Social Media Is Killing Customer Service

In a truly stunning service provider fail, I was without Internet access at home for 14 straight days. FOURTEEN DAYS!! But at least my service provider responded promptly on social media.

I won’t tell you who my provider is [virgin media cough], but as someone who works from home, not having Internet is a severe liability. I also happen to work in Internet security, so the vast majority of my day is spent faffing around online. At least my data was safe I guess.

It’s not so much that I was without access for so long, bad things happen, it’s that I STILL don’t know why! To be told every day that it’s a “known fault” and that it will be ‘resolved by 2PM tomorrow” makes an utter mockery of customer service. Not once did they update their site with an outage statement, not once did they call us with updates, and not once did they tell us what the issue was.

For God’s sake, my next door neighbour had Internet access from the same provider! Literally, next door, I’m at 45, they’re at 47.

Enough background, now to my real issue; While their actual customer service left a lot to be desired, their social media department was totally on the ball. And no, that’s not a good thing. About 30 seconds after we Tweeted about the disgraceful service their rep was back to us apologetic and full of concern.

What’s wrong with that you might ask? Well…

  1. They had no access to our account, so they could not even speak to the issue;
  2. They had no access to tech support to find out what was actually wrong;
  3. Once they realised they were making things worse they referred me to their utterly pointless Code of Practice;
  4. They kept no record of their previous contact so every subsequent bad Tweet was followed by the exact same conversation, and;
  5. Zero follow-up, zero accountability.

Bottom line; customer service over social media is nothing more than an attempt to protect their online image. At no point was this ever an attempt to actually help.

Customer Service is both an art and a science, and is one of the few competitive advantages left in the digital world. It should be pro-active, an extension of an organisation’s values, and absolutely cannot be faked. Most people I know would stick with a lesser product / service if they believed their provider actually cared.

I have never understood the visceral resistance to admitting that you’ve messed up. It’s akin to one of my favourite lines in The Dark Knight when the Joker says “You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.

In this case, all my service provider had to do was tell me the minute they knew there was a problem, which was 4 days before the line went down. Then, if they had just keep me pro-actively informed on progress, I would have only been disappointed, not angry. Of course, it would have been great if they had offered to provide a temporary alternative, like a MiFi for example, but this was not necessary. They would have made a loss on the month, but they would have earned years of my loyalty.

As things are today, I will not only leave my current provider as soon as there is a viable alternative, but I will actively dissuade anyone from using them.

Social media is a critical aspect of customer service, but only if these two things are seen as intrinsic components of the right corporate values. If not, you’re just pandering, and I for one will not be pandered to.

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The Next Best Thing to Innovation?

…is the appearance of innovation.

Well, it certainly seems that way; Can’t sell services over the Internet? Call them The Cloud. Can’t sell Risk Assessments and Vulnerability Management? Call it Operational Resilience. Can’t sell data management and access control on mobile? Call it BYOD.

When it becomes clear that there is no-where left to go with your existing product or service, the appearance of innovation seems to be the go-to place for institutions staring down the barrel of obsolescence. Instead of working on their customer service, value-adds, or – God forbid – actually improving their offerings, too many organisations resort to smoke and mirrors to stay competitive.

And the worst part? We let them.

The payments sector is perfect target for this blog, especially given the fact that I know little else. Take these two examples from the last few month; There’s a New Way to Pay With a Selfie, and TD, MasterCard and Nymi Pilot Heartbeat-Authenticated Contactless Payments.

Where is the innovation here, we’ve had biometrics for years? The only thing new is the ability to actually bring the biometrics to bear, which is an advance in mobile technology, not payments. The payment itself  hasn’t changed, we’re still stuck with the same primary account number (PAN) being used by the same intermediaries (Acquirer, Issuer & Card Scheme), over the same systems we’ve had for decades. Even if you build in tokenisation with these systems they’re still mapped to a PAN in the back-end somewhere.

If you accept that a payment is just a transfer of value from one place to another, true innovation must involve the complete disintermediation of almost every player in the current ecosystem except the banks. Sure, there can be service provider intermediaries, but they will be providing true benefits to consumers and banks alike in the fields of identity management / authentication, anti-fraud, customer service, loyalty and reward programs, ratings and reviews, big data analytics and host of others services of which I can barely conceive.

To be worthy of the term ‘innovative’, any service or product offering must have the following attributes:

  1. Be of practical use, and not just theoretical
  2. Provide long-lasting benefit to all stakeholders
  3. Cannot knowingly stifle or exclude competition

For payments, there are a few more:

  1. Be available to the largest portion of the population possible (including those with disabilities)
  2. Be frictionless to the average consumer, or better yet, invisible
  3. Maintain appropriate confidentiality, integrity and availability of all underlying sensitive data, to meet – or exceed – all current legislation, regulation and best practices

Not one, or even ALL of these things at once should be too much to ask, but it’s never that simple. There will always be those existing players whose power and position can make some of these requirements all but impossible for newcomers. And the newcomers themselves rarely do themselves any favours; disruptive innovation, competitive advantage, and blatant greed all prevent true innovation from reaching the mainstream.

In payments, like most industry sectors, collaboration is the key to significant and beneficial change, and in a market worth tens of TRILLIONS of £/€/$, I would have thought there was enough to go around.

 

Payments Innovation Should NOT be Disruptive!

By now I think everyone has heard the phrase ‘Disruptive Innovation’, as defined by; “an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.“. This phase is especially bandied around in payments.

But how many of you have heard the phrase; ‘Sustaining Innovation’, which; “does not create new markets or value networks but rather only evolves existing ones with better value, allowing the firms within to compete against each other’s sustaining improvements.

So if you accept that a payment itself is just a way for you to access your stored value (what we call money) any time / place of your choosing, why is everyone so interesting in disrupting the existing payment ecosystem? And by “everyone” I of course mean those who are trying to either break into market, or those trying to wrest even more control for themselves. Non-cash payments work [for the most part], and you have a large degree of faith in your bank’s ability to protect your monetary assets, do you really want the whole thing to change? Do you even know what it is that you want that’s different from what you have today?

Do things even need to change? Yes, they do. Are there innovations available NOW that make the payments process easier, cheaper, and more secure for the consumer? Yes, there are. Can we expect the entire payment industry to throw out everything they have spent billions on over the last few decades, are used BY billions, just to make room for every start-up with a good idea? No, we can’t, and that’s the real issue here.

In the last 10 years there have only been 2 true disruptors in the payments industry; the mobile phone, and block chains (Bitcoin et al), neither of which has achieved anywhere near its full potential. Yet. Not because the technologies are flawed [necessarily], but because the introduction OF the technologies was done poorly. For mobile devices, the payments challenges included the ‘fight’ between NFC and BlueTooth, the numerous options for security on the device (Secure Elements, Trusted Execution Environments and so on), and the presumed insecurity of the technology overall. For block chains is was, and still is, the almost complete lack of understanding of how they even work in the first place. I’ve looked into them and I still find the concept nearly incomprehensible.

But even these disruptors need current context, and they represent a fundamental shift from our overly complicated view of payments back to its basics; I go to work to earn value (money), the value gets stored somewhere (a bank), and I access the value when I want it regardless of time or location (mobile payment). This would suggest that the only disruption we really need is the disintermediation of some of the players. There are simply too many middle-men whose only input to the new world of payments will be value erosion. Thank God the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are too busy bickering amongst themselves or this would be even more complicated!

As a consumer who has a very good idea of what he want to see change, I know that only those who help the payments industry evolve will have a lasting positive impact, and this will only be though collaboration and fair competition.

The greedy can stay home.

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The 4 Consultant Types: Know Which You Are, Know Which to Ask For

Q: What do you do?

A: I’m a consultant.

9 times out of ten the asker of the question enquires no deeper, because they were either just making polite conversation, or they just don’t care. Or both.

The title of ‘consultant’ can hide all manner of sins, as it can be used to enhance the reputation of the unworthy, leading others to believe that their level of expertise goes as deep as the up-front appearances. It is, however, far preferable to ‘expert’, which is bandied around far too often and usually by the very people least equipped to do so.

The old cliche; “An expert is someone who knows 1% more than those around him.” is as true now as it’s always been. And if I’m honest with myself, so is “An expert is just somebody from out of town with slides.”, but that’s a little too close to the mark.

Luckily, you don’t need to be an expert in anything to be a great consultant, you just need to know people who are experts, and when to apply them. For example, there are thousands of people who do every individual thing that I do, and do it many time better, but few can apply their overall knowledge, experience, and skill-set to a client’s maximum long-term benefit.

Terribly sorry, I’m British, so I should be more humble.

So what are the 4 consultant types?

  1. The ‘Auditor’: Auditors are extremely detail oriented, and can (and do) write massively detailed reports on exactly what you’re doing wrong. While this can be very useful in some scenarios, if you were looking for someone to tell you anything other than what is broken you have the wrong person.There will be no out-of-the-box thinking with an auditor, if you aren’t doing exactly what is written, you will fail the test. You will also receive very little in the way of of help actually fixing the problems, so will likely end up paying someone else to finish the piece of work.
  2. The ‘Assessor: Assessors are still very tied to the written instructions, but are better able to read the intent of the situation, and are subsequently better able to tell you why a things is not right, as well provide some limited guidance on how to fix it. As with the Auditor, you will likely require additional help to reach your goals, but if you are looking for a sanity check or [cringe] tick-in-the-box compliance with a standard like PCI, then Assessors are a reasonable choice. Mostly because they are cheaper.
  3. The ‘Consultant’: I reserve this title for people who are able to not only explain simply what you are doing wrong, but why it’s wrong, what you should be doing, and provide several options on how to fix what’s wrong. The Consultant’s experience will be such that they have seen close to your specific scenario many times, and can provide all the guidance you need to choose the right solution(s) as well as implement them appropriately. You might be thinking this is the ultimate, but it isn’t, there is a critical aspect missing from the Consultants’ portfolio, which is filled by;
  4. The ‘Teacher’: Teachers approach every gig with a single goal in mind; to never have to repeat anything they do. These rare folks are able to enormously simplify the challenge at hand, and TEACH the client to fix it themselves. And not just once, whatever the solution was, the Teacher will show the client how to maintain the fix, and how to implement a cycle of continual improvement in line with business goals. Above all, the Teacher will help you to always ask the right questions, which is half the battle.

In the PCI space for example, I can count the number of Teachers I have seen on one hand, and even Consultants are thin on the ground. I don’t blame the consulting companies for this, it’s the clients who are continually bitching about price and settling for the lowest bidders.

In consulting, more than in almost any other profession, you get what you pay for, and Consultants/Teachers are invariably cheaper in the long run.

Also, you will eventually get the type of consultant equivalent to the level of effort you put in finding one. If you end up with an idiot, it’s because you’re lazy.

Don’t know where to start? Ask.

Is Social Media and Outsourcing the End of Real Customer Service?

As I’m writing this, I’m trying to decide what my own thoughts are on the matter. Intellectually I probably don’t care that much, but emotionally, I can’t help but think it’s a bad thing.

Background: My wife made what I thought was a wise-crack the other day, that it was actually faster to get a response to a customer service issue if you post something negative on social media, than it is if you call their toll-free number. She wasn’t joking, and proved it.

A very large retailer had screwed up, not once, but twice, and she spent a long time on the phone trying to sort it out. Naturally, the support centre was based in India, out-sourced, and had no real concept of the original business outside of their database of questions. Long and short; she got nowhere.

The next day, she vented her frustration on Twitter, and within a few hours, a representative from the original company contacted her and the issue was resolved that day.

What I took from this is that it’s more important to give the perception of good customer service, than it is to actually give it. As long as no-one knows that your customer service sucks, people will keep buying, and you can keep saving money by outsourcing.

My dilemma is that I can’t decide if I care that the good customer service is genuine, or if the fact that it’s forced now makes it intolerable. Would I really make the fairly significant effort to go to a competitor just because the first vendor doesn’t really care?

I think the answer is yes, I would, because it’s not just about customer service, it’s about how business is done properly. Customer Service is most often associated with reacting when things go wrong, but it’s far more than that. The term ‘business partner‘ sums it up nicely as it’s supposed to be a partnership, not just a business deal, and is only at it’s best when it’s also pro-active, personal, performed with genuine empathy, and mutually beneficial.

I think what I’m really saying is customer service simply cannot be outsourced. I know it’s very expensive, but perhaps the following may help to offset it;

For one week in every year, EVERY member of staff, from Finance to Sales, from Marketing to IT, works in customer service. This includes the CEO, even the Board of Directors, EVERYONE.

Benefits:

  1. If the CEO talks to real-world customers, as well as sees what goes on every day in the support centre, they will have a much better idea of where his/her company may have gone astray. The CEO is the one responsible for the culture and priorities, so it would be good for them to be reminded of what’s most important.
  2. Sales people often forget what it is they are supposed to be selling, which in almost every company is either a solution to problem, or something someone wants personally. The week they spend in customer service will help them reconnect with their target audience.
  3. Product and Service developers often get too caught up in their day jobs to really understand what it is they are supposed to be developing. Hearing client problems and confusion every day for a week should help to clarify things for them, and maybe even give them ideas for innovation.
  4. Marketing departments too often rely on their previous experience and/or education, so a few angry clients should do wonders for their clarity too, as well as give them ideas for future marketing concepts.
  5. Ancillary departments like finance, IT etc should all have their go too, every employee is part of the culture of a company, everyone must be on the same page, as well as see the impact they are having first hand.

Passion and motivation are hard to maintain if you don’t know where you’re going, or worse, don’t agree with what you’re doing. I think a unified focus on customer service goes a long way to ensuring everyone stays on track.

Of course, your CEO may be a utterly incompetent at dealing with people, but if he/she loses a few clients from poor customer service – their own! – they will probably get the message 🙂

Anyone know any good studies on the effect of social media or outsourcing on customer satisfaction?

 

UPDATE 12-Jul-13: A very interesting article my wife just sent me about social analytics; 90% Of Customers Will Recommend Brands After Social Media Interactions.

It would seem that people LIKE interaction over social media, but they make no mention of whether it was company run, or outsourced, nor do they mention age groups.