, so you have engagement and your customers find value that lets you stand out from the crowd.

What do you think about Rockmelt — fab or flop?

Interesting Effort: ESPN Audibles

Sometimes it’s just lose-lose, and that’s all it is. You try new stuff to try to improve and be different, and people find something to ding you on anyway.

Marketers always search for that Holy Grail of integration, where the message sings the same across all channels and the customer experience is stellar no matter where the customer finds you.

In pursuit of those lovely things, brands certainly look for ways to facilitate interaction and dialogue to make the experience customer compelling. Enter an appreciable effort in that regard that deserves a good, long look: ESPN Audibles.

It’s a new football talk show on ESPN where — much like a quarterback calling an audible play at the line of scrimmage — fans can change the topic of conversation by posting a question via Twitter or Facebook. Talk about interaction. Who wouldn’t be interested to see their question change conversation among experts on national TV?

I think this is one of the most tangible examples to date of integrating a traditional channel with social media. We all know sports fans are fanatics — hell, they drop billions each year on fantasy sports. So it’s not a stretch to expect a large throng of social-savvy fans to show up on Twitter and Facebook to tweets questions during the show. And for the broadcast lovers, what better way to draw them into social than empowering them to influence their preferred medium?

While Audibles has its share of critics — even for the panel’s choice of socks — it’s not just another contest or discount offer that marries social into the picture. It’s a solid effort to integrate social and traditional channels using content as the backbone. And it provides the audience with real-time control over the content to some degree. That’s a pretty enhanced experience.

And for those football fans out there, it’s an interesting mix of some of ESPN’s most opinionated analysts, including Trent Dilfer, Keyshawn Johnson, Steve Young, and Herm Edwards. Check it out.