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The Web Makes All Ice Cubes Icebergs

Posted by Bob Warfield on August 12, 2009

Ross Mayfield just launched a long but interesting blog post entitled, “The CRM Iceberg and Social Software.”  The gist of it is to talk about how little listening companies do to customers and contrast that with how much power there is to be gained by being social.  Ross is a member of the Enterprise Irregular group I belong to, so his post started some discussion flowing.  Another of our members pointed out that being too social can also be a bad thing.  He liked being able to rent a Hertz car without speaking to a single employee, or going through self-checkout lanes at Walmart.  Moreover, he emphasizes that making every customer interaction a one-off social event is not only not what the customer wants, but it is also outrageously expensive to deliver.

I’m absolutely on board about not wanting interaction lots of times.  I would go out of my way and pay more to use a gas pump with a credit card reader rather than go in and pay a cashier.  Same with an ATM.  BTW, I think the web is the best possible place to do that self-service and things like interactive voice menus are just too maddening.  Some kinds of self-service are too hard and they piss more off than they help.  I’m also on board with the idea that being too social can be expensive to service.  We’ve spent a lot of time at Helpstream working on that side of the equation until we have a system for customer service that leaves our customers way ahead on the ROI front.

However, I absolutely don’t want to throw out the Social Baby with the Efficiency Bathwater.  Vinnie Mirchandani commented on the thread that he would avoid social interaction, “Unless the customer wants interaction.”  Excellent refinement, Vinnie.  I would augment that with, “Unless the efficient minimal customer interaction is not working.”  If I have a problem with my self-service gas pump, I want some social interaction right now.  I’m impressed when the operator gets up out of his booth, walks over, and makes the pump work for me.
 
The problem is that so many companies have been intent on making customer interaction efficient, that they have forgotten to keep score via customer satisfaction.  They’re cutting expenses by analzing call center metrics without enough regard to what is happening as a result. There is a second problem as well.  Since Ross brought up icebergs, let’s talk icebergs.  The Old School thinks in terms of triage when it comes to customer interaction.  Give the high value customers lots of interaction.  Minimize the cost associated with low value customers.  Assume that we can actually view these customers as some being icebergs (that one will sink the ship if we hit it) and some being ice cubes.
 
Unfortunately, the web has changed that calculus quite a lot.  Communication between customers and prospects used to be a pretty high friction proposition.  Many markets went out of their way to make it even higher friction.  You have those companies where everything is a total one off, because they don’t want everyone to know what’s going on.  The web, unfortunately for that mindset, gives everyone a pretty darned big megaphone.  Every ice cube can get on Twitter or Facebook, reach out to their network, and start a viral bad mouthing meme that turns that little ice cube into a full blown iceberg.
 
Suddenly, a random airline passenger can be trouble.  The guy may not be in charge of corporate travel for a Fortune 500.  They may not run even a travel agency.  They may never even have flown first class or overseas.  They are not frequent fliers.  Yet, if you break their guitar, suddenly you have a viral PR disaster on your hands.  What is the cost of the damage that little ice cube of a customer did to your brand?
 
At the same time, you have a world where surveys indicate people don’t trust companies at all, they barely trust the pundits, and they are turning increasingly to their peers to understand what’s really going on.  They’ve just been taken advantage of too many times as companies preyed on the lack of good communication.  What is the value of being able to leverage the word of mouth of your happy customers to drive more sales?  The reduced friction of communication that the web brings has both the advantage of communicating value much faster, and the disadvantage of communicating negatives more quickly too.
 
So you can’t just motor along in your big ocean liner, secure that you have enough water tight compartments that even a small iceberg won’t sink you.  There are no water tight compartments.  Any leak fills the whole ship rapidly.  There are also no lifeboats.  Suddenly you need to take care to listen to any customer that might be a problem, if that customer wants to be heard.  You have another choice to make too.  You can force them to go somewhere else to get the word out, or you can welcome them into your own community to talk about it.
 
Either place is going to be pretty public.  That isn’t a choice you get to make.  But at least if you’re making every effort to welcome their opinion and show them you’re listening, you have a better shot at demonstrating to them (as well as to all the onlookers) that you’re trying to do a good job.  If you’ve been good to your customers, they’ll help you in this social setting to convince the unhappy customer to get happier.
 
Companies can really no longer afford to compartmentalize Customer Service and customer interaction.  They can’t count on keeping customers and prospects separate either.  That’s a pretty radical paradigm shift.  But it’s why I love Paul Greenberg’s short form definition of what Social CRM is“The company’s response to the customer’s control of the conversation.”  Paul is exactly right, which I guess is why I sometimes hear him referred to as the “Godfather of CRM.”

This loss of control is a scary dynamic that the vast majority of companies have not begun to internalize and deal with.  OTOH, it is a huge opportunity and competitive advantage for those that move ahead of the curve to embrace it while their competitors flounder.

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One Response to “The Web Makes All Ice Cubes Icebergs”

  1. Bob,

    Thanks for your thought-inspiring post. I agree a customer service challenge companies face is finding the right mix between enabling self-service options with real people ones. And doing all that cost-effectively and in a way businesses can analyze, in terms of measurable results, so the business can be effectively managed.

    The beauty of CRM solutions is they allow companies to quantify results for measurability. The problem with them is social interactions and information exchange is often amorphous so capturing activities and results is also a challenge.

    In general, businesses need to strengthen their service-orientation — and they need to provide service is ways their customer want and need. Break it down and the challenge is about finding a balance between business need and user/customer needs and I think ultimately that’s part of what the whole social CRM movement is about.

    The problem with the ice cube people you identified, like “Broken Guitar Man,” is related to one of quantity. In a world where lots of folks are already dissatisfied with poor service, the vocal histronics of a lone critic resonates with the dissatisfaction so many others are already feeling and leads to explosive results.

    The way to counteract that viral bomb is for companies to consistently provide good customer service so that the dissatisfied become the odd voice and not the norm.

    One company that I think is a good role model for balancing in-person customer service with self-service and with social media is Rackspace Email (formerly Mailtrust).

    At any time, including middle of the night, a Rackspace Email customer can call a real person for help. Their customer service rep (or team as needed) stay with the customer until the problem is resolved and reps both receive and initiate support phone calls (yes, they actually call a customer with information). Rackspace Email also provides a wealth of detailed online information for self-service and they actively monitor social media channels and participate in those discussions.

    Thus, there are lots of ways for a customer to get help from Rackspace Email in ways beneficial for a given situation and customer preference for interaction.

    Rackspace Email gets the observation you highlighted from Paul Greenberg – Social CRM is “the company’s response to the cusotmer’s control of the conversation.”

    There are other companies that also get it but a whole lot more who need to. The companies who hurdle the challenge and share control of the customer service experience with their customers will be the big winners.

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