All Aboard The #Fail Train

Maybe our patience is wearing thin. Maybe we've been through one too many phone trees and been dealt with by one too many surly, underpaid customer service clerks. Or possibly we just see the immediate results of companies responding so apologetically to scathing YouTube videos and angry Twitter tirades that we think this is our shortcut. But whatever the reasons, customers are starting to realize that the traditional customer service channels are not as satisfying as venting publicly to their social networks.

Clearly there's something cathartic about sharing our frustrations with others. And obviously we could fill a library with customer service failures. But my question is, "Is meeting customers in the social media space the answer, or only ignoring the problem?"

The Primary Customer Service Destination

As with most of the more interesting conversations your humble host of The BeanCast has these days, this one began on TwitterLen Kendall offered the following retweet and then a short comment at the end:

RT @mzkagan: Does venting consumer outrage on Twitter actually work? You bet. (Until it becomes to common?)

Now if you follow the link down, it eventually ends up at this Slate article and showcases stories about how some customers are finally finding customer service satisfaction by publicly exposing the failings of a company. Taken in context, it's all pretty impressive. Customers get out of the feedback loop and get results. Companies get a way to publicly show that they can listen. All's good. But Len's side point sticks with you, doesn't it? What does happen when it all becomes common?

The conversation on Twitter went further, though, eventually being joined by Alleigh Marre, who was dragged in because she posted the following while we were discussing:

Many brands learned this the hard way, "Twitter has emerged as a primary destination for customer comments/complaints"

The link in the tweet goes to a Brandweek article, and highlights the fact pointed out above: "Twitter has emerged as a primary destination for customer comments and complaints." (The article is also short on insight and I have no idea what that chart from eMarketer is supposed to prove, but let's just go with the premise for now.) And if we understand this correctly, the point is that services like Twitter are not just important, but have become an essential channel for customer service.

The Real Problem Remains

Now the obvious lesson here is that companyies ignore the social media spectrum at their peril. The blogs and Twitter and Facebook and forums are where customers are turning to cause you as much headache as possible. Whether you like it or not, you need to be present.

What bothers me, though, is the underlying problem that seems to be ignored in all of this: Customers wouldn't feel the need to embarrass us en masse, if our customer service channels weren't so completely broken. And don't forget part two, which Len hinted at: What good is it to address social media as a customer service channel when we keep driving people to such venues with our lousy customer service?

I am a big fan of treating social venues as a medium for public customer service. Customer service as a whole is an under-valued branding tool, since we all should know by now that solving problems is how you turn happy customers into loyalists. And doing this publicly turbo-charges the value of these interactions. It allows the interested masses to experience results without needing to experience the problems.

But should we really be driving all our dissatisfied customers to this venue? And more importantly, to paraphrase Len's tweet again, what's going to happen when the "social" luster fades and our still-broken, lousy customer service is all we have left?

Be Social, But Also Fix What's Broken

The inevitable result of years of bad, one-on-one experience with customer service is what is happening now -- customer revolt. The case studies in the articles show that customers got fed up with long-periods of abuse and misuse at the hands of customer service reps and they turned to twitter or their blog for satisfaction. But what they are also hinting at is step two of this evolution, where customers won't even give your traditional customer service options a chance and will always and immediately go for the throat with a #yourcompanysucks tag on a vicious post.

Sure it's bratty. Sure it's unfair. Sure, the reasonable behavior is to exhaust your options with a company before trying to humiliate them. But they're not going to be reasonable anymore, because they know they'll get the run-around. They've lost faith in that option. And we, as companies, have lost trust.

So fine. We'll beef up our social efforts to meet the changing needs of the customer. But let's remember that we are probably the cause of our own problems. (Or at least the customer service discipline as a whole is the problem.) So unless we address fixing the whole system of dissatisfaction, our social efforts are like stopping a river with a Dixie cup. Because just as social customer service is a public way of showing off our good side, lots of public dissatisfaction works to the opposite effect for our brand. And all the good we do publicly is for naught, if the cable service guy shows up three days late and the phone operator tells the customer there's nothing he/she can do about that broken guitar.

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